A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan

Overview

As a young girl growing up in 1970s Afghanistan, Nelofer Pazira seems destined for a bright future. The daughter of liberal-minded professionals, she enjoys a safe, loving and privileged life. Some of her early memories include convivial family picnics and New Years' celebrations overlooking the thousands of red flowers that carpet the hills of Mazar. But Nelofer's world is shattered when she is just five and her father is imprisoned for refusing to support the communist party. This episode plants a "seed of ...
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Overview

As a young girl growing up in 1970s Afghanistan, Nelofer Pazira seems destined for a bright future. The daughter of liberal-minded professionals, she enjoys a safe, loving and privileged life. Some of her early memories include convivial family picnics and New Years' celebrations overlooking the thousands of red flowers that carpet the hills of Mazar. But Nelofer's world is shattered when she is just five and her father is imprisoned for refusing to support the communist party. This episode plants a "seed of anger" in her, which is given plenty of opportunity to grow as the years unfold.

In 1979, the Soviets invade Afghanistan beginning a ten-year occupation. The country becomes an armed camp with Russians fighting U.S.-backed mujahidin fighters while trying to impose military rule. For Nelofer, daily life includes an endless succession of tanks, rockets screaming overhead and explosions in the street. During this time, she and her best friend, Dyana, seek refuge in their love of poetry. At eleven, the two girls throw stones at Soviet tanks and plot other acts of rebellion at the local school. As Nelofer gets older, she joins the resistance movement, distributes contraband books, studies guerilla warfare and hides a gun in her parent's mint garden.

When Nelofer's younger brother comes home from school in military garb, the family finally decides to flee Afghanistan. What follows is a perilous, clandestine journey across rugged mountains into Pakistan. But the life of a refugee is not what Nelofer expects. Though she once idealized the mujahidin as freedom fighters, she is shocked, as a woman, to find herself stripped of her personal freedom in their midst.

In 1990, Nelofer and her family are offered refugee status in Canada. Here she corresponds with her friend Dyana, whose letters reveal the increasing oppression of life under the Taliban. Fearing that her friend will kill herself, Pazira returns to Afghanistan to rescue her. This search becomes the basis for the acclaimed film Kandahar. Her journey to discover Dyana's tragedy leads her finally to Russia, the land of her enemy, where she confronts the legacy of the Soviet invasion of her homeland first-hand.

A Bed of Red Flowers is a gripping, heart-rending story about a country caught in a struggle of the superpowers - and of the real people behind the politics. Universally acclaimed for its astute insights and extraordinary humanity, Pazira’s memoir won the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize for 2005.The Winnipeg Free Press writes: "Powerfully written, A Bed of Red Flowers is a rare account of a misunderstood country and its intrepid people, trying to live ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances." The Gazette (Montreal) describes the book as "an outpouring of passionate non-fiction that captivates like the tales of Sheherazade. It's a remarkable journey. An inspiring read."
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Pazira, star of the film Kandahar, remembers picnics and flowers from her 1970s youth in Afghanistan. But those joys disappeared when the Soviets invaded. Her Kabul changed from beloved home to war zone, and her father was imprisoned for his beliefs (he believed in social democracy and refused to join the Communist Party). Pazira's memoir follows not just her own story but that of her country, and sometimes her overviews are broad. When she focuses on her own life, though, the narrative turns gripping and horrifying. Teenaged Pazira joined the resistance, bought black-market blood to aid her ill father after his imprisonment and arranged for the release of detained relatives. In 1989, her family escaped to Pakistan and eventually settled in Canada. Her story continues through her return to Afghanistan in search of a friend in 2002. Pazira's details when discussing Afghanistan are striking: "Once the last tank has gone, the dust from their tracks settles... on the leaves of our almond, pear, and fig trees, over the roses, on the grapevines and on my hair and face." Yet she skates over details in her own life, leaving gaps. Still, Pazira's memories make this, like The Kite Runner, a worthy look at the Afghanistan Americans don't see on the evening news. Agent, Helen Heller. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An inspiring, disquieting history of her homeland-personal, political, polemical-by an Afghan woman now living in Canada. Best known for her journalism and the films Kandahar and Return to Kandahar, Pazira recalls among her earliest childhood memories a visit to her father (a physician and political activist) at a detention center in 1978, when she was only five. He was eventually released, but the family lived in fear and was subjected to constant harassment. The Paziras endured the Soviet invasion; their initial elation at the rise of mujahidin was soon followed by dismay and disillusionment with the harshness of these anti-Soviet fighters. The author's description and analysis of the mujahidin's sanguinary strategies serves uncomfortably well to explain the current behavior of Iraqi insurgents as well. By firing rockets into their own neighborhoods, she avers, the mujahidin aimed to show people in a most horrible way that the Soviets could never protect them. Following the emergence of the Taliban, the Paziras realized they must leave their homeland, which no longer welcomed-or even tolerated-people with liberal political, religious and social views. The most gripping passages deal with their escape in 1989. After bribing border guards and dulcifying military patrols, they finally got into Pakistan, but living conditions were so miserable that they eventually emigrated to Canada, which welcomed them as political refugees. The author continued her education there, then returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban to discover that the lives of ordinary people remained miserable despite, or even because of, the U.S. military presence. Pazira's most wrenching discovery concernedthe fate of her long-time friend Dyana, a young woman who had stayed behind and eventually succumbed to despair. In another affecting segment, the author goes to Russia to interview people touched by the Afghan war. An eloquent celebration of survival even as it explores the darkness of despair. (b&w photos)
From the Publisher
“This is a remarkable book: an utterly engrossing read that provides a window into a culture that has long existed on the periphery of the world’s vision…Pazira’s account exudes an unself-conscious frankness and intelligence that will give readers a perspective on the last 30 years of Afghan politics and society that simply cannot be gleaned through media accounts.”
Quill and Quire

