Hazel McHaffie

burqa

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Well, having loved The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, … I just had to read another of his novels,  A Thousand Splendid Suns, which has also languished on my shelves for far too long.

It’s set against the same backdrop: Afghanistan at the time of the overthrow of the king, through the civil war, the rule of the Mujahideen, and the coming of the Taliban. A wounded country, sinking into a state of destruction, starvation, oppression, brutality and terrible fear.

Jalil Khan is one of the wealthiest men in Herat before the wars begin. He has three wives and nine legitimate children, properties, a thriving business, but he blotted his reputation when an affair with his housekeeper became public. His illegitimate daughter, Mariam, adores him, and for fourteen years he visits her, in her maternal home – a mud hut, in a clearing, with no amenities – and makes a big fuss of her. Her genuine affection for him makes his eventual betrayal all the harder to bear. He has chosen his reputation over her welfare.

She’s still only 15, and now motherless, when she’s married off to a man thirty years her senior. Rasheed is an embittered and malodorous shoe-maker, who takes her away from everyone and everything she knows. She is uprooted, displaced, like an intruder in someone else’s life. Nevertheless, initially, when he hides her from the gaze of other men, she feels prized by him, treasured and significant, but that all changes when she loses pregnancy after pregnancy, and he becomes brutish, harsh and violent.

Eighteen years into their fruitless marriage, when he rescues a young girl, Laila, from the rubble following a rocket attack which kills her parents and destroys her home, a new dynamic is established. Rasheed by now is in his sixties, Mariam 33, the girl 14. He grooms Laila to become an additional wife. Laila is already stricken with grief, not only losing home and family, but also hearing that her young lover, Tariq, has been killed. What’s more, she’s just discovered she’s pregnant with his baby after one clumsy coupling … all hope of running away together has gone. She knows there’s no future for her either in this punitive land, or in the refugee camps if she were to flee the country, unless she is under the protection of a man. Marriage offers her her only chance.

Rasheed openly favours Laila and makes Mariam’s life a misery with his cruel taunts and obvious preferences. But that all changes when the baby turns out to be a girl, Aziza, and Rasheed vents his displeasure on Laila. Mariam’s resentment turns to pity for the poor girl, and gradually allegiances change as the two women unite in the face of Rasheed’s harsh treatment of them both. They conspire to escape together, but their plans are thwarted when a stranger betrays them. Rasheed exacts a terrible revenge.

Two and a half years after the failed escape, the Taliban arrive. Their oppressive rule is crushing for women like Laila, reared to expect education and independence. Now the two wives must always wear burqahs, never go out unaccompanied by a man, suffer domestic abuse without hope of rescue, work like slaves. Rasheed’s violence escalates, and the only person he treats well is his son, Zalmai. It suits him to have the Taliban’s approval to punish his wives with beatings and deprivation.

After 27 years of marriage to this man, Mariam finally turns, when she sees him strangling Laila with every intention of killing her. Her old lover Tariq has returned and Laila has dared to speak to him without a chaperone – an unforgivable offence worthy of death in Rasheed’s eyes. Mariam is prepared to forfeit her own life to save Laila. And she does.

For four decades, now, the Afghan refugee crisis has been one of the severest around the world. In this tale of unconscionable violence, oppression and survival against the odds, Afghanistan and its people and its sorrows come vividly to life. Real love and honourable sacrifice shine the brighter for the contrast with evil. Hosseini has not only accomplished this, but he himself works as a US goodwill envoy for UNHCR, the humanitarian agency, helping to protect basic human rights of refugees, provide emergency relief, and help them restart their lives in safe environments. Lots to commend him.

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Forbidden faces

You probably saw in the news this week that a leading Iranian model, Elham Arab, has been forced to publicly apologise for posting photographs of herself online without a head covering. Seven of the country’s leading models have been arrested, charged with ‘promoting corruption’ and ‘promiscuity’. This crackdown on the fashion industry is part of increased pressure by the new regime to honour ‘Islamic values’, and it leads me nicely to a book I read last week that I found both challenging and fascinating.

