Posted in: American Bride
Published on Oct 07, 2013 by Fern Sidman
Reality Eclipses Love in "An American Bride in Kabul" – A memoir by Phyllis Chesler
In her 15th book, prolific author and iconic second wave feminist Phyllis Chesler takes her readers on both a trenchant and profoundly intimate sojourn, 50 years in the past, to a harrowing chapter in her life in this deeply poignant and absolutely enthralling memoir entitled, "An American Bride in Kabul" (Palgrave MacMillan).
For those not in the know, Chesler is the author of such bestsellers as " "Women and Madness" (1972), "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" (2001), "The New Anti-Semitism (2003) and "The Death of Feminism (2005).
Speaking in a duality of voices; one of a young, winsome and naive Jewish woman seeking a glorious adventure and that of a seasoned veteran with a here-and-now retrospective tone replete with a sagacious wisdom; Chesler imparts her spellbinding narrative with the level of adroitness that only a consummate raconteuse can muster. Relying on the array of indelible memories etched in the recesses of her mind and her copious dairy entries, Chesler recounts her nightmarish experiences in vividly descriptive prose as her words leap off the pages and into our souls.
The year is 1961, and the young Ms. Chesler's academic proclivities bring her to an American college on a full scholarship. It is there that she meets and falls deeply in love with an exotic man she would later refer to as an "Omar Sharif" look alike. His name is Abdul Kareem, a westernized, wealthy Muslim foreign student from Afghanistan. "He is suave and self-assured and has thick dark hair, golden skin, and penetrating eyes. I have never met anyone life him," she writes.
Their love, however, transcended the physical, as they crafted their very own European salon of sorts; traversing the intellectual and bohemian realm and engaging in seemingly endless hours of riveting conversation on "Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Strindberg, Ibsen and Proust" amongst other esoteric matters.
After her paramour offered her a grand tour of European capitals and a visit to his native Afghanistan, the alluring temptation was simply impossible for Chesler to resist. Only one caveat, said Abdul Kareem. They must get married, he said, or else they could not travel together. One suspects that he did not want to offend his family's devout Muslim beliefs in morality. And so it was.
Their time spent in Europe was only the proverbial calm before the storm. When she arrives in Kabul, her American passport was taken from her in a trice; never to be returned. That was only the tip of the iceberg. Most painfully, what was taken from Chesler was her youthful innocence; her freedom, independence and dignity. For the lessons that she learned served to inextricably link her to the feminist mission that defined her professional career.
Among the multitude of culture shockers in store for Chesler was the fact that her father-in-law was a polygamist; having three wives and three sets of children; all living behind the high walls of the family compound. If that weren't enough to digest, she was to discover that she was to be held captive in a "posh purdah" style of existence. Simply put, Chesler was now in a veritable harem; against her will and with no way out.
"I am expected to live with my mother-in-law and other female relatives, wear hijab, and live in purdah. That means that I cannot go out without a male escort, a male driver, and a female relative as chaperones. I am also expected to convert to Islam. I am living in a culture where extreme gender apartheid is the norm and where my reactions to it are considered abnormal, " she writes.
As Chesler offers her nuanced perspective of life in Kabul for the five months she spent there, the reader is transported back in time; as the author treats us to a magic carpet ride to an arcane land. We go into sensory mode as we imbibe the plethora of sights, smells and sounds of Kabul as Chesler experienced them.
Besides dealing with a tyrannical mother-in-law who could only be described as an escapee from Bellevue, Chesler was somewhat comforted by the kindness of her sister-in-laws who attempted to protect her from the family matriarch and the abuse that she would endure from her husband.
Her days were spent sequestered in the compound with the other distaff members of the family, doing virtually nothing productive. Because their lives were circumscribed for them, they did not leave home and everything was done for them by the bevy of servants who were treated like slaves by none other than their own personal, "Mommy Dearest"
She writes: "The daily routine is as follows: In the morning Abdul Kareem and the men disappear and are gone all day. The women mainly stay at home. The servants clean and cook. Bebegul (her mother-inlaw) stays in her own quarters and sews and hums to herself. She orders her servants about, chcks on their work and sits in the garden."
As she literally battles a raging hunger each day because her mother-in-law has ordered the servants not to cook her food in Crisco but in foul tasting ghee, Chesler starts scrounging around for canned foods before she was beset with a horrible case of dysentery and later the near fatal hepatitis that killed most foreigners that year.
Now that her physical well being is in jeopardy, her mother-in-law works on spiritual end by coercing Chesler to convert to Islam. Fearing for her life, she does so reluctantly and the guilt she harbors for doing so is reflected in her work.
When she tries to sunbathe in a bikini, Chesler almost causes a mini-riot amongst the men folk who catch a glimpse of this anomalous sight. When she tries to explore Kabul on her own, she is followed by a baneful man in a car. When she sees burqas all around her and registers a complaint to her husband, he callously dismisses her grievances as being hyperbole, as he does when she tells him of the reprehensible way her mother-in-law is treating her.
Abdul Kareem eventually becomes emotionally and physically abusive; yelling and hitting Chesler, when he can't keep her under the patriarchal grip that he would like to.
Severely weakened by the hepatitis and fending off her mother-in-law who tries to kill her by pulling out the life sustaining IV from her arm, Chesler concludes that she must get out at all costs. She beseeches the American consulate in Kabul to help her and is summarily refused because she has no US passport. She then contrives a plan with the assistance of a foreign couple, but at that juncture, her dapper father-in-law intervenes and acquires an Afghani passport for her to leave on the grounds of her illness.
When Chesler kissed the ground at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York City, she carried with her a fierce determination to focus on the horrendous plight of women and for the kind of equality that had eluded them.
When Abdul Kareem arrives in New York prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, they reunite for visits and she even develops an amiable relationship with his children from another marriage. His patriarchal arrogance is evidenced, however, as he chides her for not showing enough ambition about bringing Afghanistan into the modern world as he had done as a cultural minister there and for writing books that he asserts few people read.
What makes this book so compelling is that Chesler's personal narrative is juxtaposed with historical and factual insights that really provide the reader with an education for the reasons she was treated like chattel. And it is precisely this part of the book that even trumps her roller coaster of a ride story.
Quoting a treasure trove of Western sources; mainly of American, British, French and Scottish travelers who has embodied the pioneering spirit and visited Afghanistan in the last few centuries, Chesler allows the reader a comprehensive understanding of the role of tribal warlords, of Afghani monarchy and the culture it engendered.
The genesis of the inferior status of Afghani women and the "indigenous barbarism" they were subjected to is meticulously explored as is the abject history of the Jews who were persecuted in economic, religious and social ways.
Says Chesler, "I had no idea that historically Muslims had viewed themselves as superior to all infidels, but especially to Jews, whom they tolerated but also tithed, impoverished, humiliated, persecuted, exiled, and massacred."
She adds, "Abdul Kareem had loved me, he had loved a Jew. I do not doubt this. I loved him, too – although everything changed after my first month in Kabul."
Her conversations with her ex-husband are rife with a visceral intensity and when she speaks of the tragic attacks on 9/11 we understand why this book as written. How could it not be? Afghanistan was the country she lived in and it was there that the plans for these attacks were incubated.
Chesler is to be lauded for prodigiously plunging into dark and treacherous waters; for penning a book where each page is brimming with rich insights and for serving as an avatar of inspiration for all oppressed peoples fighting for freedom.
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