Among the millions of books available to the modern reader, there are books that educate, books that entertain, books that break your heart, and books that help to mend it.
My own selections tend to be based on my admittedly narrow focus on fiction. I avoid grisly horror, for instance, since I get my fill of that in the daily news. But even a diehard escapist occasionally feels drawn to read novels that deal with reality.
A few weeks ago I read a modern novel about the life of women in Afghanistan. I went into it with a kind of starry-eyed optimism. You know how it is. Book blurbs sometimes entice with vague marketing babble that obscures the real message of a book.
When I was considering whether or not to read Nadia Hashimi’s literary debut, “The Pearl That Broke Its Shell,” I skimmed through the reviews to see what to expect. I saw that Khaled Hosseini, the esteemed author of the powerful novel “The Kite Runner,” had described the new book as “a tender and beautiful family story.” Booklist described it as “spellbinding.”
I decided to give it a try.
And I was thoroughly engrossed from the first page to the last. Nashimi weaves a mesmerizing story of the struggles of two young Afghan women, born a century apart.
Set in Kabul in 2007, the story paints a devastating picture of the conditions for Afghan women living in the rural areas of that country, where men, and only men, decide who is allowed to move about freely, to hold a job, to be educated, to speak in public. Rahima is a young girl with a drug-addicted father in a family with no sons to chaperone the five daughters. As part of an ancient custom called bacha posh, Rahima is allowed to dress as a boy temporarily, so that she can help her mother, and as a result she is allowed to taste the freedoms that only boys have there. What follows, as the family is torn apart with the daughters virtually sold off as child brides to support the father’s drug addiction, is hardly what I would call a beautiful family story.
But then, I’m a spoiled western woman. Perspective is everything.
Women in the United States have made a lot of progress in terms of demanding equal pay for equal work, and access to education and healthcare. And women here still aren’t satisfied.
After reading “The Pearl That Broke Its Shell,” I was depressed to think of the habitual abuses women in some other countries have to endure.
And then this past week, a 27-year-old religious scholar in Kabul was beaten to death by a mob of men after she was falsely accused of burning the Quran.
Having just read Hashimi’s novel, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by this atrocity. But I was stunned, as I sincerely hope all the world is stunned by this monstrous behavior. The increasing violence towards women must be stopped, not only in Afghanistan, but in India and Pakistan and other countries where religious unrest and economic disparity drive men to acts of anger and desperation.
I think about the young girls in Afghanistan. The heroines of Nashimi’s novel are not so different from young women anywhere. They have hopes and dreams of happiness, even love, in spite of being trapped in a complex cultural situation from which there is no easy escape. Yet, even in the worst situations, people find hope in stories.
“The Pearl That Broke Its Shell” is such a story. Though it’s full of pain and suffering, the author offers some hope of a better future, not just for Afghan women, but for women everywhere.