An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir

BOOK: An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir
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An American Bride in Kabul

Previous Publications

Women and Madness

Women, Money, and Power

About Men

With Child: A Diary of Motherhood

Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody

Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M

Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness

Feminist Foremothers in Women’s Studies, Psychology, and Mental Health

Letters to a Young Feminist

Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman

Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site

The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do about It

The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom

An American Bride in Kabul

A Memoir

Phyllis Chesler


Copyright © Phyllis Chesler, 2013.

All rights reserved.

First published in 2013 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN® in the United States—a division of St. Martin’s Press LLC, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.

Where this book is distributed in the UK, Europe, and the rest of the world, this is by Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, registered in England, company number 785998, of Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 6XS.

Palgrave Macmillan is the global academic imprint of the above companies and has companies and representatives throughout the world.

Palgrave® and Macmillan® are registered trademarks in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, and other countries.

ISBN 978-0-230-34221-7

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Chesler, Phyllis.

An American bride in Kabul : a memoir / Phyllis Chesler.

pages cm

ISBN 978-0-230-34221-7 (alk. paper)

1. Chesler, Phyllis. 2. Jewish women—Afghanistan—Kabul. 3. Brides—Afghanistan—Kabul. 4. Men—Afghanistan—Kabul. 5. Afghanistan—Social life and customs. I. Title.

HQ1172.C44 2013



A catalogue record of the book is available from the British Library.

Design by Letra Libre

First edition: October 2013

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Printed in the United States of America.


once lived in a harem in Afghanistan.

I did not enter the kingdom as a diplomat, soldier, teacher, journalist, or foreign aid worker, nor did I ruggedly arrive on foot or riding a strong horse over dangerous mountain passes. I was there long before American hippies followed the old Silk Road in search of drugs.

I was in search of another kind of adventure, one that has lasted more than fifty years.

I came as the young bride of the son of one of the country’s wealthiest men. To my astonishment, I was held captive—but it’s not as if I had been kidnapped by wild savages and ravished. This is not a tale of a white and helpless maiden taken by Barbary pirates and sold into an imperial harem. I was not
into captivity.

I walked into it of my own free will.

My Afghan bridegroom was a Westernized man I had known for nearly three years at college in America. He had 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 rather posh house arrest, together with his mother and the other women—or that I would be expected to convert to Islam.

I lived behind high walls in a grand home surrounded by other such family homes. The dwellings were European in style. They had indoor plumbing, hot water, marble floors, lush carpets, and ballroom-sized living rooms.

I lived as a member of an Afghan family and as such learned about the Afghan people in a way that the great Western travelers could not. Afterward I was often able to see the West with Eastern eyes.

Afghan men and women know that life can change in an instant; that happiness is brief and illusory; that one is utterly dependent on one’s faith and one’s family and on the strongest man in that family; that poverty, cruelty, and tragedy are to be expected; and that no one—not even one’s brother, certainly no foreign power, can ever be trusted.

Afghans believe that without a husband and sons a woman absolutely cannot survive and that women and children are a man’s property. They are his to protect or abuse. They are his to kill. It is the way things are.

Most Afghan men will not admit to these truths. They will denounce anyone who says so as a liar and an enemy. Exposing these facts is considered a crime.

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.

Eventually I escaped.

I started a diary while I was in Kabul. I have it still. Most of the first entries are too raw, poorly written, perhaps too shocking, to share just yet. Here is what I subsequently wrote about our arrival.

1961: Our plane is landing in Kabul. An airport official demands—and then keeps—my American passport. “Just a formality,” he assures me. I never see that passport again. I am now subject to Afghan laws and customs. I am no longer a citizen of the United States. I am the property of my Afghan family.

We will no longer be living alone as a couple. We will be living with my mother-in-law, her oldest son, his wife, their children, her two youngest sons, and with many turbaned and sometimes barefoot servants. This living arrangement is quite a surprise.

We had no television. We had a phone, but it rarely rang and it did not always work. People mainly had each other. We were each other’s entertainment. We ate together, talked, gossiped, joked, huddled under a communal
(a low bench warmed by a brazier) when it was cold, entertained relatives, drank tea, chewed nuts, ate sticky candies. The men prayed, worked in one of the family businesses, plotted, and dreamed. We lived a semitribal life.

