The book opens with young Mariam being verbally chastised for breaking a tea set that belongs to her mother (Nana), who calls her a "harami" or bastard child. Mariam, as the narrator, explains that she did not clearly understand what the term meant. Nani explains that upon getting pregnant, Jalil cast out Nana from his household. Nana wishes that her father avenged her, but he did not do so. In order to save face in his household, Jalil insisted that Nana threw herself upon him. In retelling the story, Nana warns Mariam that a man will always blame a woman. After getting pregnant, Nana refused to stay in Herat or to move in with her father, so Jalil and his sons built her the kolba, the shacklike house in which Nana and Mariam live, in a clearing outside of the city.
Nana had told Mariam that she was once close to marriage when she was fifteen years-old. She was to be married to a parakeet seller, but before her wedding a "jinn" (a seizure or spasm of some sort) entered her body and the wedding was called off. Nana retells the events of Mariam's birth as if to suggest that she was on the floor of the kolba for two days, lying in pain waiting for birth. However, Jalil claims that Mariam was born in a hospital while Jalil was away. Both parents claim that they chose Mariam's name. Nana claims that Jalil did not visit baby Mariam until she was one month old, but Jalil says he came to see her as fast as he possibly could. Jalil's sons Muhsin and Ramin bring rations to the kolba so that Mariam and Nana don't have to go out to buy them. Nana throws rocks at the boys and curses, but Mariam feels sorry for them because of Nana's assaults.
Mariam and Nana spend their days feeding and milking animals, making bread and rice. Nana doesn't like visitors or people, but a couple of characters do visit the kolba. Bibi Jo is an older woman who comes to complain and gossip. Mullah Faizullah visits to tutor Mariam. He teaches Mariam the Koran prayers and her how to read. Mariam likes Mullah Faizullah, because he listens to her opinions and ideas.
During one tutoring session, Mariam tells Mullah Faizullah that she wants to go to school, and Mullah Faizullah approaches Nana about the issue. Nana refuses to send Mariam to school, chastises Mullah Faizullah, and tells Mariam that the only skill she needs to learn is how to endure life.
Mariam eagerly awaits Jalil's visits, because she loves the time they spend together. Nana also prepares for the visits, always appearing well groomed though she speaks ill of Jalil behind his back. Upon Jalil's arrival for this particular visit, Nana told Jalil that she had heard from Bibi Jo that one of Jalil's wives was pregnant. Jalil confirms the rumor.
Mariam and Jalil always go fishing and draw pictures when he visits. Jalil teaches her rhymes and brings newspaper clips to teach Mariam about Afghan politics. Jalil explains to Mariam that at this point in politics, Daoud Khan overthrows King Zahir Shah which turns Afghanistan into a republic. Rumors fly about the possible socialist ties of Daoud Khan. Jalil also brings her gifts. Mariam has admiration for Jalil, and she wishes that Jalil could take her in to live with him.
Mariam asks Jalil to take her to the cinema to see the new cartoon film that is premiering. When Mariam approaches Nana about the idea, Nana insists that the trip is a bad idea. However, when alone with Jalil, Mariam tells him that she wants to go to the cinema, and she also wants to meet her brothers and sisters. Jalil offers to send someone else to take her to the movies, but Mariam demands that Jalil to take her, and finally Jalil agrees.
Nana finds Mariam's intention to go to the cinema as a sign of her being ungrateful to her, and she tells Mariam she must stay home. Mariam does not listen to Nana and feels resentment towards her for treating her like a burden.
On the day of the movie, Jalil does not come to pick up Mariam, so Mariam decides to walk to Herat herself. Once there she is amazed by the city, and she catches a ride to Jalil's house. Mariam is told by a doorman that Jalil was away on business indefinitely and that she should go home. Mariam refuses to leave and spends the night outside of Jalil's house.The next day, Mariam tries to run into the garden. She only catches a quick glance of Jalil in the window, before she is forced into the backseat of Jalil's car by his chauffeur. Mariam is taken back to the kolba, betrayed and ashamed. While walking back to the kolba, the chauffeur tries to hide Mariam's eyes, but Mariam is able to see that Nana has hanged herself.
The opening of the novel sets the foundation for the book's more macrocosmic themes. Nana refers to Mariam as a “harami" (bastard or illegitimate child) in order to suggest that Mariam's birth was the consequence of an extra-marital affair. The term "harami" frames her upbringing as one that is illegitimate, a reference that Mariam herself makes in a later chapter. On the opposite side, Jalil appears as the standard for “legitimacy” according to societal views. Yet, once he lets Mariam down and subsequently rejects her presence at his home, his legitimacy as a father is called into question. In addition, Jalil’s relationship to Nana and Mariam displays his shame of this “second family”.
Both Mariam and Nana express hope at various points throughout this section. Nana reflects on her hopeful attitudes toward her upcoming marriage when she was a girl. Mariam expresses her hope for reconciliation with Jalil, finally persuading him to deepen their relationship and take her to the cinema. Yet, both characters find that their hope spirals into despair, a trajectory that repeats throughout the novel. Nana’s wedding is interrupted by a jinn, while Mariam’s meeting with Jalil never comes to pass.
Additionally, Mariam’s insistence to attend school and Nana’s refusal is the beginning of a discussion about education for women that resonates throughout the novel. Mariam learns early on that the attainment of a formal education would not only be impossible for her, but also that such an education would be wasted on her. The larger point, of course, is that a woman's responsibility is her home and her family.
The start of the novel provides insight into Mariam's dual existence as a child. She lives with Nana's harsh realism, imbuing her with a sense of longing for a better life. Jalil provides a new perspective on life, one that is fanciful and denies anything ugly or unpleasant. Mariam is forced to choose between these two opposing forces and ultimately chooses the idyllic view, as most children likely would. Nana's encouragement of Mariam to learn how to endure foreshadows the life that Mariam will lead, one that will require her to endure a childless abusive marriage.
Nana's emphasis on Mariam learning to endure suffering not only suggests how bleak Mariam's future will be, but also the type of lessons that Mariam must have learned as a child in Nana's home. Ultimately, throughout the rest of the novel, Mariam's capacity for endurance is what allows her to survive horrible conditions and depressing personal losses. Additionally, as Mariam grows up, she becomes steady and solid enough to endure her surroundings but rarely proactive enough to change her situation - a pattern of behavior which most likely reflects her upbringing.
Mariam's trip to Herat, which ultimately culminates in Nana's suicide, signals the end of Mariam's childhood, as well as the end of her naivete. Prior to her trip to Herat, she was shielded about Jalil's true regard for Mariam. Once Mariam attempts to reach Jalil, however, she is exposed to the truth about his consideration for her as an outsider to his life. Upon her mother's death, the simplicity of her life in the kolba is completely overturned, and she is thrust into adulthood immediately with her quest for a new home.
The significance of the "jinn", which appears in this first section of the book, is twofold. In religious belief, the jinn is a dark spirit that enters the body of a person. However, in biological terms, the word jinn also refers to a physical seizure or spasm. Throughout the novel, the term reflects this duality, serving as a symbol of pain and death, often imbued with a sense of karmic vengeance for past actions of regretful characters.