Imagine … you’re sixteen (the same age as my eldest granddaughter, so I’m using her as my personal yardstick). The year is 1996. The place is Kabul. To a great extent, the norm of living your whole life in wartime, never experiencing true peace, has numbed you to ‘the overall tragedy’ encompassing your country, to the ‘ultimate threat’ that’s to come. Having said that, until today you’ve enjoyed life, relative freedom, and the security of an enlightened and loving family.

My Forbidden FaceBut now … it’s 27 September. Suddenly everything changes. The Taliban have taken over your city. The president and his brother have been publicly tortured and hanged. Ferocious laws and prohibitions are imposed. Fingers are sliced off for sporting nail polish. Faces and backs are whipped because white shoes peep from beneath an all-enveloping burqa. Innocent young girls are gang raped and genitally mutilated for no reason at all. Women are dying because they are denied medical care. Small children are kidnapped, raped, strangled and thrown onto a rubbish dump for daring to seek clandestine lessons.

And in one fell swoop your whole future has been taken away. Why? Because you are female. You can’t study. You can’t work. You can’t go out without a male escort. You can’t be seen without oppressive clothing and heavy veiling.

Nor are men protected from degradation and horror. Football is replaced by a new atrocity. ‘Now justice takes place in public. They hang the accused from the goal posts, cut off the hands of thieves, execute supposedly adulterous women with a bullet in the back of the neck. This is a monstrous spectacle, intercut with obligatory prayers. Spectators are forced into the stadium with whip lashes.’ Two criminals are butchered to death by the father of their victims, a macabre spectacle watch by an estimated audience of 35,000.

Your brother is summonsed to the university where he sees the aftermath of an appalling massacre, bleeding human remains everywhere,  which he is expected to help clear up. ‘I saw a woman completely undressed … She was … she was nailed to one of those swinging doors at the faculty. They had cut her in two … in two parts. On each panel of the doors, there was half of her. Half of her nailed up body … And the door opened and shut. It was appalling.’

Propaganda attributes the ‘cleansing’ to religious motivation. But as your father explains to you: ‘A Muslim doesn’t kill another Muslim. Nowhere in the Koran is it written that we should take life. This is the final proof that they’re inventing their own Sharia, all the while wanting us to believe that whatever they decide is written in the Koran. Their laws aren’t written in the sacred book. They come out of the heads of a few mullahs who would do better to keep them for themselves.’ I’d guess most fathers in this country would use much stronger language that he does to condemn these atrocities!

If you still find it hard to imagine, I recommend you read My Forbidden Face: Growing up under the Taliban. Even the cover says so much: unseen dark eyes looking from behind a mesh of intricate embroidery onto a hostile unfathomable world, the very size of the mesh proscribed, reduced.

Mesh in burqa for eyes

The author is known only as Latifa – unlikely to be her real name. She modestly hopes that her story will ‘serve as a key for other women, those whose speech has been padlocked and who have buried their testimony in their hearts or their memories.’ She dedicates it to ‘all those Afghani girls and women who have kept their dignity until their last breath; to those women who have been deprived of their rights in their country, and who live in obscurity, despite the fact that we are in the twenty-first century; to all those executed in public, without trial and without pity, and under the eyes of their children and loved ones.’ Read it and weep.

Weeping is seldom allowable for Latifa. Emotions are frowned upon. ‘We each keep our sorrows to ourselves … This is a particularly Afghan way of proceeding.

She perceives the Taliban as dangerous and virulent bacteria propagating by spreading serious diseases, diseases that strike a mortal blow at freedom. She believes the world has forgotten her people. ‘I asked myself what kind of a world this was, so very distant from God.’

When she becomes ill and has to travel to Pakistan for treatment, she can’t help but compare the girls there with her own lot in life; so carefree, blase about their opportunities, not valuing education enough. She says of her friend: ‘She seems more superficial, less concerned than she used to be. Maybe that’s one of the things that freedom does.’ 

So what of my granddaughter’s generation today, in this country, with unlimited choice, enormous freedom? What are the lessons for them? I leave the last word with Latifa’s father: ‘You haven’t done this in vain. Trust me. Women listen to other women. Your testimony will make people here understand.’

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