Novel de­tails par­al­lel plights of Afghan women across gen­er­a­tions

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Na­dia Kid­wai

FEW pop­u­la­tions have ex­pe­ri­enced such rapid un­pre­dictabil­ity when it came to their na­tional des­tiny as that of the Afghan people. And it is ex­actly that theme of des­tiny or “naseeb” that lies at the heart of the novel The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, by Afghan-Amer­i­can au­thor Na­dia Hashimi. In her de­but work of lit­er­ary fic­tion, Hashimi in­ter­twines the par­al­lel sto­ries of two Afghan women sep­a­rated by a century of his­tory. The story of Shek­iba is set in the early 1900s and fol­lows her tragic life af­ter she is left or­phaned and im­pov­er­ished, shunned by so­ci­ety be­cause of her fa­cial dis­fig­ure­ment. Fast for­ward to 2007, where Shek­iba’s great-great-grand­daugh­ter Rahima faces dif­fer­ent but equally trau­matic events, af­ter her vi­o­lent and opium-ad­dicted fa­ther weds her to a mid­dle-aged war­lord when she is barely a teenager, leading her to face an abu­sive mar­riage. Both Shek­iba and Rahima strug­gle to carve out their own naseeb in a fiercely pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety. And both women find tem­po­rary re­lief from their op­pres­sion when they take on the Afghan tra­di­tion of “bacha posh:” dress­ing up and be­ing ac­cepted by so­ci­ety as males. Be­fore mar­riage, Rahima is trans­formed into “Rahim” in or­der to as­sist her fam­ily, al­low­ing her to at­tend school and earn money. Mean­while, Shek­iba (as “Shekib”) moves from be­ing an abused slave to a re­spected guard in the king’s palace, where only women-turned-men are trusted to pro­tect the king’s con­cu­bines. And while both women en­joy their new­found free­dom as males, even this is not with­out dan­ger and con­se­quence. The po­lit­i­cal back­drop of each story is fas­ci­nat­ing, and Hashimi uses it to play an im­por­tant role in the lives of both women. With Shek­iba we are ex­posed to the King Habibul­lah and his op­u­lent palace, a re­minder of the riches and splen­dor that once ex­isted in Afghanistan. For Rahima, read­ers ex­pe­ri­ence a more fa­mil­iar Afghanistan, post-9/11 Amer­i­can in­va­sion. But again Hashimi un­earths an­other for­got­ten as­pect of mod­ern Afghanistan, the fledg­ling na­tional par­lia­ment and the day-to-day chal­lenges of women en­ter­ing the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. Com­par­isons to fel­low Afghan-Amer­i­can au­thor Khalid Hos­seini are in­evitable. In this case, Hashimi is able to hold her own, in both style and also con­tent. With a coun­try so rav­aged by war and blood­shed, Hashimi, like Hos­seini, is able to bring a deeper layer of un­der­stand­ing and hu­man­ity to a people so of­ten de­fined by their po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity. Un­like Hos­seini, Hashimi fo­cuses less on the mer­cu­rial na­ture of re­la­tion­ships and more on the in­ter­nal jour­ney and strug­gle of her hero­ines, who are by all ac­counts left to fend for them­selves. Read­ers can­not help but root for both Rahima and Shek­iba. De­spite go­ing through in­sur­mount­able chal­lenges, both women are re­source­ful and de­ter­mined to fight — not only against their op­pres­sors, but (most im­por­tantly) against the men­tal bar­rier of re­sign­ing them­selves to their fate. Hashimi does well to avoid paint­ing ev­ery male char­ac­ter as a misog­y­nis­tic monster — though many of them ap­pear to be — and rather than blame cul­ture or re­li­gion, Hashimi in­tro­duces the idea that they too suf­fer trauma from the blood­shed they have faced their whole life. Ul­ti­mately, this is a story of fe­male em­pow­er­ment, al­though iron­i­cally, and per­haps trag­i­cally, it is only their ex­pe­ri­ences as “bacha posh” that al­low them to gain the con­fi­dence to be­come free women. But the very fact that in 2007, Rahima’s op­pres­sion echoes so poignantly that of her great-great-grand­mother 100 years be­fore, leaves the reader with one ques­tion: De­spite the con­stant change in po­lit­i­cal land­scape of the coun­try, how much will ever re­ally change for the women of Afghanistan? Welsh Win­nipeg­ger Na­dia Kid­wai is a jour­nal­ist and pro­gram man­ager for the Cana­dian Mus­lim Lead­er­ship In­sti­tute.

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