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Posted in: American Bride

Published on Oct 16, 2013 by

Written for "Fab Over Fifty"

"Bride" Review – Linda Wolfe


An American Bride In Kabul
by Phyllis Chesler

Palgrave/Macmillan. 228 pp.

Feminist historian and social activist Phyllis Chesler endured a different kind of captivity. Back in 1959 when she was a college student, she made a foolish error of judgment—didn't we all, back when we were college students? I certainly did. But none of my mistakes had quite as serious a consequence as Chesler's did. The product of a lower middle class Orthodox Jewish family, she fell in love with a wealthy fellow student, an Afghani Muslim named Abdul-Kareem, and agreed, at his urging, to marry him. Despite the difference in their backgrounds, Chesler, in her naivete, considered the match to be a perfect one. Abdul-Kareem was handsome, charming, and interested in all the same things she was: the masterful films newly coming out of France and Italy, the literary works of the world's greatest authors, a future in which they would both pursue cultural and creative careers and—as tempting to Chesler, as it would be to Amanda Lindhout fifty years later—seeing the world. "I would travel to Europe," Chesler tells us. "The Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, India, and the Far East. We would live in Kabul for a while, then move on to Paris, and then back to New York so I could finish college."

The naïve young woman didn't know that Abdul-Kareem had no intention of returning to New York once he had captured a bride. Soon after their runaway wedding, the couple left for Europe and a visit to the groom's family in Kabul. But in the Kabul airport, her American passport was confiscated, and in Abdul-Kareem's home, which was ruled by her father-in-law, and his several wives, Chesler was expected to live like any Afghan bride, in purdah, in a harem—call it what you will, it meant living in complete isolation from the world of men. She could not leave the house. "An Afghan woman who walks or shops alone," she discovered, "is seen as proclaiming either her sexual availability or her husband's and father's poverty."

Things soon went from bad to worse. The food was making her sick and she wanted to prepare her own, but she was denied permission to do so. She quarreled with her husband, who answered her complaints by becoming physically abusive. She became violently ill from the water—which she discovered, too late, that the most prominent of her mothers-in-law was forbidding the servants to boil her water. This although it was "known in the city that foreigners had been 'falling like flies' with a virulent strain of hepatitis." And when a doctor was finally called in to examine her, he told her father-in-law, the head of the household, "it is only nerves. These foreigners, especially the women, have weak stomachs and very jumpy nerves."

The story of Chesler's imprisonment, and her ultimate escape and return to America, is augmented with excerpts from the writings of earlier travelers to Afghanistan, and explorations of Afghan history and politics in the early 1960s. This material is fascinating, although it drains the book of the narrative drive needed for truly engrossing reading. Nevertheless, this is an important work for anyone interested in America's recent, failed war in Afghanistan, or in the ways in which youthful anguish so often helps us find out what it is we wish to do with the rest of our lives. Chesler's sojourn in Afghanistan, while painful and terrifying, set her on the path she in time carved for herself, the path to her becoming a significant feminist scholar and a human rights activist whose particular focus is on ending violence against women.


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