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Posted in: American Bride

Published on Jan 20, 2014 by Lori Lowenthal Marcus Read more at: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/american-jewish-bride-imprisoned-in-afghani-harem/2014/01/20/

Written for The Jewish Press

American Jewish Bride Imprisoned in Afghani Harem


"An American Bride in Kabul," by Phyllis Chesler, won the National Jewish Book Award for best memoir of 2013 by the Jewish Book Council One of the wonderful things about receiving First Prize for memoir from the National Jewish Book Awards for her new book, "An American Bride in Kabul," is that Phyllis Chesler's reading audience will expand exponentially. The competition was stiff, and all the winners are first rate scholars and world-renown authors, including Amos Oz, Martin Halbertal and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Chesler is in this league.

In each of her many chosen fields Chesler has excelled. A true daughter of Zion and now a student of Torah, Chesler was a molder and macher of the Feminist Movement when it actually broke new ground and opened up the world to women in so many fields.

She is also the author of 15 books, many about women, some about Israel, some about the unpleasant clash between the two, and still more about mental health.

Chesler has also written important articles, and supplied expert testimony in court cases, about the phenomenon of honor killing. This custom is found primarily in the Muslim world (and to a lesser extent, among Hindus in India and Sikhs) where a female member of a family is killed – either by a brother, a father, or even a mother – in order to restore the honor of that family – regardless of whether the woman killed has committed a grave, or even any, transgression.

But few who know of this prodigious woman realize there was a chapter of her life which appears to have been a complete rejection of all the others. Or perhaps the source of them all.

Phyllis Chesler – brave feminist iconoclast, defender of Israel in a time and in a peer group that attacks the Jewish State, and healer of tortured souls – left college at 20 to marry a Muslim fellow student from Afghanistan.

Not only did she leave school and her home, Chesler left her family, her faith and her country.

Her Afghan beau thought her parents were "peasants." They were observant Jews, poor – Chesler went through school on full scholarships. When her father-in-law visited New York, he stayed at the Plaza.

Chesler's mother was a prodder. If Phyllis received a 98 on an exam, her mother responded, "So, it wasn't a 100." Her mother also was disheartened by her feminism.

Many years later, after Chesler was an accomplished author and sought-after speaker, her mother was still not quite satisfied.

"Once my mother came to hear me speak," Chesler confides. "Afterwards, she told me I didn't really look well. Besides, she whispered in an aside, 'who's gonna marry you if you if you say these things?'"

Later, many years later, Phyllis learned that whenever her mother traveled she checked in every library to make sure it carried her daughter's books.

"If only I had known that at the time," Chesler remarks wistfully.

But her parents and her provincial life in Brooklyn is something Chesler left behind as soon as she possibly could. With a brand new husband, an exotic foreigner whose father was among his country's elite, Chesler embarked on what she thought would be a life of glamour and intrigue.

She thought she was going they were going to help westernize Afghanistan. Her husband was from a prominent family. Her husband was educated in the West and loved theater and literature. Her husband was going to bring modern theater to Afghanistan, and, in his view, Chesler was "going to write the scripts, stories and novels upon which he'll base his films."

Chesler sailed off to Europe with her ever-attentive groom – oh how she loved to travel! But the European tour was cut short by his father's purse strings. Instead of a Grand Tour, far too soon she found herself entering an Eastern world she had never closely examined. She was on her way with her groom to his home country.

Chesler thought she was "uniting Yitzack and Ishmael."

The story of Chesler's storybook romance and marriage evaporates quickly into the nightmare of her life as a captive in an Afghan harem.

The minute the couple entered Afghani airspace, everything changed. Her American passport was taken – she never saw it again. Her husband was immobilized, held under the thumb of his father. His father had three wives, and many sons from them. Chesler's husband was from the first, one who had been tossed aside. And her husband was not even the first born son.

Chesler watched her husband competing for flimsy promises of a brilliant future, settling, at least temporarily, for scraps. And he had not endeared himself to the family by marrying an American. Especially one who was Jewish ("Yahud!" His mother screamed at her.) And not even a blond! No one could understand it, and she could not understand them. Not even her husband, who was no longer attentive or even interested in her welfare. She was alone.

Everyone who thinks they know what it means to live in a different culture, and everyone who knows they don't know, needs to read this book.

Chesler has always been a lyrical writer. But in this book – sections of which could be considered a travelogue with its evocation of the tastes and smells and sounds of the Afghan market place – you can really see in your mind's eye the desperate clinging to misshapen dignity which drives deposed first wives to relish abusing their servants.

And your mind's eye will also be repelled, but feel compelled to watch the many sons fawning over the patriarch in ways that should make their lovers jealous: every word, every look, every flare of the nostril is registered, analyzed, memorized and cataloged. Each hopes to be the favored one. Each is dismissed with disdain. Each comes back eagerly when called.

Yet Chesler, ever the wise one, the survivor, escaped. She made it out barely alive, but survive she did. The later chapters of her life, of her book, will shock you because you will think you really know her now. But you still don't. Just wait until you find out what happens in 1979 (the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan) and how Chesler responded.

She is a bigger person than we ever will be. She is a humanist. She is a feminist. She is a person of the world. And luckily, for all of us, she is a prolific writer. It will be to everyone's benefit if professors across the world assign "An American Bride in Kabul." If they don't, it won't be because they have something that provides a better Western glimpse into – not the romanticized version – a still exotic but soon to be at our doorstep lifestyle such as exists in Afghanistan. No. It will be either because they haven't yet read it, or because they are too uncomfortable having their students meet the truth.

About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.


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