Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: a Novel by Nadia Hashimi --- 452 pages

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell is the story of Rahima and her four sisters, living in a village in Afghanistan in 2007.  Their father, in the service of a war lord, is seldom home, and when he is, the girls and their mother go in fear of his erratic behavior and increasingly violent rages, made all the worse by his addiction to opium and his bitterness that his wife has given him no sons. In desperation, Rahima's mother decides that Rahima should cut her hair and wear boy's clothes, in accordance with the ancient custom of "bacha posh" when a daughter can assume the persona of a son, in order to help her family --- at least until she reaches puberty, when she must revert to being female once again.

Rahima finds her new freedom as a boy exhilerating. She can go to school with the other boys, play in the streets, run errands and bargain in the market for her mother, even earn money by working for a neighbor. Her father treats his "son" with far more affection than he ever shows his daughters, and her mother no longer asks her to help with the endless work of the house as her sisters are required to do. And her mother's sister, Khala Shaima, reveals that Rahima's great grandmother, Shekiba, did something very similar in her own day, in the early 1900s. Khala Shaima tells Rahima Shekiba's story to inspire her to think beyond the moment and seize this opportunity to make her own future. The books alternates between Rahima and Shekiba stories, as they fight to claim ownership of their lives in a culture that demeans, oppresses, and preys upon those who are poor, female, or disabled.

Sadly, there is nothing unusual about the misogynist attitudes of tribal Afghanistan; these same attitudes persist in many parts of the world, and were (and are still) prevalent in our own culture, perhaps more subtle in expression but just as destructive.  The author fled Afghanistan as a child with her family, before the Soviet invasion in the 1970s. She did not return to visit her homeland until 2002.  Her novel draws upon family stories and real persons and events in Afghanistan, both past and present.

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