Monday 7 October 2013

An American Bride in Kabul : A Memoir by Phyllis Chesler

At eighteen years old, Phyllis Chesler, a Jewish-American girl from Brooklyn, found herself stripped of her rights, without a passport, and trapped as the property of her husband's polygamous Muslim family in Kabul.  Lured to Afghanistan by her once adoring, respectful husband, Chesler experienced the most dramatic and horrifying of culture clashes when the man she loved reverted to traditional customs upon returning to his homeland.  Secluded, starving, and fearing for her life, Chesler fought against her Afghan family's attempts to convert her to Islam and her husband's wish to permanently tie her to the country through childbirth.

Phyllis Chesler is a bestselling author and renowned feminist who has written and studied on gender issues and honour-related violence for the last 40 years.  But one part of her life has been a closely-held secret - until now.  In her memoir An American Bride In Kabul, which was published by Palgrave MacMillan on 1 October 2013, she tells the dramatic tale of how her harrowing experiences in a harem in Afghanistan shaped her into a modern outspoken feminist leader and life-long defender of human rights.

Drawing on her personal diaries, correspondence, memories and research, Chesler recounts her time in captivity, the nature of gender apartheid, and what she learned about Afghanistan, a land with which she was initially bewitched and longed to freely explore.  An American Bride In Kabul shows how Chesler turned a terrifying personal experience into a passion for worldwide social, educational, and political reform.

My thoughts on An American Bride In Kabul:   I was instantly attracted to this book, although I'll admit that I've not heard of Phyllis Chesler before now.  I am fascinated by different cultures and this memoir is particularly relevant at the moment, with debates raging in the media regarding Muslim women's rights to wear the niqab and the burqa.

This is not just a memoir, this is an examination of women and their freedom; of culture and of history and Chesler's passion for human rights shines through in her writing.    

Phyllis Chesler was an ordinary American, aged eighteen, she fell in love with the dark and handsome Abdul-Kareem.  They adored each other, discussing music and literature for hours, watching exotic foreign films, sharing the all-American hamburger and eventually sleeping together. Theirs was a modern romance, between them they believe that they can conquer the world, their love will see them through.   Phyllis is Jewish, Abdul-Kareem is Muslim, from Afghanistan - they don't discuss religion.
When they marry and travel to Afghanistan, Phyllis is excited. She can't wait to see his country, to discover new things, to eat different food, they have their whole life ahead of them.   Once on Afghan soil however, things change.   Abdul-Kareem changes, he is no longer the Westernised young man that she married.  Returning to his homeland has meant a return to a culture where women have no rights, cannot walk about alone, and must do as their husbands tell them.

Phyllis rebelled.  Used to her freedom and having choices, she did everything she could to keep her identity.  There were times when her decisions were obviously very wrong; sunbathing in a skimpy bikini was not a good choice!   Phyllis wanted to learn about her new home, she wanted to explore, she was happy to wear the beautiful silks, but she wanted to do it on her terms.

There were times whilst I was reading this book when I felt like shouting at Phyllis, I wanted to tell her to give them a chance, to appreciate that she was no longer living in free America.  But let's face it, she was badly let down by her new husband, not once did he warn her what would be expected of her, not once did he give any sign that he was anything other than a regular guy, living the American dream, just like her.

Phyllis's experience was awful.  Luckily, she managed to flee, and today she has a fairly good relationship with Abdul-Kareem, but her experiences in Afghanistan have clearly moulded her into the woman that she is today.  

This is an engaging and well-written memoir that is powerful in it's message and often very emotional.  

My thanks to Verity from Palgrave MacMillan who sent my copy for review.

For more information about Phyllis Chesler and the work of her organisation, visit the website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter

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