Mariam, an Afghani woman, remembers her mother calling her a harami when she was five years old — although it is many years later before she learns the word means "bastard child." Before Mariam's birth, her mother, Nana, was a housekeeper for a wealthy businessman in Herat named Jalil. Jalil impregnates Nana, and she and Mariam live in a kolba (small cottage) outside of the town. As a girl, Miriam loves Thursday visits from Jalil, who tells her stories of Herat, although she never visits the city and her mother takes pains to remind the growing girl that her father brings her only stories, none of the wealth Jalil describes to her.
As Mariam grows older, she learns her father has three wives and nine legitimate children. However, Mariam's love for Jalil does not diminish, even after she learns he banished her mother after their affair resulted in a pregnancy. Nana, a bitter woman, frequently reminds Mariam of her father's abandonment, and is upset that Jalil placed the blame on her as if he had no part in their affair.
While Chapter 1 is brief, it provides us with important background information about three main characters and establishes symbolism as a means of foreshadowing. Mariam and her parents, Nana and Jalil, are positioned as central to the narrative of the novel's first section. Mariam is depicted as a loving, thoughtful child, who is happy for the brief time she has with her father and does not resent his long absences the way Nana does. Mariam's loving nature is challenged by Nana, who yells at the five-year-old and calls her a bastard when she accidentally breaks a favorite sugar bowl. Nana also warns her that "a man's accusing finger always finds a woman," establishing that Nana does not accept the blame for her affair with Jalil and resents the way it changed her life — from living in a wealthy urban setting as a housekeeper to an isolated life with a young daughter. Between these two women is Jalil, whose true character is difficult to determine as he is seen only through the biased eyes of Mariam and Nana. To Mariam, he is the loving father who relieves the monotony of life with his weekly visits; to Nana he is the coward who would not stand by her after getting her pregnant. Both women, however, acknowledge he is powerful and wealthy and that he is able to use his power for or against them as he sees fit.
Chapter 1 familiarizes the reader with Hosseini's style. The narrative, which takes place in Afghanistan, is speckled with Afghani phrases that only sometimes are directly defined. For instance, the reader is introduced to the word "harami" several paragraphs before its definition — "bastard" — is provided. Other words, such as kolba and jinn are left for the reader to determine via contextual clues. The use of these terms not only establishes setting, but also signifies that some things cannot be translated. For instance, when Mariam expresses fear that the "jinn" has returned to her mother, the reader must rely on the context — Mariam is being punished for breaking the sugar bowl — to understand that jinn is something uncontrollable that comes over Nana. However, by not translating it, jinn retains a certain mystery and power that seems appropriate: as a child, Mariam is not sure how or why the jinn enters her mother just as the English-speaking reader is not sure to what sort of feeling or condition the word refers.
Finally, the central action of the chapter, Mariam's over-eager breaking of the sugar bowl, provides symbolic foreshadowing for the rest of the book. The sugar bowl, part of Nana's prized tea set, features a dragon on its side, "meant to ward off evil." The loss of the protective dragon suggests that Mariam and Nana will have to deal unforeseen hardships.