Phyllis Chesler, an American college student, met and fell in love with Abdul-Kareem, an exchange student from Afghanistan. Their courtship was modern, even cosmopolitan — they fancy themselves “film buffs, culture vultures, artists, intellectuals, bohemians” and “talk endlessly about Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Strindberg, Ibsen, and Proust.”
Chesler was shocked then, when after their 1961 marriage (an event that left her Orthodox Jewish parents “hysterical and terrified”), the couple moved to his home country and into a compound occupied by Abdul-Kareem’s father and his three wives, along with all their combined offspring.
In Kabul, Chesler writes, she herself living “under a polite form of rather posh house arrest.” Abdul-Kareem’s family was wealthy and well-connected, and Chesler’s new sisters-in-law wore chic western clothing. But all of them — mothers, wives, sisters — lived in purdah, virtually imprisoned by enforced sex segregation. She could not leave the house without a phalanx of relatives and servants, plus the proper veiling, of course.
Visiting the local market was forbidden, as was riding the bus, which Chesler attempted once. Upon her return, she wanted to talk about her shock at seeing a group of women in burqas, looking like “a pile of clothing,” but the family was outraged that she risked not only her safety but their reputation.
Her complaints about women’s subjugation went nowhere; her husband called her “overly dramatic” and “prone to exaggeration.” Worse, she writes, he cursed and beat her, forcing himself on her sexually — she suspected so that, pregnant, she would be unable to leave — even though she was already suffering from what will be diagnosed as hepatitis.
After only 10 weeks in Kabul — though readers will feel, as Chesler no doubt did, that it seemed longer — she was able to leave Kabul and return to New York. She kissed the ground at the airport.
This story, which comprises the first half of Chesler’s new memoir, hums with a kind of energetic anguish — especially when she quotes from the diary she kept during this disastrous first marriage. Even as her horrific situation worsens, the younger Chesler touchingly tries to connect with her new family, her new country. Sadly, especially throughout the book’s second half, political narratives overwhelm the personal story.
As Chesler takes stock of her life post-Afghanistan, she focuses both on the situation of women in the Islamic world and her own continuing relationship with Abdul-Kareem, his second wife, and their children. That they remain important to one another is shocking but not surprising — she writes that now she doesn’t remember him hitting her, though it is in her diary — but their friendship is strained.
At a dinner party 10 years after 9/11, the two trade attacks on each other’s world views: She argues that women suffer under Islam; he notes the American rates of rape and divorce; he touts Turkey as a modern Muslim nation; she asks, “When will Turkey admit to the Armenian genocide?”
At times Chesler seems to take the same pugnacious stance with her readers as she does with her former husband. Even while telling her own gripping story, she’s bracing for disbelief, rebuttal, accusations. “Many of my conversations [about women in Islam],” she writes, “have been with other Westerners who, in the name of antiracism, have insisted on seeing things from the misogynists’ point of view.”
In those who disagree with her, Chesler sees only the worst possible motives (at one point she describes a “heartless” friend whose complex, if possibly misguided, response to 9/11 puts her, in Chesler’s opinion, in the camp of the jihadis).
A noted second-wave feminist, Chesler bristles at what she describes as a kind of abandonment by her sisterhood. She charges western liberals who eschew her style of passionate criticism of Islamic sexism with moral relativism. “I understand that racism is a valid concern,” she allows, but it doesn’t stick; while denying any ethnic animus she feels free to casually refer to Afghanistan’s “indigenous barbarism.”
“There,” Chesler writes. “Now I have offended everyone.” This is true, more or less, but misses the point. What’s unfortunate is that what could have been a truly fascinating blend of memoir and scholarship feels a little bit falser each time its author invokes her own truth-telling.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.