"A Bed of Red Flowers is more than the remarkable story of Nelofer Pazira’s difficult life in war-torn Afghanistan, her family’s sacrifices and escape, and her eventual triumph as a writer, teacher, journalist and actress. Written movingly, honestly and lyrically, it is the story of Afghanistan itself, a haunting diary of the tragedies that have plagued Pazira’s nation in the last thirty years."
—Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner

"Through occupation and civil war, from being a refugee to a movie star — Nelofer Pazira’s journey is a story told with passion, humanity and eloquence. Her unforgettable story provides a searing reminder of Afghanistan’s long years of war and how a country was held hostage long before September 11. A Bed of Red Flowers is a deeply moving tribute that will grip you from beginning to end."
—Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia

A Bed of Red Flowers is a straightforward, open account of a childhood stained by war and stupidity. It is also a chronicle of the choices one woman made to live her life with courage and dignity, and for the benefit of others.”
The Globe and Mail

“Powerfully and thoughtfully written, A Bed of Red Flowers is a rare account of a misunderstood country and its intrepid people, trying to live ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“It’s a remarkable journey. An inspiring read.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“Equal parts lament for a long-gone era and memoir of a remarkable life, Nelofer Pazira’s A Bed of Red Flowers does exactly what a contemporary book about Afghanistan should do. It reminds us that behind that nation’s endlessly chronicled conflict and strife are real, three-dimensional people caught in the crossfire of political agendas and battles for supremacy.”
Toronto Star

“The juxtaposition of Pazira’s life in Canada with that of Dyana, desolate and suicidal in Kabul, leavens the book and gives it both seriousness and page-turner appeal.”
The London Free Press

“[A Bed of Red Flowers] is both a love letter to a country that no longer exists, and an optimistic–tempered with just the right amount of clear-eyed realism–look into a possible future.”
–Edmonton Journal

“Pazira presents the moving and stunningly written memoir of her childhood curtailed by the arrival of Soviet rule in Afghanistan and her family’s sacrifices and eventual escape to Canada.”
–Concordia University Magazine

A Bed of Red Flowers is not merely a remarkable memoir of one family’s struggle; it’s also a succinct account of Afghanistan’s political history. Within these 400 suspenseful pages lies a concise retelling of the complexities and futility of war in a country constantly used as a battleground for other people’s ideologies. Pazira shows the reader the frustration of a diverse culture in which people have always had to choose between lack of safety and lack of sovereignty. This book is a victory, bringing us a truth banned or distorted by most with the power to speak about it. An enriching and heartrending read.”
NOW (Toronto)

“Pazira is a gifted and cinematic story-teller. Every page is a scene, moving the story through wartime survival and sacrifice to a relentless search for answers.”
The Observer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743281331
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 9/6/2005
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 964,661
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.44 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Nelofer Pazira is a journalist, filmmaker and human rights activist living in Toronto.

