Living in a harem in Kabul: A review of An American Bride in Kabul

 An American Bride in Kabul: A memoir by Phyllis Chesler

An American Bride in Kabul tells the dramatic story of Phyllis Chesler, a naïve 18 year old Jewish-American young woman, who spent 10 weeks with her husband’s polygamous Muslim family in Kabul. Her terrifying personal experiences have forged her feministic career and her battles for human rights. She divides her story into two sections: Section one tells her time as a young bride confined to the family’s luxurious home and her escape back in America. Section two describes what she did after her escape, her husband’s attempts to bring her back to Afghanistan, and his own escape before the Soviet invasion.

Chesler uses entries from her personal diary, letters, memories, travel literature, and research to narrate her brief time as a young bride in Kabul. She was only 18 and in college when she fell in love with a Muslim man from Afghanistan. She married him thinking that she will travel the world, but, to her surprise, things did not happen as she hoped.

When she arrived in Kabul, the authorities took her American passport and she had to live in seclusion with her husband’s polygamous family. She was expected to follow the country’s customs; she became her husband’s property; she had no rights; she was not allowed to leave home without male escort; she grew bored, lonely, and angry. Her mother-in-law was a tyrant and converted her to Islam. Her husband changed and became cruel, indifferent, unsympathetic, physically abusive, and dependant on his father. He even tried to impregnate her to keep her permanently in Afghanistan.

Chesler suffered from dysentery, which attacks tourists and foreigners in Kabul because they are usually inured to the germs and parasites. Her health deteriorated when she suffered from hepatitis. Fearing for her life, she wanted to escape but did not know how. Finally, her father-in-law who knew her plans gave her an Afghan passport with six months visa and a plane ticket to go to America. Her husband expected her to get healthy, finish her last semester in college, and return to him. But Chesler never returned. She made it home to New York sick and pregnant, but happy. Because of her sickness, she had a miscarriage. She finished her thesis in French literature, found a job, started graduate school and had her marriage annulled. She was finally free. Over the years, she kept in contact with her ex-husband and his family, who escaped to America before the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan.

Chesler waited 50 years to write this book. After 9/11, and with the rise of Islamist terrorism and the increasing violence towards Muslim women, it was time for her to expose her experiences in the Muslim world and the lessons she learned: polygamy, misogyny, honor killings, violence, forced marriages, abuse, slavery and other inhumanities in the Islamic world. She does not condemn Islam, but rather portrays an Afghan family through her observations and unveils the imminent dangers to women in the Islamic world. She hopes that “[her] story will serve to bring Americans closer to the suffering of Muslim women—and Muslim women closer to an American feminism that was forged in purdah in Afghanistan.” Despite the emotional and physical trauma that she experienced living in Kabul, she was and still is passionate about the Eastern world, its people, and some customs. She found something exotic about its food, architecture, land, art, and history. She loved the diversity of the people, the gardens, the mountains, the bazaars, the meals with an extended family, the open cooking fires, the ancient buildings.

Chesler’s husband did not tell her that his father had three wives, and that she will be living with one of them, Bebegul, and other family members. Bebegul may have been mentally ill, or she must have suffered so much that she took all her frustrations on other women in her household, particularly the female servants. She cursed and beat them. She abused and harassed Chesler. She even forced her to convert to Islam. Bebegul’s husband condemned her for life because of an alleged immodesty, and he remarried twice. Bebegul tried to control Chesler, but Chesler’s sisters-in-law were very kind to her and tried to protect her from the physical abuse of her husband and his mother.

In her book, Chesler includes stories and quotes from writers who traveled in Afghanistan; westerners who climbed mountains, visited harems, survived sand storms and diseases, rode camels and wore turbans, slept in tents, visited exquisite gardens, drunk tea flavored with cardamom, traveled with nomads. Chesler also includes her research on the history of the people of Afghanistan, a chapter in the history of Jews living there, the placement of the Western military in the country, the mistreatment and oppression of women,  purdah (women’s seclusion), the wearing of burqas, and other historical facts. These historical resources give readers a glimpse of the life in Afghanistan and a better understanding of Chesler’s situation. However, her ruminations on feminism, history, and other issues interrupt the flow of the narrative, and leave readers with expectations. Her personal experiences occupy less room in the story than her research.

Overall, Chesler has produced a very informative book on gender and religious apartheid incidents that she witnessed while living in Kabul. Her book will appeal to a wide audience: Muslims, Jews, feminists, historians, conservatives, Westerners, and other oppressed people interested in reforming Islamic misogyny, polygamy, racism, and anti-Semitism.

  • Copyright © Harikleia Georgiou Sirmans 2011-2023. All rights reserved.
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