Over the past four decades, many Muslim-majority countries have suffered from conflict, revolution, war and terror while trying to face the challenge of finding their proper place in a modern world they find both attractive and repulsive. While everyone has had a share of the suffering, it is possible that women have suffered more than what might have been their share.
Several new books put the focus on that point in a different, often complimentary, manner.
[inset_left]The Shadow of the Crescent Moonby Fatima BhuttoPenguin Books, 2013[/inset_left]In The Shadow of The Crescent Moon (Penguin Books, 2013), Pakistani novelist Fatima Bhutto starts by telling the story of three brothers in the village of Mir-Ali, in the lawless nether lands of Waziristan, the stronghold of the Pakistani branch of the Taliban. However, by the time the narrative has reached its cruising speed two female characters, the beautiful Samarra and the feisty Mina, steal the show and provide the novel’s dramatic engine.
Though Mir-Ali has always been a real dump, its inhabitants, including the three brothers, had regarded it as home and planned to spend their lives there. With the rise of religious terrorism, that position becomes increasingly difficult to sustain. Because of suicide attacks, people are no longer even prepared to go together to a mosque to pray. The brothers, for example, visit three different mosques so that if one is killed in a suicide attack by radicals the other two would survive. At the time the novel starts, Mir-Ali has become a dead end that those who can would want to escape as fast as possible.
Bhutto tries to build some kind of a plot around a conspiracy to assassinate a visiting politician. However, the real interest of the book is as a well-written reportage of the tribal, cultural, religious and political aspects of life in a region that does not wish to be absorbed into Pakistan.
Bhutto’s power of observation and spruce prose make her an excellent reporter. A short book, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon could be read at one go.
A granddaughter of Pakistani leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Fatima is no stranger to personal tragedies caused by politics. This is reflected in the book’s sub-plot about the disappearance of a father into a fault-line of history that threatens to suck in the whole of Pakistan, and indeed even the Muslim world.
[inset_left]Willow Trees Don’t Weepby Fadia FaqirHeron, 2013[/inset_left]In Fadia Faqir’s Willow Trees Don’t Weep (Heron, 2013), the theme of missing father is at the center of the narrative. Here, the narrator travels to Jordan to search for a father who has abandoned her, presumably sucked into the fault-line of history that is Islamist radicalism. A gifted writer, Faqir manages to mix social and philosophical observations with a fast-paced narrative that hooks the reader from the start.
The heroine, Najwa, must find her fathe,r because without him she cannot live in a society in which women cannot build an independent life. To be considered “normal,” a woman must have a father or a husband. The search takes Najwa to Jordan and thence to Afghanistan, very close to where Fatima Bhutto’s novel is set.
The beauty of Willow Trees Don’t Weep is that it steers clear of the temptation to offer yet another account of how religious fanaticism leads to intolerance and thence to terror. In a sense, Faqir has written a Bildungsroman, narrating the slow and painful shaping of a young woman’s character. Both Najwa and her father have embarked on their respective journeys for different reasons and with different destinations in mind. Both end that journey profoundly changed.
Faqir’s palette is large enough to allow for a good dose of humor, or at least black humor, and challenging accounts of the “clash of civilizations” in a minor mode.
[inset_left]Prisoner of Tehranby Marina NematJohn Murray, 2007[/inset_left]The sufferings of Samarra and Mina in Bhutto’s novel and that of Najwa in Faqir’s book pale in comparison with Marina Nemat’s experience as a political prisoner in Tehran under the Khomeinist regime, which she writes in Prisoner of Tehran (John Murray, 2007).
Nemat’s troubles started when, as a secondary school pupil in Tehran, she had the temerity to protest against the Khomeinist decision to cut the weekly course of mathematics by one hour to give religious education an extra hour. She was arrested and charged with “waging war on God” and locked in the dreaded Evin Prison. Although aged only 16, she was sentenced to death. Days before the supposedly scheduled execution, Ali, one of the Hezbollahis in charge of the prison, offered Marina a Faustian bargain: become my “temporary” (muta’a) bride and you shall live!
Marina accepted the bargain and became Ali’s secret bride in a special cell only to find out that she had chosen a slow daily death over an instant one by firing-squad.
In a further twist to this tale of woe, Ali is killed by a rival Khomeinist faction. That enables Marina to benefit from a partial amnesty and secure her freedom. However, decades later she is still unable to free herself from the “Evin” inside her.
What renders Prisoner of Tehran even more chilling is Nemat’s cool and dispassionate prose. Nemat takes us where no one would want to go and, yet, everyone ought to go, through her account, to catch a glimpse of what millions of Iranians have suffered and continue to suffer under Khomeinist terror.
In all three books reviewed above, current religious radicalism and its most ardent forms in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are major themes.
[inset_left]An American Bride in Kabulby Phyllis CheslerPalgrave, 2013[/inset_left]However, the fact that women’s current negative experiences are not a recent aberration is reflected in Phyllis Chesler’s An American Bride in Kabul (Palgrave, 2013). Now a leading figure of second-wave feminism, fifty years ago Chesler was a young Jewish student from New York in search of love and adventure. She found love in a handsome Afghan named Abdul-Kareem, and the two were soon married. The adventure part came when Abdul-Kareem suggested that the couple move to Afghanistan, where he claimed his family was of some consequence. Once in Kabul, however, the new bride quickly realized that she has made a bad bargain. The dapper and apparently Westernized Abdul-Kareem revealed his true identity as an Afghan “male chauvinist” who believed that a woman’s place was behind the purdah.
Ironically, the 1960s was a decade during which many young Americans and Western Europeans travelled to Afghanistan overland in search of love and freedom, which in most cases simply meant free sex and hashish.
The young Western visitors, including thousands of Hippies, found Afghanistan a haven of peace and freedom because they did not step inside the décor. They enjoyed the fantastic climate, the cheap food and lodging and the natives’ benign neglect. Afghans did not judge the visitors, believing that non-Muslims had to be weird. Chesler, however, was inside the décor where she was treated as an Afghan and constantly reminded that duties were more important than rights and that freedom was a vastly overrated value.
Chesler’s book, part memoir, part reportage and part feminist reflection, contains a tragic message: In the 1960s, though they had a rough deal, Afghan women were better off than they were under the Taliban or even now, when they live under the shadow of Taliban terror attacks.