Last Night I Dreamed of Algebra and the Taliban

Note: An oldie but even more relevant today. Sometimes history doesn’t repeat itself. Perhaps this time x= (order- fear) * the whole world is watching

From 2018…

The subconsciousness is a strange device. It’s our human CPU, running subroutines in the background. When we shut down for the night, it keeps running, energetically trying to solve all the world’s problems.  How the universe was formed. Whether there is life on other planets. What x equals. Why cruelty exists.

American Conservatory Theater production
From SF American Conservatory Theater production of Khalid Hosseini’s book, photo from Playbook.

A Thousand Suns… Some Not So Splendid

Last Thursday, I sat mesmerized during San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater production of A Thousand Splendid Suns. This play, based on the best-selling novel by Khalid Hosseini, is the story of women enduring the Afghanistan Civil Wars and the rise of the Taliban in the late 1990s. I choose the word enduring carefully because it is the core verb that women in the play use to express what must be done. Afghanistan under the severity of the Taliban interpretation of Sharia Law was as perilous a place for women as any; endure is what they must.

Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam….There is only one, only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life, and they don’t teach it in school . . . Only one skill. And it’s this: tahamul. Endure . . . It’s our lot in life, Mariam. Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have.
–Nana in A Thousand Splendid Suns

I don’t know if Hosseini read his Faulkner.

They endured.
–Last line of The Sound and the Fury

This play is the story of two women who come together as the world falls around them, whose families are massacred by falling bombs and persecuted by acts of barbarism and humiliation. Mariam and Laila are, at first, suspicious of each other as they are forced to compete for the benevolence of their mutual husband. Rasheed takes Laila into his home after her neighboring house is destroyed, and she is severely wounded. His marriage to her after she is nursed back to health is treated as protection and kindness, but, as the play develops, it becomes clear that it is not an act of charity. Flashbacks reveal similar circumstances for Mariam and that his treatment toward his older wife hardened into acts of malice and neglect. And that the circle will continue with Laila as well as her newly born daughter, Aziza.

Rasheed is one of those characters who shows how evil can take root in the ordinary. I have not read the book, where some reviewers call his character one-dimensional, but in the play he starts out appearing generous and kind. Yet, when the whole story is revealed, it becomes clear that is not his core nature. He does not turn evil, but rather the layers of civilization seem to be peeled off of him like an onion, until he turns to beating, humiliating, and starving his wives for any perceived slight.

Nadine Malouf as Laila, Denmo Ibrahim as Mariam, and Nikita Tewani as Aziza in A Thousand Splendid Suns, written by Ursula Rani Sarma, directed by Carey Perloff, and co-produced by American Conservatory Theater. Photo by Jim Cox.

When the women attempt to escape, the soldiers outside catch them and flog them even more severely, threatening prison, rape, murder. So they are forced to return to a home that is not safe. Eventually, the two women and baby form a very close bond in an act of both defiance and love.  I could not help while watching to think of other acts of cruelty in our daily news about mothers and children separated from each other, or mistreated by authorities claiming to know what’s best for them. I was reminded that it is easy to forget that when we think about refugees, if we do at all, we don’t spend much time thinking about what they might be escaping from.

Find X

As often happens when I see a very dramatic performance, it stays with me for days. That particular day I was also working through some harder algebra problems to share in classes that I happen to be teaching, and there was one I thought I had conquered, only to get it wrong. I didn’t follow through; in baseball lingo, it was a checked swing, a popup to the catcher behind the plate, rather than a screaming line drive. I was sort of ticked off because the solution rests in what I tell classes is your algebra best friend*.

If 4x4 – 41x2 + 100 = 0, what is the largest root value of x?**
A) 2
B) 25/4
C) 4
D) 41/4
E) 5/2

That night, I drifted in and out of sleep and dreams, and every time I surfaced (four times at least I think), I was solving the algebra problem again, and we were in Afghanistan. Sometimes, Mariam or Laila was trying to solve it while an interrogator slammed his fist on the table. Sometimes, the solution to freeing all of us was to do the problem.

Staring at the drapes at 3 am, it occurred to me that I am lucky because I am a woman, and I am able to do algebra. It’s not against the law to become educated; it never was in my lifetime and in my upbringing. Yes, women during my school years were discouraged from doing math. Recently, it occurred to me that I probably had all the qualities to become a good engineer although no one ever asked me if I’d thought about it as a career, not like they suggested I become a writer or a librarian. (To be fair, my parents were humanities people, not numbers people, so if I was encouraged to follow in their footsteps by them, that’s no knock on them. I just realized that no teacher ever encouraged me in math or science.)

And yet I could have done it if I’d had the inclination, and that distinction is one we don’t appreciate enough in the U.S. I wasn’t encouraged to do math, but I wasn’t beaten when I tried it either.

I came away from the play with many thoughts. What books would you take with you, if you had to flee or if they were the only thing you were allowed to read for a decade? One is easy (complete works of Shakespeare) but what about five?

Do we have any appreciation of what it must have been like for Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot by the Taliban for her advocacy on behalf of women’s education?

What is the equation that will turn neglect into affection? Can we solve for tenderness?

Two things I know for sure.


And Love is Always the Answer.

Dreaming of the Taliban and algebra
Dream image from

*Algebra’s best friend:  a2-b2

**Here is the solution to the problem.

What I did right: If 4x4 – 41x2 + 100 = 0, then (4x2-25)(x2-4)=0
What I did wrong: Left out the squared part and set 4x=25;
X=25/4 (~6.25);and X=4.  Largest root: 25/4 (Wrong!)

I forgot about my best friend who reminded me to do this part:
(2x+5)(2x-5)(x-2)(x+2)=0; x={-5/2,+5/2,2,-2}
Answer: 5/2

If only we could solve so easily for the elimination of malice.

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