Book club: Forbidden lessons in a Kabul guesthouse

I recently peeked into one of our local libraries to see what was up.  I wandered along the rows of books, thinking how ill-stocked the shelves were, when I started to realize when I looked a little closer that there were actually quite a few books that I would want to read.  I now have a library card – even though there are over 50 books on my home bookshelf that I want to read (or re-read).  And many more unread books, waiting for their moment, on my kindle.  Oh well, I’m a book lover, and I love it when the stack is high.

I came across Forbidden lessons in a Kabul guesthouse and took it out, left it at home for three weeks and then realized that time was up.  So I renewed the book, and now, two weeks later, finally cracked open its spine.  To my surprise, it is the kind of book that you finish in one day because you can’t put it down (even when there is also a huge pile of tasks in my in-box, begging to be done).

It tells the story of Suraya Sadeed, an Afghan who emigrated to America when the Russians invaded Afghanistan at the end of the ’70s.  Years later, after the unexpected death of her husband, Suraya sees a newsreel of fighting and chaos in Afghanistan and decides to go back to deliver humanitarian aid at a time when no one was going into Afghanistan.  The books focuses on her work from 1992 until after 9/11 and tells of her struggles to open clinics and schools for girls (forbidden by the Taliban).  They end up opening the first schools in the basement of a friend’s house and lessons are held by candle or lamp light.

At times her work seems pointless, because every bit of aid they manage to bring is overshadowed by the constant fighting and chaos in the country.  But Suraya is reminded, “where there is life, there’s hope”.

I learnt that contrary to what many people assume, the Afghan Burka was not an invention of the Taliban.  It has a long history in Afghanistan and was at first seen as a status symbol because only the wife of a wealthy man could afford one, so a woman would wear it to signify that she wasn’t a peasant working in the fields. Afterwards, some women chose to wear the Burka because it offered protection against ignorant, violent men.  But not even the Burka could protect countless displaced widows who were relegated to the “widow camps” – with no male protection, these defenseless ladies were subjected to the torture of being used by soldiers at will.

The book also criticizes the tendency of Western women trying to “save” Muslim women from the perceived torment of the Burka.  As the author explains, if you had to choose between equal rights with men and the ability to feed your children, the choice is obvious:  women’s rights were irrelevant to a mother with a starving child. There is also the issue of culture and tradition.  So while Afghan women may welcome the introduction of western comforts such as cell phones and computers, they do not see the need to be exactly like the rest of the world.  If you asked an Afghan woman what she needs, rarely if ever would she say that she needs to be liberated from the Burka – her concerns were different to that of a Western privileged woman.

I was also surprised by the author’s account of media reaction to Afghanistan.  Pre-9/11 there was almost no interest in the suffering of Afghanis.  However, as soon as the twin towers were hit, media frenzy erupted.  While Suraya’s organisation tried to get aid into the hardest hit areas, journalists were jostling to get the first shots of the bombing, unsympathetic to the fact that these were real bombs, affecting real people. They found it “awesome” that they could get photos of the front line of this new war. Their ability to bribe ferrymen also led to a delay in humanitarian aid getting to Afghanis, because they monopolized the transport that was necessary for NGOs to get their supplies into the right area.

The main thing that struck me about the book was that, while I was aware that Afghanistan has been under attack since 9/11, I was ignorant of all of their struggles prior to 2001.  It seems that the Afghani people have been suffering for many years under warring factions internally.  The people on the street barely knew or understood the reason for the US invasion, assuming it had something to do with the Taliban but unaware of the strike on the twin towers.  Their land has been used as a battle ground for other people’s wars since at least the time of the Cold War, and the Afghani people pay the price for issues that they are barely aware of.

Apart from wars, they were also subject to some crushing natural disasters.  One remote village, hit badly by an earthquake, lost 17 grooms and 16 brides who had had a big wedding the night before.  Only 1 bride remained.  Suraya, assuming that the girl had broken her hand because she refused to open it, tried to get medical help – only to realize that the pain in the girl’s hand was not physical – she could not bear to look at the bridal mehndi that remained, in the wake of all that had passed away.

The author’s organisation, Help the Afghan Children, still operates today, trying to help as many Afghanis get a decent education as possible.

The ability of Afghan women to survive is amazing.  Their continued struggles should not be forgotten.


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