by Phyllis Chesler
“Do you have elephants in America?” my Afghan mother-in-law asked me in Kabul, in 1961. Beebee Jan, as she was called, was the first wife of my tall and dapper father-in-law, Mohammed. In 1920, Mohammed had backed King Amanullah, who had unveiled the women, opened schools for both boys and girls, and built a trolley car line in Kabul. The enlightened King was deposed in 1929, escaped and died in exile in Rome 30 years later. My father-inlaw was jailed and sentenced to death, but he too escaped and spent years in exile in India, where, presumably, Beebee Jan had first become acquainted with elephants.
During the 1930s, Afghanistan was ruled by a robber and water carrier named Bachi Saquo, who together with various mullahs and rifle-toting tribesmen reveiled the women, boiled criminals in oil, amputated their hands, and stoned adulteresses to death. The lesson: Things in Afghanistan rarely change for the better, and when they do, there is usually fundamentalist hell to pay.
Beebee Jan’s elephant question was a most endearing one. And, for a long time, I had nothing but compassion for her. Beebee Jan was still a young woman when her husband had acquired a second, and then a third wife; she had responded with uncustomary spirit to this customary injustice. As a result, Mohammed rarely visited her. He fathered an additional 11 children with his other wives, for which her own children blamed her, not him. She lived in purdah – a form of house arrest; in Iran, the women refer to purdah as the “mobile prison.” Mohammed lived nearby with his third wife. Beebee Jan stood about 4 feet, 10 inches in her head veils, long skirts, and Turkish bopeep pantaloons, and she had no second or third husband. I wanted to love her – that is, until I saw how she routinely humiliated her already cringing servants and beat them too, even when they were pregnant; and until she refused to allow the servants to boil my water. No Afghan boiled drinking water, and it was her responsibility to make sure that, as a foreign woman, I demonstrated deference for “Afghan ways.” If I failed at this, the entire family would be ostracized and punished.
IN MY VIEW, THE WOMEN WERE ALMOST AS ENSLAVED then as they are now, under the Taliban. In 1958, King Zahir Shah again unveiled the women; more than 600 protesters died in mullah-inspired, anti-government riots. In 1961, I remember seeing the eery, silent women who were shrouded from head to foot in ghost-like burkahs and who, if they had no male servants, were required, by custom, if not by law, to sit in the back of the bus, and to give up their place on line in the bazaar to any man. Most marriages were still arranged; many men had more than one wife. Women socialized mainly with other women, both at home and elsewhere, in separate and unequal ways. Western-style parties where the sexes mixed, or even danced, were rare and dangerous affairs – even for Afghan men with foreign wives. Like people everywhere, Afghans’ customs remained invisible to themselves. Not only Beebee Jan but most people I met were uncomfortable with my “Western” view of Afghan life. When pressed, they defended their customs as perfectly sensible if not superior.
IN 1961, FEW AFGHANS EVER PUBlicly criticized the segregation of women or the country’s systematic undermining of young, idealistic Afghans. I knew young men (there were fewer women) who had trained abroad in medicine and engineering and were relegated upon their return, to army duty or civil service “clerkships” until no one in power, had cause to fear their expertise. Their spontaneity and passion had to be crushed – as Beebee Jan’s had been. Okay, maybe things are worse today – thanks to the American tax dollars that funded the refugee camps in Pakistan, from whence the Taliban arose. And, additionally, to Russia’s fear that the Iranian Islamic revolution of the 1980s would lead to ethnic balkanization in Russia; to America’s opposition to Russian imperialism, especially after Iran’s ascendancy in world politics; and to the long-standing ethnic rivalry between various Afghan tribes (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Nuristanis, Turkomen, Kirghizes – to name only a few) and foreign nations, including Pakistan, which each now wishes to control the enormous sums of drug-money that come out of the opium fields of Afghanistan’s Helmand valley – these are some of the factors in Afghanistan’s utter destruction.
