Today, I'd like to introduce you to Nadia Hashimi, and her brilliant book, A House without Windows, which is the story of a woman accused of murder in Afghanistan.
So let’s begin with a brief, brief, brief history of Afghanistan. Okay, I can see you convulsing in the grip of a torturous flashback to 9th grade World Civ, but hold up. Don't click away. I promise this is relevant; it will take 45 seconds to read and then you’ll be able to contribute semi-knowledgeably at dinner parties whenever somebody starts yammering on about the geopolitics of the Middle East.
Afghanistan is ancient. Wikipedia says urbanized culture has existed in the area since around 3000 BCE, but evidence exists of prehistorical human inhabitants dating all the way back to 52,000 years ago. Our present-day woes in the area were sagely prophesied by Alexander the Great, who is reported to have quipped that Afghanistan is "easy to march into, hard to march out of,” as he barreled in with his Macedonians in 330 BCE. Since then, a slew of empires have risen in the region —too many to name here— most of them screeching to catastrophic ends. It’s hard to think of another region on earth as bloody, in fact, since one soon-to-be-decimated dynasty constantly replaced another over the course of centuries. Eventually the Brits got involved, leading to three Anglo-Afghan wars and the independence of modern-day Afghanistan in 1920, followed by the Soviet invasion, the slithery, insidious control of the Taliban, and finally the current deployment of US-led troops.
And throughout all of this, which demographic group was NOT causing the bloodshed? If you guessed ‘women,’ congratulations: you’re right. I don't know what exactly the ladies were doing back in Alexander’s day, but they haven't had an easy time of it in the modern era: it’s pretty much the first place that comes to mind when you think of the oppression of women. But that’s a tricky conceptualization, especially for Westerners. We tend to get this mental image of shroud-clad ciphers, drifting around deferring to their men obsequiously and silently, with nary a trace of personality or opinion or even humanity, really.
But people are people everywhere. Women are funny or bold or valiant or crazy in Afghanistan, just like everywhere else. Hashimi’s book brings her female characters to brilliant life with fascinating vividness. I love books that truly transport you to places you cannot experience for yourself, and this book does that: there is so much detail, so much explicit realism. You want to know what it’s like to be a woman in an Afghan village, accused of the murder of her husband? You want to experience prison (well of course you don’t, not actually, but bear with me here) for sharing a meal with a non-relative male or for running away from your abusive family? How about being stoned to death for a small social infraction or for being raped by some entitled fool from your village? These things are deeply unpleasant to contemplate but this stuff actually happens to our Afghan sisters. We need to know that this is part of our world. Read this book.
KM: This would be an extremely difficult novel to write without an in-depth cultural knowledge of Afghanistan. Tell us about your background and how you researched the novel.
NH: My family is from Afghanistan. My parents came over to the US in the early 1970s and I was fortunate to grow up with a lots of extended family around me. I’m also married to someone who was born and raised in Afghanistan. (Our union was the Afghan equivalent of My Big Fat Greek Wedding complete with lots of people offering me, a vegetarian, chunks of lamb). The Afghan culture has always been part of my daily life. Being of Afghan descent has also kept me keenly interested in current events in the country and the evolving situation for women and girls. My mother graduated from Kabul University with a degree in engineering and dressed in the same clothes I wear today. Kabul was a very different climate then. I’m fortunate to have lots of resources for research: my family, my travel to Afghanistan, diverse journalist reports, photojournalism, and published investigative reports. I relied heavily on a Human Rights Watch report on women imprisoned in Afghanistan for this book.
KM: There’s some interesting material in the novel about shamans, mystical medical healing, black magic, and the like. As a physician, you must find this to be an intriguing phenomenon… have you seen any of these practices firsthand?
NH: Truth be told, I’ve participated in some of them! Afghan culture is rife with superstitious beliefs. I’ve often put rue seeds (espand, in Farsi) over a flame to draw out the evil eye protection of its smoke. I know there’s no science to it, but it’s one of those well-it-doesn’t-hurt practices. That’s how I balance my medical training with these practices. I’m fine with any “rabbit’s foot” that doesn’t cause injury. (Come to think of it, that rabbit’s foot is a symbol —or pretty lousy luck— for at least one poor bunny.)