In 2001, she starred in the film Kandahar, which was loosely based on her journey to find a friend living in Afghanistan. Two years later she co-directed and produced the Gemini Award-winning documentary Return to Kandahar.

A Bed of Red Flowers, her first book, won the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize awarded by The Writers’ Trust of Canada. In an interview with Time magazine, Pazira explains the impetus for writing the book: “A lot of my memories were unhappy, and I didn’t want to revisit them. But making Kandahar, I was forced to think about those memories. Once we finished the movie, I felt that I had started something, and instead of closing that door, I should go through it.” She elaborates on her choice of genre in Embassy: "I realized that I had a choice of doing either a very academic book that would be a history of Afghanistan, but what new can I say about that? There are hundreds of books written on that subject, analyzing various periods, and I asked what else can I add to this that would be different, that would really add a unique touch? I realized what I could do that was different would be to write about what life was like when we lived there. I realized that nobody knows about that, and that people don't know what it was like to live in Afghanistan in those years before the Taliban."

A regular contributor to CBC’s The National, Pazira has set up a charity – Dyana Afghan Women’s Fund – to provide education and skills training for women in the city of Kandahar.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

On one late afternoon in September 1978, our family driver took me to the detention centre in Baghlan, where my father was imprisoned. My purple velvety trousers were brushing the dust from the unpaved road as we walked to the compound. I was holding the driver's hand, forcing him to go faster. I wanted to see my father. For a child, whose world consisted of family - parents, a younger brother and a baby sister - not seeing my father for three days was a great deal of missing. I was three months short of being five years old.

At the prison, all I could see of my father was his face - striped with the lines from the shadow of the metal bars. He looked desolate. I wanted to hug and kiss him. But he was boxed in a small room. A thick wall, iron bars and several policemen stood between us. I was sitting on the ground, pushing my feet against the soil and crying, my trousers disappearing into a cloud of dry dust and hardly looking purple or velvety any more.

I shall never forget the angry voice of my father. "I didn't raise you to cry on such a day," he shouted at me. His words shook the compound. I stopped crying. Holding the driver's hand, I stood embarrassed, head down, listening to my father. At times his voice grew thicker, as if he himself was going to cry, but he paused and continued. "You mustn't cry," he said. "You have to be strong and help your mother." He told me to tell her that he was fine and that they had no reason to keep him imprisoned. He'd be home soon.

"Your ten minutes is up," a voice announced coldly. There was a silent goodbye as my father shook his head. I had no tears, and my father faded from view.

I walked back to our car with the driver. There was a revolution inside me. I wanted to be strong, to break all those walls and bars and set my father free. I kept fighting the desperate need to burst into tears. My eyes were burning, much like my father's. But his were inflamed with anger, mine with helplessness. I wanted to arrive home without tears, even though I knew my mother wouldn't mind. She had shed many of her own tears in the last few days. I heard her cry at night, quietly in her bed.

That night I hated my mother's sobbing. I wanted to scream at her "Stop it!" But I felt sorry for her. I knew she was crying from the pain of missing my father, and it was not the only thing. I also heard her talking to a friend in the living room as she described how men were verbally abusing her. She spent her days going to various government offices to see if she could obtain my father's release. The governor of the city had told her she was "too young and beautiful to waste her life with a criminal" who was against the "rightful government." A police officer had told her "there were plenty of men who would be happy to please" her. The principal of the school where she was teaching said he was going to report my mother to the "higher authorities" if she missed another day of work to follow up on my father's case. But if she reciprocated his "keen affection," she would be nominated that year's best teacher.