Then again, maybe a few things have improved. When I lived in Kabul, not a single foreign voice was raised in protest The star-crossed couple, near Bard College, 1960 about the condition of women. The Western media didn’t care about what Afghans did to one another. Worse: ginsoaked diplomats told me that it would be “immoral” to preach to Afghans about their wild-West, low boiling-point tribal violence or about their oppression of women – which were, after all, sovereign local customs. Today, after 30 years of global feminism, and 16 years of nowtoppled Russian rule, the world media is outraged by what the Taliban has done. Iran itself has condemned the Taliban for “going too far.” And today there is one amazing Afghan woman named Sidiqua Sidiq who has challenged the Taliban on its persecution of women. Sadiq recently appealed to other Afghan women to “rise up against those individuals who under the name of Islam are usurping the rights given to us under Almighty God….If you [prevent] women from [working] they will be compelled to resort to disgusting jobs [prostitution]. Because no mother can tolerate seeing her children dying of starvation, the burden of this unforgivable sin will be forever on your shoulders.”
The reason I couldn’t forgive Beebee Jan’s refusal to have my water boiled was that, like most foreigners, I’d contracted a case of the “Kabul trots.” I also came down with infectious hepatitis. I turned yellow. After weeks of begging to see a doctor, I was taken to the Tom Dooley hospital. “Every other foreigner who’s contracted infectious hepatitis so far this season has died. Get out while you can,” the doctor said. Back behind high mud walls, Beebee Jan mocked me for hiding and hoarding a few precious tins of food from Britain and America (by then, it was the only food I could eat, and she delighted in throwing it out).
MY COSMOPOLITAN FATHER-INlaw did not stop her from doing these things, nor did my Western-educated husband Karim, whom I had met in college; we had lived together as dreamers in America. When I met Karim, I had no way of understanding that this debonair, sophisticated, totally Westernized man was “really” a foreigner. Hadn’t we endlessly discussed Dostoevski, Yeats, Beckett, Camus, Sartre, German philosophy, French movie stars Jean Paul Belmondo and Simone Signoret? Didn’t we, therefore, come from the same world? No, we did not, and I had no idea that a woman could die for attempting such dangerous culturalcrossings, that no woman can travel in foreign countries (in her own country either) as if she were a man. This was a lesson I’d never forget, namely, that a woman, even if she’s an American and an intellectual too, is a citizen of no country. I tried to escape, but each time the Marines at the American embassy brought me back. Incredibly, the Afghans, whose airport officials had kept my American passport when we landed, and my fellow Americans agreed on this: that, as the wife of an Afghan national, I was no longer an American citizen and /or entitled to American protection or asylum. Never again would I romanticize foreign places or those who fought otherwise admirable anticolonial wars. Upon learning of my escape plans, my father-in-law chose to obtain an Afghan passport for me; and so, I left Afghanistan for the United States. When my U.S. visa expired, the U.S. State department told me I had to leave New York, my birthplace. I said I’d chain myself to the Statue of Liberty before I’d return to Afghanistan – but I had to have my marriage annulled in order to receive a new American passport. The old one is still somewhere in Kabul.
My so-called “Western” feminism was certainly forged in that beautiful and treacherous country. Forever after, I was able to “see” gender apartheid anywhere, even in America. Although I appreciated my relative freedom as an American woman back on American soil, I no longer believed that American women were free – only privileged – or that Western male adultery, serial polygamy and the impoverishment of mothers upon divorce were a vast categorical improvement over what I had observed in Iran and Afghanistan.
BY 1967, I HAD JOINED THE NATIONAL Organization for Women. I said: As long as women are enslaved anywhere, women everywhere, even if privileged, are endangered too. As feminists, we have to do more than analyze woman’s condition: We need to provide sovereign, physical asylum to women in flight from slavery.
I tried to take two female servants out with me when I left but failed in this endeavor. Kamar and Madar Kamar: wherever you are, forgive me. Know that I’ve never forgotten you, your numerous kindnesses and sweet and playful dispositions. I will never forget how kind my sisters-inlaw were to me, or my young nephews, who tried so hard to cheer me up.
