An American Bride in Kabul

A Memoir

by Phyllis Chesler

An American Bride in Kabul

Hardcover, 235 pages, St Martins Press, List Price: $27 | purchase

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Book Summary

Drawing on her personal diaries, a legendary crusader for women's and human rights shares her experience as the wife of a young Afghan man, who, once back in Afghanistan, reverted to traditional and tribal customs, trapping her in a posh, polygamous family.

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Excerpt: An American Bride In Kabul

TWO

The Imprisoned Bride

I have put off writing about what comes next for a very long time.

Reluctantly I take out my old tattered diary with the brown plastic cover and look at what I wrote when I was twenty. More than half a century later, the writing embarrasses me. The contents are also heartbreaking. I am afraid that reading my diary, and writing about the events it briefly records, will force me to remember what I have spent years trying to forget. It happened, it's over, I survived, let's move on.

The psychotherapist in me knows that I am resisting. I do not want to be overwhelmed again by a clash of cultures, one that was unanticipated and for which I was totally unprepared. If only Abdul-Kareem had prepared me or acknowledged that the task before me would be difficult and frightening. He did not do so.

In 1920, when Saira Elizabeth Luiza MacKenzie Shah, aka Morag Murray Abdullah, and her Afghan husband, Sirdar Iqbal Ali Shah, were about to cross the border into the tribal no-man's land between India and Afghanistan, she wrote:

I looked back at the last outpost of my own people and knew there would be no possibility of my return if the odds went against me. My husband I think sensed my feelings. "Welcome," he said, "to the land of my fathers."

It broke the spell. It reassured me. "Syed [Sirdar]," I said, "I trust you. You realize I am friendless here and have only you."

Syed promised to protect her with his life. But then, as they "passed finally out of sight of the last British post," Syed said, "There is still time to go back if you regret your decision. Time for us to go back."

Abdul-Kareem made no such chivalrous proclamation. We never even discussed what my life might be like in Kabul, even on a temporary basis. I still had a semester of college to complete. I believed that the two of us would embark on adventures, like the explorers of a bygone era. Abdul-Kareem had allowed me to believe this.

But I had ignored each and every warning sign to the contrary: His distracted restlessness in Europe, his suddenly reduced budget, his obvious joy at being embraced by his family, his utter dependence upon his father and the government for money.

I expected to meet his family, but I also believed that we would travel across the entire country: forging rivers, crossing deserts, perhaps summiting mountains, memorizing Persian poetry beside campfires. Instead my time in Afghanistan was characterized by a lack of adventure and only a minimal exposure to the country.

This is how most Afghan women experience life — they don't. Few rural women venture beyond their own village or garden plot or courtyard. The same is true for most city women — except if they are allowed to accompany their fathers abroad when they are young. Their subsequent adjustment to purdah and life beneath the burqa is also traumatic.

It's not just what happened — or what didn't happen — that matters. It is that Abdul-Kareem treated living in the tenth century as completely normal, in fact as somehow superior to life in America. His refusal to discuss my situation was maddening. But how could he? A discussion would force him to acknowledge that his country, where he hoped to make his mark, was medieval and that our lives — my life in particular — would be very different from what they would have been in America.

The excitement of our arrival took at least three days to wear off. More relatives kept coming in a steady stream. Essentially we sat around as if it were a wake. I found this was the Afghan way of socializing: to sit silently, attentively, unselfconsciously, happily, for two or three hours, rising every time someone new comes in, at which time one repeats the standard greetings.

The warm and friendly family faces, the inescapable mountains, the hovering heavens filled with brightly polished stars, the unexpected luxury of my surroundings, even the food, all confirmed that my grand adventure had begun.

On my first morning (it would never happen again), Bebegul and Fawziya, Hassan's sweet and lovely wife, join me for breakfast. The immediate family has two, possibly three Fawziyas and multiple Mohammeds, much as an Italian family has many Johns.

In addition to the usual fare, the cook has prepared some eggs for me that Bebegul insists I eat. Fingering her prayer beads, she stares at me as I chew. She will often stare at me. It is disquieting. The eggs are a bow to the West. In Kabul women do not have eggs for breakfast. It is considered a European custom.

For two days I happily eat the leftovers from our feast. On the third day the household meals return to their normal fare. For me this is a disaster. The cook, like every Afghan cook, uses ghee, an evil-smelling, rancid clarified animal-fat butter that is left unrefrigerated. It is their cooking oil.

It is loved and considered to be a healthy local delicacy. No one would dream of using Crisco, which the specially hired chef had used for our first meal. Most foreigners, who have not grown up with ghee, abhor the taste of it, partly because ghee wreaks considerable havoc on soft foreign stomachs. The smell makes some foreigners nauseous; others throw up after a few mouthfuls. I literally could not eat anything cooked in ghee.

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 stays in her own quarters and sews and hums to herself. She orders her servants about, checks on their work, sits in the garden.

Every day I have lunch with Hassan's wife, Fawziya, and her children in their family quarters. Sometimes, but only rarely, Bebegul joins us. The meals never vary. They consist of a rice-based dish with a spicy tomato-based sauce studded with chunks of lamb or chicken. I drink cup after cup of tea and devour the flat bread (nan). I live on nuts, dried fruits, and yoghurt.

If I can remain on such a wholesome diet, I might easily live to a ripe old age, just like the Hunzas nearby, in Shangri-La.

Abdul-Kareem's older sister, also named Fawziya, is staying on for a while. She is fearfully elegant with a beehive hairdo and an aristocratically Semitic nose. She smokes cigarettes with an elaborate holder but "never in front of my father," she assures me.

Bebegul's daughter Fawziya can speak broken English and German. Hassan's wife, Fawziya, and I speak in French and a little bit in English. She has been appointed to keep me company.

From An American Bride in Kabul by Phyllis Chesler. Copyright 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

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