* * *

My mother was not nominated any year's best teacher, and my father was released after nearly five months in prison. "He had a brave lawyer and lots of luck," as one of his best friends put it. It took me a while to grasp the gravity of my father's crime in refusing to support the communist government. The full extent of its meaning did not become clear until later in my life. In some ways, to this day, the child in me still asks "Why?" Why was my father, who in his daughter's view was a kind man and a good medical doctor, locked up away from us? Children see everything through the injustices they've suffered. In the perfect world that every child expects, this episode left a crack in the wall of my innocence.


Chapter 1

Escape


Let's mourn-
Orders come from abroad, like death itself;
The guns are free,
So are the bullets,
And this year is the year of dying young,
The year of departures,
The year of refugees.
Qahar Ausi, 1989


At dusk, the downtown Kabul district of Dehe Afghanan is cloaked with grey clouds and grey smoke. The early spring rain has left dirt and water across the paved roads. For over a decade now the highways have not been maintained, and the potholes have become deeper, the city's drainage system more derelict each year. It's not cold, but we all hug our arms around our bodies as if shivering from fear. We all walk fast, very fast - hoping to get away from everything and everyone. It's been ten years since the beginning of the war. Who started it? Who will end it? These days, we are so tired that we wish to forget. But is it possible to forget about war when minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day we feel that something bloody and terrible is about to happen?

The curfew starts at 10:00 every night. But there is another unspoken curfew that is imposed not by the communist government but by fear, a curfew that sets in much earlier. Which is why, at this hour, a cocktail of bicycles, motorbikes, pickup trucks, white-and-blue buses, red-and-orange minibuses and yellow taxis, all overcrowded, are merging into a river of traffic. People flood along the main road between the vehicles to reach the two bus stations. Vendors scream their hearts out in a desperate attempt to sell their apples and beans, spinach and meat. Fabrics are measured and cut at speed, four customers at a time. Even the clouds are racing over my head.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Table of Contents

Contents

Prologue

1 Escape

2 Sleeping with Wolves

3 The Pilgrimage

4 The Night Choirs of Kabul

5 Token of Shame

6 Scud versus Stinger

7 Shadows on the Wall

8 Naseema's Revenge

9 A House of Martyrs

10 Season of Grief

11 Leave My Daughter Alone

12 Dyana

13 The Tomb

Chronology

Notes

Select Bibliography

Acknowledgements

Index

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Introduction

Reading Group Guide

A Bed of Red Flowers

By Nelofer Pazira

1. A Bed of Red Flowers begins with Nelofer Pazira's account of visiting her father, Habibullah, in prison when she was just four years old. He tells her: "I didn't raise you to cry on such a day." Discuss the author's relationship with her father. How does she feel about his political activism? How is she ultimately influenced by his beliefs?

2. Jamila, the author's mother, burns all the books in the house when her husband is suspected of being anti-government. What does this act symbolize to Nelofer, and what does it reveal about the Communist presence in Afghanistan?

3. How do the people of Afghanistan respond to the arrival of the Soviet army? What are some of their forms of passive resistance? Discuss some of the modes of active resistance that Nelofer and her friends from school engage in.

4. Nelofer's Uncle Asad and her father, Habibullah, disagree over the Afghan communist government. What are some of the consequences of political dissent in this era?

5. Discuss the role of the mujahidin — the resistance to the Soviet occupation — in A Bed of Red Flowers. How do they contribute to the dangerous conditions in Kabul and other strategically important cities? What are some of the daily dangers that Nelofer and her family endure at the hands of the mujahidin?

6. Who is Dyana, and what role does she play in Nelofer's childhood? How does their relationship evolve over the course of their lives? What do Dyana's letters reveal about the changing conditions of life in Afghanistan? Why do you think these letters motivate the author to return toAfghanistan?

7. How does the legend of Malalai inspire Nelofer, and what does she symbolize to the resistance movement in Afghanistan? Discuss Malalai's role in the Battle of Maiwand between the British and the Afghans.

8. Describe some of the measures the Pazira family takes in their escape to Pakistan. Who accompanies them on their long journey? How do they finally make it to the border? What did you think of the hardships they encountered on the way?

