Chesler thought she was “uniting Yitzack and Ishmael.”
The story of Chesler’s storybook romance and marriage evaporates quickly into the nightmare of her life as a captive in an Afghani harem.
The minute the couple entered Afghani airspace, everything changed. Her American passport was taken – she never saw it again. Her husband was immobilized, held under the thumb of his father. His father had three wives, and many sons from them. Chesler’s husband was from the first, one who had been tossed aside. And her husband was not even the first born son.
Chesler watched her husband competing for flimsy promises of a brilliant future, settling, at least temporarily, for scraps. And he had not endeared himself to the family by marrying an American. Especially one who was Jewish (“Yahud!” His mother screamed at her.) And not even a blond! No one could understand it, and she could not understand them. Not even her husband, who was no longer attentive or even interested in her welfare. She was alone.
Everyone who thinks they know what it means to live in a different culture, and everyone who knows they don’t know, needs to read this book.
Chesler has always been a lyrical writer. But in this book – sections of which could be considered a travelogue with its evocation of the tastes and smells and sounds of the Afghan market place – you can really see in your mind’s eye the desperate clinging to misshapen dignity which drives deposed first wives to relish abusing their servants.
And your mind’s eye will also be repelled, but feel compelled to watch the many sons fawning over the patriarch in ways that should make their lovers jealous: every word, every look, every flare of the nostril is registered, analyzed, memorized and cataloged. Each hopes to be the favored one. Each is dismissed with disdain. Each comes back eagerly when called.
Yet Chesler, ever the wise one, the survivor, escaped. She made it out barely alive, but survive she did. The later chapters of her life, of her book, will shock you because you will think you really know her now. But you still don’t. Just wait until you find out what happens in 1979 (the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan) and how Chesler responded.
She is a bigger person than we ever will be. She is a humanist. She is a feminist. She is a person of the world. And luckily, for all of us, she is a prolific writer.
It will be to everyone’s benefit if professors across the world assign “An American Bride in Kabul.” If they don’t, it won’t be because they have something that provides a better Western glimpse into – not the romanticized version – a still exotic but soon to be at our doorstep lifestyle such as exists in Afghanistan. No. It will be either because they haven’t yet read it, or because they are too uncomfortable having their students meet the truth.