In Afghanistan—where, eight years after the toppling of the Taliban by US and allied troops, women are still routinely arrested and jailed for “running away” or for adultery, where current law does not recognize the crime of rape, and where 70 to 80 per cent of marriages are forced—any woman who dares to speak out or attempts to affect change incurs at best abuse and threats, at worse death. “When you are outspoken and involved in political and social life you are bound to be the victim of attacks,” according to Fauwzia Kufi, a member of parliament quoted in a new report from Human Rights Watch. “Look at the assassinations—a very high proportion are women.”
Given such abhorrent circumstances, the trickle of books that provide a proxy to ordinary Afghan women’s stifled points of view, that allow us to wrap our minds, even superficially, around the reality of their lives today, is as vital as ever. The Bookseller of Kabul, in which Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad recreates, in compellingly textured detail, the experiences and everyday routines of the traditional Afghan family with whom she lived for three months, remains a stand-out among such books, particularly for its depiction of Leila, an ambitious and determined nineteen-year-old who is enslaved to her family, prevented from making a single decision for herself, and seemingly condemned to permanent drudgery. “I had my times with her,” Seierstad has said, “when she was crying and I was crying for her.”
The author who has done most, through sheer volume of book sales, to draw attention to the plight of Afghan women is of course Khaled Hosseini, whose mega-bestselling follow-up to The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, follows the intertwined fates of two female protagonists and, notwithstanding its crowd-pleasing melodrama, movingly portrays the myriad horrors of women’s lives under the rule of Islamic fundamentalism. As does The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra (a pseudonym for an Algerian former army officer named Mohammed Moulessehoul), the many merits of which include one character’s succinctly damning evocation of the burqa as a “getup that annihilates her, this portable tent that constitutes her degradation and her prison, with its webbed mask over her eyes like a kaleidoscopic grillwork over a window, its gloves, which take away her sense of touch, its weight of injustice…”
The latest and arguably most remarkable addition to this all too elite category is Afghan novelist and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone, a slender, devastating exploration of one woman’s tormented inner life, which won the 2008 Prix Goncourt in France. The novel, asserts Hosseini in his glowing introduction, finally gives a complex, nuanced, and savage voice to the grievances of millions.
The wife of a soldier who is lying unconscious with a bullet in his neck, the unnamed heroine of The Patience Stone cares for her husband, changes his drip and puts drops in his eyes, all the while unburdening herself of the truth about her feelings toward him against a backdrop of mortar fire and gunshots. Thus he becomes her “Sang-e Saboor,” a mythical stone that according to Persian folklore absorbs the pain of those who confide in it, until it eventually explodes.
When the novel opens, the man has been comatose for over two weeks, and shows no signs of recovery. Frustration and despair on the woman’s part gradually turns to angry rebellion and, uncertain whether or not he can hear her words, she becomes ever more loquacious and uninhibited as she rakes over their ten year marriage. We learn that the couple didn’t meet before their wedding, nor even during it, since he was away fighting. Instead a ceremony was performed between the teen bride and a photograph, after which she spent three years as a married virgin, barred from seeing friends and family: “I had to sleep in the same room as your mother, who kept watch over me, or rather my chastity…I didn’t even know how lonely I was.”. On his return she discovers she is married to a violent, arrogant war hero with whom she must endure brutally detached sex, and who won’t let her kiss or touch him: “You were scared,” she reflects with amusement, “because you didn’t know how to kiss a girl.”
Now, however, the roles are dramatically reversed: he lies helpless and more powerless than a child, his life in her hands, and she kisses his immobile face. “I can do anything I want with you,” she tells him. “I can talk to you about anything, without being interrupted or blamed!”. Remembering an occasion when he drunkenly fucked her while she was sleeping, then beat her because she had “defiled” him by not volunteering that she had her period, she takes great satisfaction in putting her fingers between her legs, waving them in his face, and wiping her blood on his beard. “You were born of this blood. It is cleaner than the blood of your own body!” . And so the Islamist taxonomy that deems menstrual blood impure but the bloodshed of war and of sex with a virgin—of tearing “the virtuous veil”—pure and honorable, is roundly mocked. “I have never understood why,” she had mused earlier, “for you men, pride is so much linked to blood.” . It is therefore powerfully symbolic that the man’s wound, in which a bullet is lodged, mysteriously does not bleed at all, and presumably significant that while Sang-e Saboor is Persian for Stone of Patience, in French, sang means blood.
As the viscerally gripping narrative continues, and as more taboo-busting outpourings and events accumulate—including the woman’s casual selling of herself to a handsome young soldier—she gets increasingly carried away with her untrammeled confessional, until she unveils the most shocking, most dangerous and, for her husband, most ruinously emasculating secret of them all. This final grenade in his heroine’s arsenal of revelations allows Rahimi—who says that choosing to write the novel in French, the language of his adopted country, rather than Persian freed him from self-censorship—to emphasize his tale’s audacious insistence that even when trampled by sex, war, and religion’s conspiracy to bring out the very worst in men, women’s spirit of survival is indomitable.