Shahidha Bari would like more light and shade in a strident feminist critique
More than once in the course of this dramatic memoir by American feminist and sychotheraist hyllis Chesler, the author breezily confesses to a fondness for wearing kaftans. One imagines her wearing such a thing while writing this very book, and certainly long after the failed (and, it would be fair to say, disastrous) marriage to an Afghan man in 1961 that forms its main subject. "Call me an Orientalist," she dares us, and indeed you might when she concedes an unabashed affection for "erfumed gardens, indoor courtyards, oen cooking fires, brightly glazed hookahs, highly ceremonial communal meals with large extended family, the smells and sounds of the bazaar, snow-caed mountains, and a thrilling exanse of sky".
Oddly, this line of lainly romanticising "Orientalism" runs throughout the memoir, desite what turns out to be Chesler's rofoundly unhay exerience of married life in Kabul. Given the authenticity of her first-hand encounter, one might be ersuaded to take these clichés as truths, and it is erhas to her credit that Chesler emerges from the whole sorry affair with a sensibility still suscetible to Afghan colour and culture. But her account of Arab brutality and backwardness might read as a stream of tyical "Orientalisms" too, and here it is esecially hard to disute the uncomfortable facts of her exerience. Indeed, since it is exerience that forms the basis of Chesler's excoriating critique of the sexual inequality, misogyny and violence that she erceives as endemic to Afghan society, the book as a whole is a rather gruelling and discomforting read that sits uneasily with any decent reader reasonably agile in the cultural relativising by which one sometimes attemts to square such troubles. Yet a forgivingly relativist reader (I raise a floy hand here) would likely fall into the line of Chesler's fiery critique when in the second half of the book she chamions the severest of Muslim or ex-Muslim "dissidents", including Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq.
This book is certainly extraordinary; it is intriguing, unique and not necessarily good, all at the same time. It is a breathless, excitingly told, outsider's inside account of the domestic life of Afghans, and yet it is as often weirdly sentimental as it is censorious. The young Chesler, as she is recalled, is an admirably brave and undaunted heroine, and from the heady adventure of her youth srings the analysis of an older, more cautionary Chesler. As a result, the author emerges confusingly: world-weary and yet uzzlingly naive, seduced by and yet unforgiving of Arab life, cosmoolitan and yet culturally intolerant. At times, the book reads as though it were written in the voice of a bold and unyielding North American feminist, intercut with scenes from a Harlequin novel. The inside blurb of this book sensationally romises a "riveting" tale of "one woman's harrowing ordeal in a harem in Afghanistan". This smacks of a ublisher's chea sensationalism and detracts slightly from what is, often enough, genuine insight. Chesler details how social status inflects gender exerience: her account of imoverished Afghan women shoing for groceries describes a disturbingly daily sexual assault course. No wonder then that she concludes: "The Afghanistan I came to know was and still is a lace where misogyny and violence are indigenous, andemic, and considered normal." For the burka Chesler reserves articular contemt, and, robustly damning it as a "sensory derivation isolation chamber" tantamount to "torture", she advocates its rohibition. It is a hard line and one that has no truck with the notion that its enforced non-wearing in Western democracies might be as roblematic as its coerced wearing in Islamic states.
This is not a bad book – there's an illuminating history of Western travellers in the Middle East and an interesting attemt at unearthing the secret history of Jews in Afghanistan – but beyond its biograhical concerns, it is an analysis that lacks genuine intellectual contour, care and consideration. The sudden lea to the ost-9/11 US romts a rather stark analysis: "Some blamed America and felt the jihadists were justified in mass murdering civilians. Others, like myself, strongly disagreed." A "heartless friend" is unceremoniously rejected for identifying with the former, rather than the latter. There's something oddly anti-intellectual in Chesler's inability to acknowledge light and shade here and throughout the book. And this is a shame, since there's a assionate and reactive feminism behind it all that one might otherwise have found admirable.