One Half from the East

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Happy 2017, everyone!! Here’s to a great year of reading.

In many places, life is just easier if you are a boy. For you and for your family. Afghanistan is one such place.

10-year-old Obayda lives in Kabul with her mother, father and three older sisters. She loves to go to school and wear dresses and dance and swing her beautiful hair around. Her father is a respected policeman, and the family is content and prosperous. Her future looks bright. But the future cannot always be predicted. 

One day, as she waits outside the pharmacy for her father to pick up a prescription for her illness, a bomb blows up and changes everything. Her father lost a leg and his will to live, and the family had to leave their life in Kabul to move in with his family in a small village.  Life is so different now. Her father refuses to leave his room and barely speaks to the girls.

Obayda’s aunt, the nosy, bossy one, has an idea to change the family’s luck. Obayda is to becomes Obayd, a bacha posh, or girl who dresses and acts and becomes, for all intents and purposes, a boy.  Because a boy in the family brings luck. And maybe, just maybe, Obayd can turn the family’s bad fortune around.

This is a fascinating story, and I wasn’t sure whether it was based in fact, or was just an incredible idea. I had never heard of such a thing. But a quick google search gave me a ton of information. (I do miss the trek to the library to research, I have to admit, although my would-rather-spend-a-snowy-day-inside-in-pyjamas self has no complaints about the internet). Having a bacha posh in the family is not an unusual practice in Afghanistan. Not to say that every family does it, but it is not uncommon.

In Afghanistan, decisions are made by men. Women and girls have comparatively less value, and an Afghan girl is born with little control over her own life. She looks forward to a life of essentially servitude, having her life in the hands of first her father, then her brothers or husband. This would affect a family with no sons. So in some families, mothers dress a daughter as a boy, give her a short haircut and boys’ clothing, and treat her as a son. To the world outside the home, and even within the home, bacha posh are boys.

For the Afghan girl chosen to become a boy, a whole new world is before her. She can now get a job, run around without an escort, play sports, go to school. She gets to live a life unknown to Afghan women.

Obayd is one such bacha posh. She becomes he, not only in the eyes of the village, but in her family’s as well. He is given the first choice of meat at the table at dinner, is not expected to help with chores, but to run off and explore and play. He goes to school with boys, he is a boy. But at first, it is not that easy. Obayd is sure that everyone knows, and, having no brothers and an absentee father, is unsure how to behave. But then he meets Rashim, who knows at a glance what he is, and the two become inseparable. Rashim teaches Obayd how to be a boy, how to embrace the freedom, and Obayd enters a world he never knew existed.

Author Nadia Hashimi got right into the mind of a young girl and her portrayal of the conflicts that Obayd/a faces are honest and poignant. With Obayda’s change of clothes and hairstyle, she also gets a change in perception and potential. She can now do things that before no one thought her capable of trying. Sports, designing and building a crutch for her father, shopping in a store by herself. But with the new advantages also comes a certain loss; she can no longer be one of the sisters, she is now more worthy than they and their former close comradery is ruined. Obayda sees the oppression she lives under with new eyes, as she gets the rare chance to leave it behind and live it from the other side. Her character has the true flaws and childishness that makes her authentic, she has the excitement of trying something otherwise forbidden. The new experience also gives her a new maturity to face her life when she realizes the freedom may end.

The other characters were as well drawn and real as Obayda, and round out her experience beautifully.  Her sisters go from close confidants to remote roommates. Her father takes a new pride in her, her mother sees the problems and the rewards.  Her friends are wonderful; while they may suspect her true nature, they treat her as a boy without question.

Hashimi also transports the reader right into Afghanistan with her impeccable and polished prose. The story is told without ever obviously dumping information, but rather minute details are woven throughout about the culture and traditions and landscape that bring the novel and the people within to life. She draws vivid pictures of the dusty roads and crowded market, the separate buildings for boys and girls to attend school, the religious practices, the mealtimes and division of chores, and the visceral terror the population has of the warlord that reigns over the village.

The pacing of the novel is equal to the characters and setting; it moves quickly through Obayda’s transformation and education as a bacha posh, the freedoms attained as a boy, the realization that it might not last, and the desperation to make the newfound liberty permanent.

The questions this book raises about gender and perception and equality are relevant for any age to consider. While this is a middle-grade novel, it is a fantastic read for everyone. I couldn’t put it down.

One Half from the East was published September 6th, 2016 by HarperCollins.

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30 thoughts on “One Half from the East

  1. I’m not kidding, I read a book with a very similar plot. It took place in Afghanistan, a girl’s dad got injured or something happened to him, and she had to become a he. It’s called The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. wow this sounds like an incredible book on a fascinating topic- I have never heard of this practice before- I am definitely interested in reading more about it! I particularly like the sound of this book and the fact that it’s got a childish tone- it sounds like it got it just right! Excellent review! Definitely need to read this one!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, I’m so glad you reviewed this one! I’d seen it in a bookstore a few months ago, and made a mental note to add it to my Goodreads TBR–then promptly forgot the title. I’d despaired of ever finding it again.

    After all the praise you were able to give, I’ve even more excited to read it. There are so many ways a complex story like this could be mishandled, but it sounds like I don’t need to worry about any of them. 😃

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m always looking for middle grade fiction featuring diverse characters, so this book is definitely on my TBR list. I have two kids who devour MG books (and one more who will soon), and I like to read them too. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve had this book on my radar recently, but now that I’ve read this review, I’m bumping in up on my list. Since I’m trans, I’m always interested in reading books that are about gender and perceptions of gender.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I own 2 of Nadia Hashimi’s books, though I haven’t read them yet :(((( I definitely will read one of them this year, though. It’ll be either The Pearl That Broke Its Shell of A House Without Windows. This one sounds absolutely wonderful and I’m not at all surprised, as all her books are widely praised. The fact that this is MG catches my interest even further. I am adding it on Goodreads now!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This sounds excellent! I’ve heard of this same story in an adult fiction book, but I can’t think where I heard it or who the author was. Sigh.
    Does she ever feel guilty about getting to do things her sisters can’t do, or getting more praise than they do because she’s a ‘boy’? And, how far does it take us in her life?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She does feel guilty, and she misses the friendship and closeness they shared, but the feelings are overshadowed by the freedoms she is allowed as a boy. The story just covers her time as a bacha posh, and slightly beyond – obviously, there is a stage when girls can no longer pass as boys. 🙂

      I really liked how she adapted back to being treated as a girl, specifically how the other girls treated her.

      Liked by 1 person

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