"I once lived in a harem in Afghanistan.”
The opening statement in feminist and author Phyllis Chesler’s memoirs, An American Bride In Kabul, is arresting and blatantly blunt.
As the title states, Chesler was an American bride in the Afghan capital. The question most people reading this memoir would ask is: why would a Jewish woman from a modern and liberal society willingly decamp to a war-ravaged and ultra-conservative Muslim country? The answer Chesler provides is love.
Chesler was 18 when she met her Afghan husband while they were both in university in New York City, in the late 1950s. She was quickly smitten by the Westernised Abdul-Kareem, a man who would be part of her mental, emotional and physical landscape for the next 50 years, despite their marriage not lasting longer than two years.
As Chesler points out, it is vital to recognise that Afghanistan in the 1960s was very different from the Afghanistan of today. Some 50-odd years ago, Afghanistan was a country at peace; fanatics had not foisted their brand of religion upon the population; the country was actually rather Westernised, with women and men clad in clothes that reflected the European and American fashion of the era.
Chesler writes that Abdul-Kareem never told her about life in Afghanistan (Chesler only found out that her mother-in-law was one of three wives, and that Abdul-Kareem was one of 21 children after she landed on Afghan soil), and being young, naïve and in love, she followed her heart to where Abdul-Kareem wanted to go. Plus, by marrying a Muslim man, Chesler was, in her own way, conducting an act of rebellion against her upbringing.
Armed with all these reasons, Chesler states that she got married to a man outside of both her faith and culture, and went to Afghanistan “on my own free will”.
Spanning some five decades, An American Bride In Kabul is broken into two sections: the first part focuses on Chesler’s youth and time in Afghanistan, while the second part sees her back in America, encompassing the years post-9/11, 2001, to the present.
The first half of the memoir is very personal, with Chesler sharing intimate and minute details of her life in Afghanistan. She does not shy away from describing the many fights she had with Abdul-Kareem, her battles with her mother-in-law, Bebegul, and her frustration about being unable to eat the local food, as it is cooked in ghee which does not agree with Chesler’s delicate stomach. Chesler also adds in parts of her diary entries from this time.
In addition to the food issue, Chesler finds that she is imprisoned against her will. Unable to comprehend the rationale, Chesler is puzzled why she is unable to move about on her own, and she is constantly being watched by her immediate in-laws and the extended family (second and third wives, and their respective offspring) and the numerous servants that run the compound.
Though it becomes apparent that life is not living up to Chesler’s expectations, there are moments of genuine hilarity in her struggle to fit in with her Afghan family. For instance, Chesler tries to communicate with Bebegul with the little Dari, Pashtun and German that she knows, and in turn Bebegul tries to talk to her American daughter-in-law with the limited English and German that she is able to muster, and the two of them get by with a whole lot of smiling and charades.
It is in this section of the book that Chesler injects references and quotes from women explorers who came to Afghanistan in the early 20th century, as well as Western women who married Muslim men and lived happy lives in the Middle East. By adding these references and quotes into her memoir, one gets the impression that Chesler is not only trying to justify her decision to go to Afghanistan for love, but that she is also trying to decipher why her marriage to Abdul-Kareem and her relationship with her in-laws, particularly Bebegul, failed.
The second half of the memoir is much less personal, as it centres more on Chesler’s development as a feminist and outspoken critic, particularly in the treatment of women in Muslim cultures.
Readers also get a glimpse into Chesler’s mind, as she tries to make sense of the world and women’s place in the world.
Chesler also devotes entire chapters to her Afghan family coming and living in America, and her reactions towards the Sept 11 terror attacks of 2001. It is in this chapter that Chesler’s passion for Afghanistan shines through. She clarifies, through her own understanding, the mindless fear and hatred expressed by the West towards all Muslims post-9/11.
By balancing her arguments about Afghans (and Muslims in general) living in the West (in particular, America), the treatment of women, and the age-old debate of Islam-versus-infidels, An American Bride In Kabul reads less like a memoir and more like a thesis, especially with all the references to other books Chesler throws in.
While she tries to be as objective as possible, it is hard to ignore the fact that there are times in her memoir that Chesler’s own cultural and feminist biases come into play, sending her arguments slightly askew.
Though the title refers to a singular American bride living in Afghanistan, An American Bride In Kabul goes far beyond Chesler’s personal experiences; it encompasses women worldwide, giving those without a voice a chance to be heard.
While it comes across as very academic (particularly the second half), the book is, nevertheless, an engaging and well-written memoir that is both emotional and sends a powerful message.