Thursday, 14 November 2013

Book Review: An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir

There is a feminist in every woman – visible or invisible – and she waits for the right time and right opportunity to come out. Every person, be it father, brother, husband or son everybody has his own role to play in awakening that feminist. But how about a place or a country that is responsible for making a woman “a feminist”? Exactly, an American teenager became a feminist after getting married, after visiting her husband’s home, his country. She admits that her “stay in Afghanistan shaped her feminism”.

Phyllis Chesler, an 18-year-old Jewish-American girl from Brooklyn, meets Abdul-Kareem, a dark and handsome man from Afghanistan, at Bards College. Both fall in love, marry against her parents’ wish and embark on a journey to his homeland. When they arrive in Kabul in 1961, authorities take away Chesler’s American passport – which she never sees again – reducing her status to a mere “Afghan wife”, the property of her husband’s family. She walks into the “harem” on her “own free will”.

Unfortunately, western educated and modernized Abdul-Kareem reverts to age-old traditions and customs of his society, making Chesler to exclaim: “It is that Abdul-Kareem treated living in the tenth century as completely normal, in fact as somehow superior to life in America.”

Chesler finds herself trapped in a rich and polygamous family wherein Abdul-Kareem’s father has “three wives, 21 children (who range in age from infancy to their 30s), two grandchildren, at least one son-in-law, one daughter-in-law and an unknown number of servants and relatives”, losing all her freedom – unable to get privacy, unable to go out alone, unable to get “healthy food”, unable to enjoy her newly married life.
“This is how most Afghan women experience life – they don't. Few rural women venture beyond their own village or garden plot or courtyard. The same is true for most city women – except if they are allowed to accompany their fathers abroad when they are young…,” she writes.

Her woes double when her mother-in-law tries to convert her from Judaism to Islam and her husband tries to permanently entrap her in his country through childbirth. Chesler nearly dies before finally escaping from the country with the help of her father-in-law. She returns to the U.S., completes her studies and having secured a job, she makes a fresh start.

While Chesler dedicates the first seven chapters of her autobiography ‘An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir’ (October 2013) to the life spent in Afghanistan, she narrates what happened after she returned to the U.S. in the last seven chapters. Chesler has not only seen the beautiful, ancient and exotic country through western eyes, but also through eastern eyes. She appreciates the culture and country while recounting her ordeal and the kind of gender apartheid present there.

This kind of memoir is neither first nor going to be the last. Several women writers have written books on their days spent in Afghanistan. From Sally Armstrong (Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan, 2003) to Sushmita Bandyopadhyay (Kabuliwala's Bengali Wife, 1995) to Fawzia Koofi (Letters To My Daughters: A Memoir, 2011; The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future, 2012), everybody has more or less similar kind of misery to share. They all have women rebelling against discrimination and gender apartheid and yearning for education, healthcare and freedom.

An American Bride in Kabul holds a unique position because it comes out just a month after the death of Sushmita Bandyopadhyay, who like Phyllis Chesler had escaped from the clutches of her husband’s family in Afghanistan.
Chesler's Afghan passport
Both Sushmita and Phyllis were trapped in Afghanistan after marriage, both made 2-3 unsuccessful attempts to escape, both approached their respective embassies to get them out, both lived in polygamous family, both raised their voice against gender apartheid, both fell sick and realized how difficult it is to get healthcare in the war-plagued country, both forgive their “husband’s other wife” – in fact, sympathizing with the other woman and calling her “sister” – both were helped to leave the country by the head of the family, last but not the least, both maintained good relation with their husband’s family even after leaving the country!

While the memoir by psychotherapist and professor emerita of psychology and women's studies no doubt sheds light into the life behind the walls in Afghanistan, giving the first-hand account of a western woman’s life in Afghanistan in the 1960s, there are some flaws in the book. The book looks very sketchy, as it fails to give any in-depth account of her experiences. The characters fail to impress readers.

The book could have given more insight into detailing the character of Abdul-Kareem, his father Ismail Mohammed and his mother Bebegul. Though there are some passages saying how Bebegul called her names, “spit on her face” and tried to kill her when she was bedridden with hepatitis, the author fails to give a strong reason behind her acts.   
Phyllis Chesler and Abdul-Karim
Moreover, Chesler goes on quoting passages after passages from other books on Afghanistan which irritates readers, forcing them to merely skim through pages. Maybe she wanted to make her point stronger by giving references to other works and prove that it was not just she who has gone through such agony.

However, we need to laud Chesler for not keeping quiet after her great escape from Afghanistan. She is what she is today because of her time spent in Afghanistan, as she says: “I call myself a feminist – but not just any feminist. My kind of feminism was forged in the fires of Afghanistan. There I received an education – an expensive, almost deadly one – but a valuable one, too.” 

Note: I had written this review in Kannada for Sakhi magazine, Nov. 15-30. Read the original review here...

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