I would have loved to have been part of the packed audience at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan on the night of October 1st, when Professor Phyllis Chesler talked about her newly published autobiographical book "An American Bride in Kabul" (Palgrave-Macmillan). Journalist Fern Sidman, who did attend, kindly sent me her impressions and I have woven them into this review.
Reading the book in my Jerusalem home, I found it a page-turner, written in the internationally-famous author and lecturer's rich and flowing style, filled with undercurrents and themes that made it a really good read, while deepening understanding of issues that go way beyond the author's personal recounting of her experiences.
The riveting story might be seem to be– at first glance – the unusual story of a not-so-good Jewish girl from a 'good Jewish family' who rebels against the predictable pattern her parents expect her life to take. Things go very wrong and the girl's rebellion against what she sees as boring and traditional Brooklyn Jewish life –ironically - lands her in a stifling country of ancient, unyielding repression, especially of women. And what she endures is too appalling for even the most stereotypical Jewish parent's "I told you so" reaction.
"This is the story of a young and naive Jewish American woman who meant to rebel against tradition—but who found herself trapped in the past, stuck in the Middle Ages, without a passport back" – says Chesler, and she means it literally, because her passport was taken away from her when she entered the country as the wife of a Muslim..
However, this fascinating book enlightens the reader about much more than a harrowing period in the writer's life.
Chesler's skillful writing highlights, on a personal level, a basic flaw in Western thinking. It is the quintessential story of how we in the West are unable to believe - let alone comprehend - that a non-Westerner, in this case a sophisticated Muslim college student, has no desire to change the mores of his home environment and acts Western only when in the West, while actually looking down on the civilization his hosts hold to be the best on this earth. (United States' misreading of the USSR and its vain attempts to create democracy in Iraq come instantly to mind).
How did she fall for this man? By believing that his lifestyle in the USA was all there was to know about him. "My Afghan bridegroom was a Westernized man I had known for nearly three years at college in America. He cooked for me, he was tender and attentive—he just never mentioned that his father had three wives and twenty-one children or that I would be expected to live under a polite form of posh house arrest--or that I would be expected to convert to Islam."
This, she writes, is how it happens. "I am eighteen and I have just met my prince. He is a dark, handsome, charming, sophisticated, and wealthy foreign student. We are in college in America. True, he is a Muslim and I am a Jew. I am very Jewish. But he is the Agha Khan, and I am Rita Hayworth. He is Yul Brynner, and I am Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I."
"When we land in Kabul officials smoothly remove my American passport which I never see again. Suddenly, I am the citizen of no country, and have no rights. I have become the property of a polygamous Afghan family and am expected to live with my mother-in-law and other female relatives, wear hijab, and live in purdah. That means that I cannot go out without a male escort, a male driver, and a female relative as chaperones.
I am living in a culture where extreme gender apartheid is the norm and where my reactions to it are considered abnormal".
Various incidents in the book serve to drive home the East-West culture gap (or "abyss"?) by showing that what the Western outsider does with the best of intentions, even if absolutely the right thing to do, can backfire mercilessly. The Great White Father syndrome exists here on a personal level, a symbol of how our well-intentioned, clueless efforts often lead to disaster when dealing with foreign cultures.
Chesler gives her freezing maid a sweater, only to watch helplessly as the poor woman is promptly fired by Chesler's slightly mad, cruel and powerful mother-in-law for going above her station and accepting it. (Extrapolate to the infant formula given to African mothers, who abandoned nursing and condemned their babies to malnutrition, if not death. Or to President Peres' intifada-buried, patronizing belief that economic benefits trump Islamism and will bring about a "New Middle East".)
Chesler learns the rules quickly and comes to appreciate the wondrous beauty and positive aspects of her surroundings, but knows she cannot survive harem life and, determinedly, stops trying to.
Ill and weak, she manages to get out of Afghanistan with the help of her father-in-law, and it says a lot about the kindness of the human spirit – hers, that is - to read that she actually helps her ex-husband years later when the Russian takeover of Afghanistan makes it prudent for he and his second wife to go into exile.
The book is filled with her heartfelt empathy for the Afghan people's dire economic and political straits, especially the women's, but it also has her eye-opening analysis of the tribal loyalties that keep the country stultified and endlessly embattled.
Chesler also discovers and relates the little-known and absorbing history of once-illustrious Afghan Jewry, their established contribution to the country's trade and banking and how Afghanistan's Nazi alliance and subsequent government centralization led to their overnight impoverishment, exploitation and migration –discovering, to her shock, that her husband's family profited greatly from the travesty.
Back home, Chesler began where she left off, and she is, at 73, an Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Women's studies at CUNY, psychotherapist and an internationally renowned lecturer and author of 14 books. Among her best selling books are "Women and Madness" (1972), "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman" (2001), "The New Anti-Semitism (2003) and "The Death of Feminism (2005). She is also an observant, strongly feminist, Jew.
There is no repressing Phyllis Chesler, she pulls no punches and no politically correct considerations affect the way she voices her views, whether it is in this book, in defense of Israel, where her ability to look at the situation through "Eastern eyes" gives her opinions reliability and clout, or when fighting Islamic and Hindu honor killings. It is perhaps the crucible of her Afghan experience that has made her so passionate in defending freedom and in fighting against women's apartheid.
"I believe that my American feminism began in Afghanistan. It is a feminism that many Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and dissidents, both religious and secular, welcome and support. We are all anti-Islamists: We oppose totalitarianism, terrorism, and gender and religious apartheid and support individual, human, gay, and women’s rights."
And it is 9/11 that made her insider's understanding of Afghanistan and the Islamist world an indispensable source of knowledge and insight.
"The material is so rich, so irresistible", she says. "The 9/11 plot was hatched in a country that I once lived in - how surreal, how destined is that! How could I remain silent? Wasn't I obligated to share what I had seen and now know? "
Developments in the United States have made them all the more timely. "The Afghan burqa seems to have followed me to America and into the future. I needed to provide an accounting of what I experienced, witnessed, and the lessons learned."
"This is an accounting of sorts", she says. "A young Jewish American woman once came to this wondrous, Asiatic country and fled harem life. She has told their story in order to redeem her soul."
A must read, for the story itself and for its insider's view of Islamist society.
Fern Sidman contributed to this article