Many years later, when I saw the first Cirque du Soleil performance in Battery Park City, in New York City, I was entranced. The audience sat in a tent in which the players rode their horses around and around
hypnotically—amazing horses and amazing riders—and musicians from India and Pakistan played their drums and tiny instruments and cast a spell that threw me back into our tribal and nomadic past.

On a good day that’s what it was like.

My family had servants, the latest model cars, chauffeurs, gardens, balconies, villas—and if one sat out at night, the stars were a cluster of golden grapes, close enough to pluck.

My unexpected house arrest was not as shocking as was my husband’s refusal to acknowledge it as such. Similarly, when I first saw women in ghost-like burqas (called
in Afghanistan) huddled at the back of a bus, I was outraged and frightened; that my family treated this as normal made things worse. My husband insisted that this custom was on its way out. My relatives laughed at my discomfort.

I saw pairs of fully armed warriors walking down the street holding hands, each with a flower behind his ear. When I asked my husband and brothers-in-law about homosexuality in Afghanistan, I was dismissed as a crazy American.

I was living in a culture where extreme gender apartheid was the norm and where my reactions to it were considered abnormal and unusual.

Nevertheless my feeling of kinship with the Islamic world has not diminished in the five decades since. Even my detention in Afghanistan was not enough to quell my abiding ardor. Something about the Islamic world had called me. Like my Afghan husband, perhaps I am also multicultural and belong both to the East and West. Jews have certainly lived in Arab and Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, for thousands of years.

But I was also an independent bohemian American. I wore black
leotards with ballet slippers or jeans and sneakers. I practiced yoga, wrote poetry, and was always reading a book. I purposely chose a college that had no required courses because I did not want anyone in a position of authority telling me what to do.

My religious Jewish family saw Afghanistan as the end of the earth.

“No,” I stubbornly insisted, “China is farther. So are Russia and Australia.” I recently went to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City in search of Moghul-era Buddhist art from Afghanistan.

involved going to the farthest reaches of the museum, to the last gallery on the second floor. One reaches it only by taking a series of elevators and then climbing two or three different sets of stairs.

And there they were: two beheaded pre-Islamic Buddhas from Afghanistan. One Buddha had amber-colored jeweled eyes and seemed to be looking right at me.

But my family was right. I
gone to the ends of the earth—
culturally. For example I was not allowed to leave the family compound without a male chaperone and a female relative or two. My mother-in-law kept expecting me to wear a long and filmy kerchief (
) and a long coat when I went out. She also launched a campaign to convert me to Islam.

This book is a personal memoir about an unusual first marriage and subsequent friendship with my ex-husband and his family—one that has endured for more than fifty years.

This is not my life memoir. This is a memoir of my Afghan sojourn and what it was like to live as a wife in a Muslim country. Writing this book is not without risk. My words may shame, shock, enrage, or dishearten people who are dear to me. A writer always wrestles with this problem. I have softened many blows, but as a writer I am also committed to telling the truth.

The first seven chapters of this memoir (Section One) tell the story of my time as a bride in Kabul and my flight back to America.

But have I really escaped? The country and its people seem to have followed me into the future and right into the West. Islamic
(face masks), and burqas
are here in America, both in the media and on the streets.

The haunting cries of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer may be heard all across North America and Europe. Honor killings are here too, as are forced arranged marriages, polygamy, and varieties of purdah (female seclusion). Afghanistan has landed in America, and America is still deployed in Afghanistan.

The last seven chapters (Section Two) describe what I did after I returned to America on an Afghan passport, how my husband tried to force me to return, and how he made a dramatic escape of his own, disguised as a peasant, just before the Soviet invasion. We have remained in touch ever since.

9/11 changed the direction this book would take. I had intended to use my own experience in Afghanistan as a way of reviving the more daring and often more idyllic adventures of other Western travelers to Afghanistan and to the Islamic world in general. I was especially interested in sharing the long-forgotten tales of women travelers.

Then, in my lifetime, Afghanistan literally turned into a Margaret Atwood dystopian novel—even darker and more misogynistic than
The Handmaid’s Tale.
Given the increasingly barbaric persecution and subordination of Muslim women, I decided to connect my own brief brush with purdah and gender apartheid to the surreal lives of Afghan and Muslim women today. Perhaps my story will serve to bring Americans closer to the suffering of Muslim women—and Muslim women closer to an American feminism that was forged in purdah in Afghanistan.

