Serving Winnipeg's Jewish Community Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google BookmarksSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn Youtube

I hadn’t heard of Phyllis Chesler prior to my reading An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir so, like many of the other books that were the subjects for this past year’s “People of the Book” club at the Rady JCC, I had no idea what to expect.

Perhaps some – or even many of our readers, will be familiar with Chesler’s name, as she is a leading American feminist, or so I learned during the course of reading her book. As well, she is a renowned psychotherapist and the author of 13 other books, in addition to An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir, which won a National Jewish Book Award in 2013.
The product of an Orthodox Jewish home in New York City Chesler, who was born in 1943, rebelled against the strictures of Orthodox Jewish life early on. While in university, in 1961, she met a young man who was of Afghani origin by the name of Abdul-Kareem. Chesler describes him as a “dark, handsome, charming, sophisticated, and wealthy foreign student.”
Only 18 at the time – and a virgin, she says, she fell in love with Abdul-Kareem and, much to the dismay and outright opposition of her parents, ended up marrying him in a civil ceremony. With promises of a romantic tour of Europe, culminating in a trip to his homeland to visit his family beckoning, Chesler fell for her husband’s line and followed him to his Kabul home.
The first line of her book, however, should give a pretty clear indication what lay ahead for her once she found herself in Afghanistan: “I once lived in a harem in Afghanistan”.
What follows is a harrowing tale of forced confinement, psychological torture –e specially at the hands of one of her mothers-in-law, Bebegul, the first wife of Abdul-Kareem’s wealthy and powerful father, Ismail Mohammed (who has two other wives), and eventually a severe case of hepatitis. One of the terms that Chesler uses extensively to describe the sense of isolation she felt while in Kabul is “purdah”, which is defined as the forced isolation of women within Afghani culture, both by keeping women within the home almost their entire lives and by forcing them to wear those horrible burqas when they do go out in public.
While the first half of this extremely well-written memoir deals with what, ultimately, were only ten weeks in Afghanistan (although reading Chesler’s description of the drudgery punctuated by moments of terror makes it seem so much longer that she was, for all intents and purposes, held prisoner there), the second half of the book takes a completely different twist.
It is upon Chesler’s eventual return to America that she turned her experience in Afghanistan into a valuable lesson that has imbued her with a dedication to exposing the reality of life for so many of the world’s Muslim women.
Chesler offers a series of hard-headed appraisals of the reality of life “behind the veil” and, although she is a staunch feminist, she absolutely rejects any notion that Muslim women are treated with respect within Islamic culture. This book should give the lie to the culture relativism argument that would hold that we in the West have no right to criticize the norms of other cultures.
While the first half of the book offers quite a detailed account of what life was like for Chesler within Abdul-Kareem’s family – and for this we should be grateful that she was able to keep a diary while she was there, the second half reveals the degree to which Chesler, as an accomplished and much-honoured academic, is able to refer to a wide-ranging array of sources to build a damning account of life for women in almost all parts of the Muslim world.
Some of her most interesting insights though – at least for me, came with her exposure of the degree to which anti-Semitism has permeated even what we would regard as the more sophisticated and enlightened echelons of Muslim society. Her own former husband, Abdul-Kareem (who, by the way, still considers Chesler to be one of his two wives) is quoted several times during the book as making the most derogatory remarks about Jews and, of course, Israel.
As well, in time we learn that Ismail Mohammed’s fortune was built upon the confiscated property of wealthy Afghan Jews who were forced to leave that country during the 1930s. Chesler’s scholarship also exposes the deep ties that had been forged between many German Nazis and the Afghan government both before, during and after World War II.
Here in Canada we are currently witnessing arguments being made about the rights of Muslim women to wear the “niqab” or face veil. For the most part Chesler is scathing in her denunciation of the custom of forcing Afghani women to wear “burqas”, which she describes as nothing more than portable prisons for women. At the same time, she provides a thoroughly convincing argument that the niqab, as well, is nothing more than a symbol of repression that is not at all mandated in the Quran.  Chesler draws a direct line between sexual repression in Muslim countries and the extreme violence that is also typical of those same countries.
Throughout An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir Chelser intertwines her memories of life in Afghanistan with documentation – both of her time there and her later experiences in America. Fascinatingly, years after she was able to escape Afghanistan, her life began to intertwine again with that of Abdul-Kareem. Being the good journalist that she is (and Chesler has written articles for several eminent magazines through the years), she often recorded her conversations with her former husband when they would meet on occasion.
In recent years Chesler has taken up the cause of the repression of Muslim women more than she had earlier. She acknowledges the almost total futility of trying to bring about any sort of reforms in most of the Muslim world that would offer hope to women who are becoming increasingly brutalized as Islamism gains ever-increasing strength. Finally, Chesler exposes the falsehood behind the notion that Jews enjoyed a higher degree of tolerance within the Muslim world at the same time as they were being persecuted within the Christian world. She shows that Jews were consistently denigrated within the Islamic world and, just as they were in the Christian world, forced into ghettos and limited in their occupational pursuits.
An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir shows that there isn’t much of anything to like about Afghanistan, other than its physical beauty. Unfortunately, half of that country’s population is doomed to a terrible marginalization from the moment they are born. This best-selling book will certainly put the lie to the notion of Afghans as noble warriors. The men may be warriors, but there is nothing noble about their medieval and hypocritical attitudes to a whole host of issues which, in addition to the barbaric treatment of women, includes widespread pedophilia.
But Afghanistan is not alone among Muslim countries in preferring a medieval and what can only be described as a barbaric way of life. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that liberalism and Islam are simply incompatible. Chesler certainly experienced that firsthand and offers compelling proof that is truly the reality of life in the 21st Century.

An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir
By Phyllis Chesler
256 pages
Published 2013
Palgrave Macmillan
(Available at the Winnipeg Public Library. See opposite page for more information about this book.)

"An American Bride in Kabul" will be the subject of the next meeting of the "People of the Book" Jewish Book Club Tuesday, April 28, at 7:30 pm in the Kroft Board Room of the Asper Campus.

Add comment

Security code