An ambitious debut novel focuses on the sufferings and struggles of an Afghan woman and her family in a time of war.
The little village of Jabal os Siraj, deep in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, has—like all of the country—been forced to rebuild itself again and again after repeated invasions across thousands of years of imperial wars. The history of this fictionalized valley and the nation that surrounds it is the subject of this story by author and women’s rights activist Rehman (Car Grease for the Camel: A Road Journey Across Afghanistan, 2006). Here we meet Gullali Haider, a bright-eyed and bighearted girl who falls in love, fights to marry the man of her choice, and learns the hard way that “nothing is more threatening to the Taliban than an educated woman.” Gullali grows up in a village where women “do not expose their legs for fear of gunfights” and where, “for men, a handgun or a rifle is a standard jewel.” After a misadventure involving a firearm ruins her wedding and her new husband’s orchard is bombed into ashes, Gullali hits the road to try to find her fortune in a region where blood flows freely in the streets. Throughout the course of her travels and traumas, the history of her homeland is recounted to the reader in some detail, sometimes by the author himself (in the form of chapterlong monologues about Afghanistan’s racial makeup, for example, or about the Russian invasion of 1979) and sometimes in the form of lectures by Gullali’s father, a former Kandahar professor and healthy skeptic of Islamic fundamentalism. By the time the last page is turned, readers should have a fine understanding of why it is impossible, as one character laments, “to pull this country out of antiquity.” Such history lessons, though excellent in themselves, tend to pull the reader away from the emotional center of the story and occupy space Rehman might have used to deepen readers’ understanding of his characters. But this is a small complaint. Otherwise, readers interested to know why America had (and continues to have) such trouble in this far-off place—and what the real people who live in the midst of all that turmoil are really like—would be well-advised to pick up a copy.
A deeply informative tale of a nation’s history, told through the eyes of an uncommon woman.