Then there’s a sliver of the population that delves in something a bit more mystical – black magic. In my book, Gulnaz is a master in this craft. These are stories I’ve heard passed down – using talismans or birds feathers and such to inspire love or ignite discord. Medical healing has an eastern bend to it. For example, foods have either “warm” or “cool” properties that have nothing to do with temperature but more to do with their effects on the body. I’m fairly certain this matches up with the categorization of foods in traditional Chinese medicine as well.
KM: One of the things I enjoyed most about the novel was the immersion in a different way of life. You did a beautiful job portraying the common humanity of the characters while preserving their distinct personalities. Was it necessary to balance a sense of outrage at the way women are treated in this society with respect you must feel for the individuals you know and love there? How have Afghans responded to your books? As an author/speaker, do you ever feel threatened by the more reactionary elements in Afghan society?
NH: Since I write about a non-western country, I feel an obligation to portray the characters in a light that is both realistic and enlightening. I am fully outraged by the injustices faced by the women of Afghanistan and that outrage comes from the respect and love I feel for those who live there. My expectations for Afghanistan are shaped, though, by my knowledge of Afghan culture. It is not a western culture and I’m cool with that. They won’t have bikini-clad women on billboards anytime soon because that’s outside what’s acceptable for us. That being said, autonomy for women, equality in the eyes of the law and a safe civil society are all very much within the realm of possibility for Afghanistan. I want to support Afghan women in demanding the rights and liberties they desire.
A book publisher/seller in Kabul recently reached out through social media to tell me that I had many readers in Afghanistan. He carries one of my books and is looking to bring the others to his patrons as well. That means a lot to me, since I do write with a mind to share the stories of Afghanistan’s people. I’ve never felt threatened by any reactionary elements, probably because they aren’t reading my books. Afghans have been incredibly supportive of my work – even the ones that are not linked to me by DNA.
KM: Your protagnist, Zeba, is arrested for the brutal murder of her husband, narrowly escapes retribution from a mob, and is imprisoned. Although she holds herself at a little bit of a remove from the other prisoners, she is touched by the stories of some of the other women. How realistic are the ‘crimes’ for which they’re imprisoned? Is any humanitarian progress being made with regard to basic freedoms for women?
NH: When it comes to the women imprisoned in Afghanistan, truth is stranger than fiction. I wish I could say I exaggerated some of the cases described in the book but I did not. Heather Barr is a courageous attorney who investigated the women’s prisons of Afghanistan and put together a heartbreaking and infuriating report for Human Rights Watch. The cases she’s documented are like something out of a Margaret Atwood-created world. Progress has been made though. I recently attended a talk by Rula Ghani, Afghanistan’s first lady, and she informed us that all of the cases in Kabul’s women’s prison have been reviewed. This has resulted in a great many cases being dismissed and many sentences reduced. The government is now gearing up to review the cases of all the other prisons throughout the country. That’s a big step in the right direction but there’s still much to do. The Elimination of Violence Against Women act was introduced into Afghanistan in 2009 but is implemented to varying degrees across the country.
KM: Zeba reveals a shocking surprise midway through the novel, with two bigger revelations near the end. It’s hard, initially, for the reader to get a clear sense of Zeba’s personality—she’s hiding something, and her mental state is tenuous. Without any spoilers, how do you view the motivation for her actions? How would you describe her?
NH: Zeba is the custodian of a terrible secret and no matter what she does, someone suffers. She’s balancing the needs of her conscience, her children, and her reputation (as important as food in Afghan culture). She’s doing the best she can, given the circumstances. I think a lot of people find themselves in that kind of decision-making algorithm at some point in their lives.
KM: Tell us about your career as an author. You’re both a physician and a writer. When did you start writing, and how did you become so skilled? Do you have any writing habits you follow?
NH: Thanks for the kind words! I came into writing in a most unexpected way. I was a cheerful pediatrician working in a busy emergency room in Washington, DC. I was also an avid reader who felt compelled by the strength and resilience demonstrated by Afghan women. I have to give my husband credit for seeing that spark and encouraging me to give writing a go. He knew I had a passion for words and believed in me before I even started writing. Writing, like medicine, demands attention to the human stories around us. It is also an art and must be practiced. I work on improving my craft just about every day. It’s made me a more active participant in life, actually. I look at a fallen tree or an ill child or a silver-haired couple walking hand in hand and imagine how to portray what I see into words. I set writing goals (word counts) and am always on the lookout for a good story that highlights humanity and the indestructible spirit of women. I think the most critical piece to becoming a writer is finding that story that absolutely must be told.
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