Review by Homira G. Nassery
How to explain it? The turmoil, anger, recognition and just plain fascination, that gripped me upon reading Mimi Hirsh's novel, Kabul. The book follows the fortune of an upper-middle class family in Kabul that is headed by a brilliantly intellectual but chronically depressed father (sound familiar anyone?) and an American mother, whom I had to keep reminding myself was a product of the 1930's. The story starts in 1973 Kabul, with its lush gardens, crisp skies, and high hopes, and ends in the chaos of 1980's Peshawar, with its painful displacement, squalid conditions, and chaos.
While published in 1985, the book had yet to reach a wide audience of Afghan-Americans. When my cousin Mina, gave it to me on a disjointed weekend in San Antonio, Texas, where I also happened to meet her for the first time, I figured, ughh, just more pulp fiction along the lines of Idries Shah's Kara Kush , or Ken Follett's Lie Down with Lions using the Afghan tragedy as a sub-text for entertainment or worse. But I was hooked, fast and furiously hooked on the details, the telling truths, and the massive ironies of Afghan upper-class society of the early 1970s that I had barely witnessed as a 12-year old child.
Let's get the anger about the entrenched sexism over with first. The girl gets hurt, keeps getting hurt, looks bad, acts stupid, and loses. Just because it's always happened that way in our society didn't make it any easier to take. Just because I've seen my mother, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, sisters, etc., suffer and struggle to define their own identities did not make it any easier to see the only real female protagonist go down in bitter self-destruction. To make matters even worse, the girl gets punished for having sex, whereas her brothers just have their cakes and eat them too, in the classic style. How banal can you get, my feminist deconstructionist sisters must be saying, right? But you know what? That's not Mimi's fault. She wrote it as she saw it, and if we've had different experiences, then it's up to us to write those different stories with the successful endings for the girls. Okay? Let's move on?.
The most striking dimension was that one finally gets a feeling for what compelled some members of our families to go Communist. If you've been raised primarily in the West, in a family that has strongly identified with the mujaheddin movement (most of our families, prior to the burning of Kabul in the early '90s), then we can safely assume that you hated, hate, and have taught your little brothers and sisters to hate those of our people that 'turned' Communist. Not that this book gives them any sympathy, but it does go a long way to explaining what was going through their heads, particularly those that joined the Communist Party out of true idealism and hopes for developing Afghanistan beyond the corrupt feudal monarchy that it was. (oops! Did I say that?)
Lots of people, especially in my family, are going to have serious issues with the characterizations of political and social figures in this book. Too bad. They can write their own books. Somehow Mimi got in there and got it right. Far be it from me to attempt a political analysis of who did what to whom, but let's just say that big mistakes were made, much blood was shed, and our beautiful country was destroyed. I want answers from Mimi. How did she get to know us so well? What is she doing now? When is she going to write more?
The coolest thing was to see typically Farsi expressions, like 'dirt on your head', 'may you not be tired', etc. in an English novel. The not-so-cool thing was to see the lack of communication in the family that is the center of the novel. I kept thinking: why don't they just TALK to each other??? Why does there have to be so much DRAMA?? Good God. They all so clearly loved each other, and yet they do their best to totally ream each other in the worst ways. I know that Oprah and Dr. Phil weren't around back then, but I kept thinking, come on??just COMMUNICATE!! But this is a major problem in our culture. We communicate through nuances and gestures, which are lovely and elegant in their place, but when it comes to something as important as the people that you love, it's less than effective sometimes.
If anything, this book convinced me that my brother and sisters are
much more important to me than I had ever thought possible, more than any
political cause, old grudges, hurt feelings, or even land or money (as
a Nassery, that's a tough one). A part of me really wanted to blame
the mother ? but isn't that typical projected self-hatred?
Truly, the mother was annoying in how little nasyatting she gave her kids
AND most especially how much she let her mopey husband get away with.
Not many Afghan wives would be quite that passive - they would be
appropriately passive-aggressive, of course. But she does send her
daughter off to Radcliffe, which was unusual back then, so I guess I have
to be satisfied with that. There's stuff to complain about,
the younger son is a major PIA, the daughter's job at an international
organization is so girley, I found myself irritated most of the time I
was reading the book, picking at minor details, but you know what?
That's when I knew that she was touching the bruised parts of me, and that's
when I knew that she was doing her job as a writer.
It is not the knowing that is difficult, but the doing.