But how could I write about Afghanistan and Muslim women without also writing about Islamic/Islamist terrorism and its war against Muslim civilians and against the West? I cannot pretend that this war is not real. It has already affected all our lives.

In my research I also stumbled upon the astounding history of Jews and Hindus in Afghanistan and how that history intimately relates to my Afghan family’s wealth and social position.

These grave realities have not permitted me to write the lyrical, apolitical, strictly literary work that I had envisioned so long ago.

But I am romantic about my Afghan adventure—just not in the usual sense of romance. I love that I was there, however briefly. I love the breathtaking diversity of the people. They are the descendants of ancient Selucids, Scythians, Sassanids, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Indo-Arians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Arabs; their many religions have included Zoroastrianism, paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Manicheanism, Christianity, and Islam.

Perhaps I once lived somewhere in Central Asia in a previous life. If so, I hope that I was a warrior, not an imprisoned concubine; a scribe, not one of many wives in a polygamous household; a court poet, not an illiterate farmer. Call me an Orientalist but I will go to my death loving such things—including the fabulously jeweled ceremonial swords and daggers of the Moghul era.

hy am I writing this book?

The subject haunts me—but also because I am a writer and the material is irresistible, wondrous.

I believe that my American feminism began in Afghanistan. It is a feminism that many Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and dissidents welcome and support. They are my closest intellectual and political companions today. Some are religious Muslims, others are committed secularists or apostates.

We are all
We oppose totalitarianism, terrorism, and gender and religious apartheid and support individual, human, and women’s rights.

Some of my compatriots write under pseudonyms. Others live with round-the-clock bodyguards. An increasing number have been sued and impoverished for telling the truth about their lives. In the Middle East, Central Asia, the Far East, and Africa, those who think as we do have been jailed, tortured, and executed.

Their heroism is extraordinary.

Ironies abound. I fled the indoor and secluded life of the harem, but as a writer I actually lead such a life. When I write, I am usually wearing a long loose caftan.

Part of me will always long for perfumed gardens, indoor courtyards, open cooking fires, brightly glazed hookahs, highly ceremonial communal meals with a large extended family, the smells and sounds of the bazaar, snow-capped mountains, and a thrilling expanse of sky.

I am something of a sentimentalist, but make no mistake: I am also a woman who is married to her work; I require a serious measure of solitude in order to accomplish it. Living with an extended family as an obedient wife and daughter-in-law is a fantasy—a nightmare, really—for someone like me.

The Afghanistan I came to know was and still is a place where misogyny and violence are indigenous, pandemic, and considered normal. Female children are still sold into polygamous marriages to men old enough to be their grandfathers; many girls are routinely worked like animals, beaten brutally on a daily basis, sometimes tortured, even slain in honor killings. Male child orphans become the “dancing boy” sex toys of wizened warlords.

None of this is new or the result of foreign occupations. What is new is that the world knows about it. Many Western humanitarians are trying to rescue and heal such victims and hold the perpetrators lawfully accountable for their crimes. But what, if anything, can America really do to stop such indigenous barbarism? How much blood and treasure must we spend to hold back the baleful sky?

elling the truth requires effort. Lying is far easier.

Both the passage of time and the complexity of intimate relationships make this a daunting task. Memory often fails us. It even fails writers who are trying hard to remember things exactly as they happened. If I have misremembered anything, it was not purposeful and I
ask forgiveness of both my readers and of those about whom I am writing. I am trying to create a time and place that no longer exist, that remain alive only in memories. Here I am also forcing myself to remember those things that I once repressed in order to get on with my life.

Some believe
in vino veritas,
that wine loosens inhibition and allows one to speak forbidden truths. For me
in scribo veritas.
Only by writing do I discover the truth.

I am not entirely sure why I went to Afghanistan. Perhaps I am writing this book to find out.

Was I in search of a lost band of Scythian Amazon warrior women or one of the lost tribes of Israel? Scholars suggest that both groups once settled in the region. Was I a typical Western adventurer lured by “the past present,” a place where a simpler time still existed? Or had life in the West already broken my young heart; was I in search of oblivion, “half in love with easeful Death”?

BOOK: An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir
13.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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