Thursday, 7 November 2013

"An American Bride in Kabul"

Phyllis Chesler is an American old-school feminist whose name I associate more with resistance to Islamism. Some feminists roll right over on their backs when confronted by Islamism because they are terrified critique of Islamism (or Islam itself) is a form of racism. But not Phyllis.

And it turns out that this is because as a Jewish American college student in New York, Phyllis married a son of a very rich Afghan and went with him to Kabul, where her passport was taken away. This was in 1960, and Phyllis knew very little about Afghanistan. She didn't even know that she had, through marriage and surrendering her passport, traded her American citizenship for Afghan citizenship. When she eventually banged on the door of the American Embassy, the American Embassy wouldn't help her.

Phyllis was full of daydreams about the EXOTIC EAST--and as a matter of fact, she still is, although she hasn't set foot in Afghanistan since her escape. Her memoir An American Bride in Kabul is full of descriptions of majestic mountains, camel caravans, lavish silks, carved wood, gorgeous carpets, glittering jewels and luscious food. She describes her welcoming banquet thusly:

The parade of platters is impressive and never-ending. There is shish kebob, which, I learn, is rarely served at home but can be bought all over Kabul. There are maybe six different kinds of white and yellow and brown rice dishes. Hidden in one pilau one might find a whole boiled chicken, a roasted duck--even a goose. Some dishes are flavored with fried onions and topped with almonds and grapes. There are platters of fried eggplant served with rich gobs of sour cream; juicy fat stuffed cabbage; kofte (meatballs) served with spicy salads; stuffed dumplings.

For dessert we have the most delicious fruit I have ever tasted: luscious grapes, hybrid melons, lemon-oranges, all of which are accompanied by cups of sweet custard topped with floating rose petals. Baklava, French pastries, and soft, sweet, and sticky candies end the meal.

And still, after all this, fresh offerings of pistachios are served, more tea is called for. We are also offered cold fruit juices.

This passage resonates with me because I am from Toronto, city-state of seven thousand ethnic restaurants, but I suspect Phyllis remembers it in so much detail after 50+ years because it was the last time in her marriage that she ate a decent meal. The chef had been hired, and he cooked with vegetable oil (or whatever Crisco is made from). The family chef cooks with ghee, i.e. clarified butter, and it is left out to go rancid. Afghans love rancid butter; it makes non-Afghans vomit. Phyllis is not allowed to cook for herself, and her family refuses to tell the servants to make ghee-free meals for her. She lives on bread, yoghurt and pistachio nuts, becoming hungrier and hungrier, weaker and weaker and, like so many laughably "weak" Westerners, gets terribly ill. But even this does not inspire her shrugging new family to find her food. In one harrowing scene, she crawls downstairs to look for something to eat, and finds her one English-speaking brother-in-law. She begs him for food: a plain cooked potato or bread.

Slowly Reza puts on his leather gloves.

"I have no time now, I'm already late." Reza pauses. He says: "I don't understand how Abdul-Kareem could have brought you here. I've told him that many time." And he walks out leaving me in a huddled heap on the carpeted floor.

You may well be asking, "Where the heck was her husband?" And that's a good question, one Phyllis asks herself many times as she goes stir-crazy spending whole days with his female relations doing nothing, not even able to read. In the USA Abdul-Kareem was an amazingly cultured and loving fellow--completely crazy about her, American and European art films, American and European literature. He wasn't religious, and he had plans for modernizing his native country. Phyllis "lost her virginity" to him, and he loved her, so naturally (for an honourable Afghan) he married her and took her home.

But once home, Abdul-Kareem was no longer interested in Phyllis's well-being, but only in his position in insanely patriarchal Afghan society, which entirely depended on the goodwill of his father and other older ruling-class men. Phyllis's inability to eat ghee-soaked food made him look ridiculous. Phyllis's wanting to leave the house made him look ridiculous. Phyllis's dark-haired looks, which didn't play to Afghan male fantasies about what American women look like, made him look ridiculous. He had already taken a huge risk by falling in love with Phyllis, marrying and bringing her home. He didn't have the time or energy to deal with her ridiculous need for food, freedom, language lessons, time alone with him, medical care, etc., etc.

The fascinating thing about this book is that although she suffered a lot at their hands, Phyllis managed to be friends with this man and his family for the rest of her life. Although her mother-in-law was astonishingly cruel, and probably crazy, Phyllis surmises why this was. One of the problems with a system in which women and children have less value than camels is that the women with any privilege kick around (literally, in the case of servants) women with less or no privilege. And younger men lord it over their wives in part because they have to grovel to older or richer men--for which reason Phyllis forgives her ex-husband (who considers her the first of his two wives, since the divorce wasn't his idea). It is very interesting watching her grapple with her attitude towards him for the next fifty years, he having fled to the USA after the Russian invasion. It's almost poignant how he manages to hang onto the idea that he is all that and a bag of chips even after losing all his rich Afghan privilege.

I dated an Afghan who fled to Canada after the Russian invasion. He asked me to marry him, but I broke up with him because I was tired of having to give The Speech every time I saw him. (Possibly my passionate delivery of The Speech, which grew as florid and dramatic as Phyllis Chesler's prose, is what prompted the marriage proposal.) I was only 18 and a big intellectual snob, so marrying an Afghan refugee who worked in a hotel and thought women were dumber than men because the Koran said so was not something I would have contemplated for a moment. I would have been so bored, and my parents horrified. Still, I think my own brush with Afghan romance is what inspired me to lay down £17 for An American Bride in Kabul.

One lessons of the book, whether or not this is what Chesler intended, is that if you are contemplating marrying a foreigner and returning with him to his native land, you should go with him to his native land FIRST and see what life is like there BEFORE you trust him (his family and his culture) enough to marry him. In my experience, men behave one way in the exotic foreign country (e.g. your country) they are studying, working or holidaying in and another back home. When I was studying in Germany, I used to pal around with English-speaking Girlfriends of Germans, and how they complained. In England and elsewhere, their German boyfriends were fantastic and normal. But in Germany they were just German. One longed to get her boyfriend back to England where he belonged; the other was seriously thinking twice about marrying hers. We lost touch, so I'll never know if she married him, or if she'll ever know I stole her flat to give to Dennis and Catriona.

In my own case, B.A. is different in Canada than he is in Europe. In Canada he is positively docile and always trusts that I know what I am doing and follows me about like a lamb. He is not like that in the UK, and he is most definitely not like that on the Continent, where we do most of our fighting, since I think I own Italy and Poland and he thinks he owns Italy and Poland. (We don't fight in Spain, for he took Spanish in high school and therefore clearly owns Spain.) Fortunately, I met B.A. on his home turf, so the fact that he is lamb-like in Canada is a nice surprise, as opposed to false advertising.


Urszula said...

This reminds me of two books I have read: "The Princess - A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia" and "Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Granted, both books come from a completely different context (both are women who grew up in Islamic cultures) but they are very eye-opening as well.

I think you are most certainly right about visiting the country of a potential spouse - and maybe even living there - before making a binding decision. Likewise, you should also get to know the other person in their 'context' - you can also marry into an oppressive family culture even within your own native city.

I don't want to generalize as I have worked with people from many countries and traveled to quite a few, there are good people everywhere. But expectations about women and their place in society most definitely differ and you can't pretend to be blind to that.

Nina said...

This also reminds me of an old movie called "Not Without My Daughter". It is about a woman goes with her husband to visit his family and Iran and suddenly her whole life changes. This movie was also based on a true story.