Nor am I likely to forget certain heartstopping, eerily familiar sights, sounds, tastes, smells that, at the time, moved me so: flocks of sheep, camel caravans, fierce, tender, rurbaned men armed with rifles, stars so thick and close-clustered you’d think you could touch them (Afghanistan is more than 5,000 feet above the sea), ancient bazaars, awesome mountains (I could see the foothills of the Himalayans from my bedroom window), minarets, the muezzin’s hoarse call, cooking outdoors on an open fire, delicious, too-sweet candies flavored with roses (!), exquisite, salted pistachios, communal sandalis (to warm one’s feet on freezing nights), turquoise-colored ceramic hookahs (also known as hubble-bubbles), in which one smoked tobacco or hashish.
Every time Afghanistan is in the news, I reach for the phone, call Karim, who also eventually had to flee. When I first My so-called Western feminism was forged in that beautiful and treacherous country, which afterward allowed me to see gender apartheid everywhere in America. met him he had lustrous black hair, dark, melting eyes, long, feminine lashes – he could easily have passed for an illustration in my much-thumbed copy of Scheherazade’s The Arabian Nights.
When I left the country, Karim was about to become a government minister. In 1979, after the Russian invasion, Karim himself escaped by crossing the Khyber Pass into Pakistan, disguised as a nomad. Since 1980, he and his family have been living in America.
Karim’s hair is white now and his health is impaired. I do not ask him how he earns his money. I go to his home for a long evening of delicious Afghan food, memories, emotions. Karim’s wife Halide, a former diplomat, is warm and charming. She has blue eyes and blond hair and once tooled around Kabul in her own sports car. She and Karim are the parents of two most extraordinary and beautiful children, Iskandar and Rabiah, who are now in their late twenties. Invariably, when the two of them have me alone, they ask: “Why did you come to Afghanistan?
What were you looking for?”
Thirty-nine years have passed since I first met Isakandar’s and Rabiah’s father, and I still don’t have one “right” answer. Some say that Afghans constitute the lost tribes of Israel; others say that a legendary band of Amazons (warriorwomen) was last seen there. Perhaps, unconsciously, I felt drawn to Karim because although male, and wealthy, he was an outsider, marginal: like a woman in her own country. Perhaps I simply could not resist the call of a truly Great Adventure.
These were my prefeminist, heterosexual heydays. I did not know that, unlike Sir Richard Burton or Lawrence of Arabia, Western women abroad were not accepted as “brothers” simply because they, too, were enamored of Arab and Moslem places – and men; or because they, too, were weary of modern, Western, secular society and romanticized the far and “primitive” shore.
Many of the male Victorians and their anthropologist successors were time travelers in search of Biblical human hospitality. They were men who wished to test themselves against formidable natural challenges, e.g., extremes of temperature on the brigand road, malaria, parasites, gangrene, amputation, without Western medicine or technology. Ah, but unless a woman was the cousin of the English queen or traveling under a pasha or sheik’s personal protection, long before she could test herself against the world’s harshest terrain she would be stalked, raped, kidnapped, impregnated, locked up behind high mud walls either in marriage, a seraglio, or a brothel. Dead in childbirth. Or murdered.
I had no idea that some Western women had adventured to and/or survived their captivity in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Morocco, Tunisia, Siam: the 18th century French/Martiniquan, Aimee Dubucq de Rivery, whose son became the Sultan of Turkey; the Victorian-era Lady Sale, whom the Afghans imprisoned and later released (they killed her husband for attempting to conquer the country for the British crown); the Britons, Harriet Martineau, Lucie Duff Gordon, Isabel Arundell Burton (Sir Richard’s wife), the Honorable Jane Digby el Mezrab, Anna Leeowens of The King and I – and my own all-time personal favorite: the haunting Russian-Swiss Isabelle Eberhardt, who, in the early twentieth century, dressed like an Arab boy, converted to Islam, married a French Legionnaire, wrote stoned, mystic poetry (under the name Si Mahmoud), and died in a flashflood in the Sahara before she was 30 years old.
For years, I have wanted to write a feminist Passage to Islam and I may do so yet. Maybe that’s why I went to Afghanistan.
PHYLLIS CHESLER is the author of eight books, including Women and Madness. In 1961-62, at the age of 21, she lived in Kabul and kept a diary.