Zeba seems like the perfect dutiful loving wife; until the day she is found in their courtyard, next to her husband with a hatchet driven into him. She is an immediate suspect though it is not clear at this point whether or not she is actually guilty.
She is imprisoned and while she awaits her trial, she starts to build bonds with the women around her; each with their own heartbreaking history, many of them jailed for things that would not be crimes in other parts of the world. Zeba is an object of mystery for her fellow prisoners – her guilt, her crime, the fact that she may be a jaadugar (magician) – all of these add to her mystique.
Over the course of the novel, we slowly learn more and more about Kamal and Zeba, and the painful history that threatened to tear their small family apart; a story ultimately ending with that hatchet in the courtyard.
In the meantime, Yusuf, an American lawyer of Afghani origin, arrives back in Afghanistan, hoping to contribute something back to his homeland. He takes on Zeba’s case, determined to help her and fight the system to save her. He struggles with the system, having to adapt his techniques to work within it rather than take it down.
This is a story with many layers – while we have to be careful in assuming how much of the fiction is an accurate picture of reality – Hashimi’s level of research leads us to believe that much of what is in this story is a true representation of how women are treated in Afghanistan, at the very least in the non-urban areas.
It is therefore a story about the plight of women in Afghanistan – it is always easier to place blame on a woman, even if circumstances compelled her to act in a certain way. It is a tough pill to swallow, but it shows the helplessness of many of their situations.
This is also a story of family relationships – between a husband and wife, and between a parent and child. It examines the tiny splinters that can tear a relationship apart. You do see some loving husbands, and fathers, and I think that is really important to juxtapose against the social justice theme. It’s easy to take a black and white approach and paint the entire country as misogynist, however Hashimi subtly shows us the ways in which people love and are loved within this arguably difficult context.
We see mothers trying to do what’s best for their children and struggling with those tough decisions. Even if they make a judgement, they might fail, and it is these failures that create rifts, which are difficult, though not impossible, to stitch back together.
Another major component of the story (that is often ignored in reviews) is that of an immigrant returning to their homeland: the assumptions and the romanticized memories as compared to the stark reality. Yusuf struggles with the unsystematic way things are done, and the biases against women. As someone who returned home after 15 years, though I’m lucky enough to be in a fairly progressive city, this does resonate with me.
It seems that Hashimi deliberately refers to Afghanistan as a woman, because the country, just like half her population, has been beaten down time and again. People come in, claiming they will help (sometimes with the best of intentions) only to abandon her later. Afghanistan, like her women, has been let down by the system over and over again.
This is a relatively light read, considering the gravity and profundity of the subject matter. Though sometimes lacking in complexity (plot and character depth can feel a bit flat at points) and a bit slow at places, it is a story worth reading.
There is a lot of pain contained within these pages; but you would also find there, a lot of love.
This book was reviewed by Mira Saraf for IWI.*
All the opinions stated herein are of the reviewer and Incredible Women of India does not conform to the same.
– By Mira Saraf, for IWI*
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