World tour through books: Afghanistan

A society and its women

Not too long ago, a friend, hearing about the current situation in my country, turned towards me and told me, point blank “You know, I tend to complain a lot about my country but when I think about yours, I always feel better because at least we don’t have it half as bad as you guys do”. I remember looking at her, perplexed, unsure whether I should be offended or simply laugh it out. I wasn’t so much surprised that she would think it but was definitely impressed that she didn’t hesitate to say it. Granted, we were all at a bar, drinking, so alcohol had certainly helped. Probably because it took me so long to react, she was quick to apologize. But I didn’t resent her. What she had expressed was a sentiment that I knew, growing up in a low income country but in a family that could always afford the necessities and a few luxuries, poverty was something foreign. It was the emaciated kids that we saw on TV living in faraway places. It took me some years to realize that poverty was closer to me than I ever suspected. Took even longer to understand that it went beyond me and my experience of it. The sole fact that children were suffering of hunger, anywhere in this world, became a cause for sadness.

Taliban fighters pictured in Laghman Province. BBC News. 2021

Reading about Afghanistan, I was struck by the remembrance of that conversation (though what’s been going on in my country these past few days has all the features of a full-blown war). Here was a nation that went from one war to the next, each leaving in its wake a trail of destruction, deaths and traumas. People were forced to flee to neighboring country Pakistan or further away, wondering when the would get to see home again. This line from Warsan Shire’s poem Home “You only leave home when home won’t let you stay” never sounded so true because I also felt the love that people felt for their country despite the tragedies and the uncertain future. It’s the same love that I feel for mine. “There’s always something left to love” wrote Lorraine Hansberry and her iconic play A Raisin in the Sun (Interestingly, this exact sentence also appears in Gabriel Marquez famous novel One Hundred Years of Solitude published eight years after the first representation of the play). From the movies, documentaries that I’ve seen and the novels that I’ve read about Afghanistan (which are certainly not enough to understand the complexity of a nation’s history), one thing that often came to the forefront was the situation of women. Again, the same sadness.

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Women’s plight takes on different shapes and levels of intensity but nowhere are we ever entirely safe and nowhere are the risks of seeing our hard-fought rights vanish overnight totally inexistent. I have met men who have brought up this argument. “What do women have to fight for around here? You can vote, work, have your own money. Do you know that there are places where men and women cannot share public spaces, where women are refused education? You should consider yourselves lucky” To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong in putting ou own struggles into perspective and acknowledge our priviledges. But the question always remain: What do we do about it? Believing that no matter how good our situation look in comparison to another it can always be improved, it’s at once the root cause of almost all of our dissatisfaction in life as humans but also the driver behind the greatest changes that happened in history. Acknowledging one’s priviledges should be an impetus to continue to fight for ourselves and for others, never something to feel smug about.

2019 Kola Sulaimon/AFP via Getty Images

A woman’s voice: The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi

Book Cover

The foreword to this book is written by the most famous contemporary Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini. “For far too long, Afghan women have been faceless and voiceless. Until now…” can we read in these introductory statements. This left me a bit puzzled. It was then a man’s ambition to give a voice to these women and he had apparently achieved it if we were to believe the praises.

The Patience Stone was written by Atiq Rahimi, a French Afghan author. This book has won him the Goncourt prize. In it, we meet a woman, who is taking care of her bed-ridden husband. He has received a bullet in his neck but miraculously survived. Though, he is now completely inert in his bed, seemingly not hearing, seeing or feeling anything. He is still breathing but hasn’t moved in sixteen days. The woman, as we are first introduced to her, is a devout muslim, a mother and a caring wife. She is begging her husband to come back to her. We get a glimpse under this surface when she presses his wound trying to get a reaction out of him, when she lies to the mullah (religious teacher) and admit to her irresponsive husband that she had lied to him as well…more than once! As we keep on reading, we start to feel her anger emerging. She talks about her fear the first night they spent together, three years after their wedding. All links to blood. There needed to be blood to prove that she was a virgin. She also tells the story of how mad the man got when he accidentally slept with her while she was on her period one night.

“What’s the difference between menstrual blood and blood that is clean? What’s so disgusting about this blood?…You were born of this blood! It is cleaner than the blood of your own body!”

As time passes, she becomes bolder and start to confess deeply buried secrest from her childhood and her married life with him. She transforms her impassive husband into her Sang-e saboor, her patience stone. It is believed that this magical black stone appropriate the suffering of those who tell him their stories. When it becomes too full of suffering, it will explode and this will be the day of the Apocalypse.

“You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes.”

A sleeping body can indeed be a mirror onto which we project our deepest feelings and emotions, feeling safe not to be judged. Like when you wake up and find your lover gazing at you lovingly. Growing up, I would wake up in the middle of the night, so worried of ever losing my mom, that I would try to feel her breath, look for signs that she lived on. It was an experience, so significant for me that I could never forget it and yet, it is something that she took no part in. She never knew that and probably never will. I felt safe letting expressing this fear that I could never voice aloud, during the day. So it went for the nameless woman of the book, though she found herself hoping that the man might be hearing and experience a change of heart through the tale of her suffering. But the confessions that she makes are heavy, long held resentments come to light. If the woman wanted her husband to wake up, if she had lied and manipulated, it is because she is powerless as a woman in a world dominated by violent men. Throughout, the story, we hear echoes of the war happening outside. To escape rape, at one point, the woman has to pretend to be a prostitute. Men love to accuse women of being manipulative and shifty but they just pretend not to be aware that it is often the only way that we have to show any kind of agency.

“When it’s hard to be a woman, it becomes hard to be a man too!”

There are some very powerful moments in this book. But the author has the ambition to share a voice whch is also that of thousands of women. Such an enterprise is rather tricky. With such a clear message and purpose in mind, the narration feels forced at time. I felt the same thing with The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I watched the movie, haven’t yet read the book. It went like a tale with a neatly bowed resolution. Like there was a plan to be followed and the narrative and the characters were never allowed to breathe and take a life of their own. One could argue that the woman whose voice we hear throughout the story remains rather faceless. We get to know quite a lot of her story but it never really feel like we become close to her or that she is totally revealed. I feel uncomfortable calling her the woman. By not been giving a name, she’s not given the chance to be more than a representation. Furthermore, she exists in relation to her husband. We perceive things as he does. We never leave his side throughout the novella. I am guessing that this can also be considered a part of the message but it somehow seems an antithesis to the departure point.

I recently attended a talk between two authors Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters’ Street and Diana Evans whose novel Ordinary People describe middle class black characters in London whose stories in the book do not revolve solely around their race. I found that she made an interesting point, that black people, women or any group that is a constant victim of discrimination should also get the chance to have their story told as individuals not only as representants of that victimized group. On a recent trip to Barcelona, I bought a t-shirt wth a nice design and a statement “I am every girl”. Nice enough. “Feminist” enough. But I spent some time hesitating, contending with what it exactly meant. I certainly didn’t share the same interests, values or ambitions as every other girl. Though, our experience, living as the second sex, link us in many visible and invisible ways, we remained individuals, first and foremost. It can be hard at times to keep the balance between recognizing that and being tempted to speak for every women. Failure at the former can lead us to label others who value different things from us as “bad feminists” while priveleging the individual at all cost may serve to justify problematic behaviors such as kicking away the ladder or trying to hard to be “one of the guys”. Similarly, an author, often has to make a choice, between focusing on the message or the individual (sometimes the narrative structure allows to do both seamlessly). Some nuance might be lost in one case, while some impact has to be sacrificed in the other. But again, no one ever said that it was an easy job.

Magdalee Brunache

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