This is not a starry-eyed romance, or a predictable teenage love triangle. I’m not usually one to pick up a book that claims to be about a “forbidden love”, (seriously??) but this is the story of two teens who fight against generations of culture, their families and, most forbidding of all, the Taliban, to be together. It is worth the read.
Fatima and Samiullah were childhood friends in a small present day Afghani village. When they were small, the friendship between a Pashtun boy and a Hazara girl was tolerated. But Sami has been away for three years, studying at a madrassa, learning the Quran, hoping to be the religious leader of his village. He didn’t finish his studies, and no one is sure why. He holds a dark secret in his heart.
Although Fatima is now of marriageable age, she still feels like a young girl. She wants more time to learn and study, opportunities denied to most girls in the villages, not leave her family to live in a far away village with a man she has never met. When Sami returns home and they reignite their friendship, she begins to rethink her objections.
Rashid, his cousin, sees them talking one day. He has also returned from the madrassa, but the darkness that so disturbs Sami has taken hold of his soul. He is offended by what he sees between Sami and Fatima, and ensures that both their fathers find out about the disgrace. He turns the two innocents over to the Taliban for punishment.
Told from the three perspectives of Sami, Fatima and Rashid, The Secret Sky draws vivid pictures of the harsh realities of a war-torn country. Interspersed with the horror and adversity are wonderful images of the beauty of the land and people. I started this book with very little knowledge, outside of what is on the news, about Afghanistan, but the characters and remote desert and mountain villages come alive in this novel.
Author Atia Abawi was born in West Germany, a month after her parents fled Afghanistan during the Soviet war. The family immigrated to the United States, where they gradually realized they would never be able to return to their homeland. But Afghanistan called to Abawi, and she returned as a journalist, spending five years reporting on the country. She explored the villages and lived with the citizens, and the authenticity is clear in the novel.
It is a powerful story, one that is not the easiest to read. The subject matter is gut-wrenching. It is still appropriate for all teens, but with forewarning of the violence and horror. It is terrifying. And it is beautiful.
The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan is published by Philomel Books.