This is much more than a memoir. It is a little over simplified, but in this brief little book lives an excellent summary of the history of Afghanistan with regard to women, Jews, Communists, the Taliban and other terrorists, in a patriarchal society of omniscient men, and it takes us right up to the present day. Phyllis Chesler even offers a concise background of the terrorism that exists in the United States and abroad, without extraneous words or unnecessary tangents.
She describes Afghanistan as a country that is beautiful, with a rich history, but one that treats its women like virtual captives within their homes or their burqas. The men have all the power and the women are often abusive to each other for that’s the only power they can wield. It is a land in which the true believers are sure that the infidels poison the atmosphere and must be rooted out. It is a place in which the Muslims now believe that the West is dangerous, evil and corrupt. It must be destroyed to make way for the coming of the Caliphate!
It is 1961, and Phyllis Chesler, a beautiful, young college student, and a Jewess, falls in love with Abdul Kareem, a handsome Afghani Muslim studying in the United States. He is debonair and far more sophisticated than she is, and he sweeps her off her feet. They marry quietly. Naively, without any knowledge of the background of the country he is taking her to (Afghanistan), she abandons her family to travel with him to the land of his birth to make what she believes will be their temporary home. When she meets his family, she learns that her father-in-law has three wives and 21 children.
Soon, she realizes the true meaning of the purdah. The home is large, but she is isolated, although she is living in the harem. She barely sees her husband, is unable to speak the language, unable to tolerate the food and unable to freely move about. She has no passport because it was taken at the airport and never returned. The American Embassy refuses to help her. (She later learns that according to the rules of the country, she has automatically lost her American citizenship by marrying an Afghan man and returning there with him.) She is a virtual prisoner in a gilded cage. She cannot leave the compound without permission, and must always be chaperoned. She has no money. The other women in the harem do not understand her discomfort, having never known freedom, but they try and placate her. They are all kind except for her mother-in-law, the first wife, who is the mother of Abdul Kareem. She is cruel to the servants and often to Phyllis. In the few months that she is there, her husband grows distant and anxious, she is always hungry and becomes very ill. Her experiences there and her eventual escape read like a novel.
In truth, her husband is also in a prison of sorts, since he must prove himself now that he has returned. He must gain the approval of his family for bringing in an outsider and he must prove that he truly wants to get back into the fold, not only to the family, but to the government for which he hopes to work.
When Phyllis finally returns home, a shadow of her former self, she recovers and completes her schooling. She trains as a psychoanalyst and works to improve women’s rights. She is frustrated with the feminists who believe that helping these foreign abused women, who have no rights, who are threatened with honor killings, would be tantamount to racism since there are abused women in this country too. They draw no distinction between the living conditions of the women in western countries to those in living in eastern countries.
At home, she discovers that there is a direct connection to the disappearance of the Jews in Afghanistan, with her husband’s family. At the end of the 1920’s, King Nadir Shah, no longer wanted Jews or Hindus involved in commerce, and he took over the banking industry forcing them out. He only wanted Afghan Muslim Nationals to be involved in the success of the country. Abdul Kareem’s family has made their fortune in the banking industry.
Over the years, Phyllis develops a more grounded view than she had as a young bride. She believes that it is impossible to save everyone, but we can save one at a time. Misogyny is indigenous to the Afghan men. It does not come from the influence of the outside western world. No one can force change upon them, least of all those they believe are infidels. She believes that the Afghans and the hidden women have to want it to change, and their culture has to change; the men have to change. She believes there is a real danger afoot because the jihadists believe in the Caliphate and will stop at nothing to achieve it.
Chesler has presented a version of the history of Afghanistan which will enrich the reader without tedium. He story is concise and easy to read. The pages will fly by. In addition to describing her own devastating experiences, she also describes a friendship between herself and her ex-husband that has lasted for 50 years. She was never truly able to marry the idea that the two cultures could live together; there were always lines that could not be crossed, even when he was forced to flee to America, permanently, when the Communists took over. Yet, she has always remained his first wife, to him.