Australian author Fonti (Adventures in Travel Photography, 2015) explores the plight of a group of Muslim women at the end of the 20th century in this travel memoir.
As a backpacker, the author arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, on a whim, interested to see what was known then, in 1998, as the “wild west of Asia.” An obscure group called the Taliban had recently taken control of neighboring Afghanistan. The Taliban were Pathans—the same tribal ethnicity as Peshawar’s inhabitants. Fonti quickly realized she had made a mistake coming to the city: as a young woman, traveling alone, she attracted hostile stares from men with long beards and unconcealed automatic weapons. Yet, during this trip, Fonti decided to go deeper, launching an investigation into the lives of Muslim women that eventually stretched from Pakistan to Sweden and Iran. All the women she encountered were attempting to make good lives for themselves despite their second-class status. Her guide to this world was an Iranian named Shaheen: “We were both liberals, but from two different worlds,” she writes. “While India had left me with a bad case of white persons guilt, Shaheen felt ashamed of what being Muslim had come to mean in western eyes.” But although he seemed to share her values, she writes that there was something more hiding behind his bright eyes. Fonti is an able prose stylist and a compelling narrator, her voice equal parts wonder, curiosity, and trepidation. She’s able to embrace the naïveté and narcissism of a First World interloper without allowing it to invalidate her opinions or experiences. It’s not her status as an educated Westerner that makes her a valuable witness, but as an empathetic yet apprehensive outsider. The 1998 setting—pre-9/11, pre-invasion, pre-everything the world now knows about militant fundamentalism in certain corners of the Muslim world—adds a terrible thrill to her narrative. From the weary vantage point of 2015, readers will proceed with the nagging fear that Fonti had no idea what she was getting herself into, and the persistent worry that no one would have known where to look for her if she didn’t come back.
A gripping, affecting account of a woman’s travels in hidden worlds.