Tag Archives: Afghanistan

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.

The Secret Sky

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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.