9. What does Nelofer come to realize about the leadership of mujahidin when she arrives in Pakistan? What is the dress code she must follow as a Persian literature teacher at one of the mujahidin-run schools? Discuss some of the other restrictions on women forced by Muslim extremists.

10. Nelofer Pazira writes: "What the Taliban are doing is regarded by some as a part of everyday Afghan culture. There is a strong sense of unease about condemning their actions." What do you think explains the international reluctance to intervene in politically and socially repressive conditions in other countries?

11. What does the author encounter when she returns to Afghanistan to make the film, Kandahar? How does she feel about wearing a burqa? What does it protect her from, and what does it symbolize? How does the author feel about Afghanistan's liberation by the United States in the days after September 11?

12. Why does the author decide to travel to Russia? What does this trip enable her to understand about the Communist ideology and its role in her childhood in Afghanistan?

Nelofer Pazira is a journalist and filmmaker based in Toronto. She starred in the movie Kandahar and was featured in Return to Kandahar, which she also coproduced and codirected. She currently works for the Canadian Broadcasting Company's nightly newscast, The National. She has also recently set up a charity — Dyana Afghan Women's Fund — to provide education and skills training for women in the city of Kandahar.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Nelofer Pazira’s A Bed of Red Flowers is subtitled In Search of My Afghanistan. Does she find it?

2. Since September 11, media coverage of Afghanistan has focused predominantly on the Taliban. How did your experience of reading A Bed of Red Flowers compare with following news reportage on Afghanistan? In what ways did the book provide a context for understanding the country’s present-day situation?

3. “Once the last tank has gone, the dust from their tracks settles on the surface of the wall, on the leaves of our almond, pear and fig trees, over the roses, on the grapevines and on my hair and face. On the pond, a thin skin forms on the surface of the water.” Pazira’s writing has been described as cinematic, her language lush with details both beautiful and harrowing. What images from the book stand out most vividly in your mind?

4. The prologue recounts Pazira’s experience of visiting her father in prison when she was four years old. What impact did this episode have on her? Why is it so pivotal in her development?

5. Pazira faces many painful contradictions in her life: her desire for personal freedom in Pakistan and her need to remain safe; the opportunity she enjoys in Canada and the oppression experienced by her best friend, Dyana, under the Taliban; her idealization of the mujahidin and her subsequent disillusionment. Does she manage to reconcile these aspects of her life?

6. Why does Pazira’s journey end in Russia? What does she learn both about Russian perspectives on the occupation of Afghanistan and her own attitude toward the Russian people?

7. A Bed of Red Flowers emphasizes the importance of familial love and support. What influence does Pazira’s father have on her? What are the most important insights he imparts to her? In what ways is she like him? Why does she write, “I think my mother is the most courageous of us all” in chapter 7?

8. Pazira writes: “A seed of anger, planted at the time of my father’s imprisonment, is inside me.” What role does anger play in Pazira’s life? Have you ever experienced a similar type of anger?

9. The Paziras’ story is truly extraordinary. And yet, what aspects of their experience might be considered universal to refugees around the world?

10. Discuss the role of the three women who inspire and motivate the author throughout her life: Malalai, Naseema and Dyana.

11. Did A Bed of Red Flowers have any effect on your perception of Afghan women, their plight in general and their role in society? How did Pazira’s account differ from the images you see of Afghan women in the media?

12. In writing about Dyana, Pazira offers one of the most affecting and profound expressions of friendship in print. Do you have a friend like Dyana? What would you do if she were in Dyana’s position?

13. “The pretense of normality is so pervasive that turmoil, physical and mental agony and family rows pass as something quite routine…” How would you describe this pretense of normality in psychological terms?

14. The chapter entitled “The Night Choirs of Kabul” offers a lyrical glimpse at the resilience of the Afghan people. What other acts of rebellion and courage stand out for you?

15. “For those lucky enough never to have experienced war, the word ‘peaceful’ has little meaning.” Did Pazira’s story make you re-examine your own experience of living in a prosperous, free and democratic country?

16. A Bed of Red Flowers blends personal memoir with history. How does one aspect enhance the other? What is Pazira’s view on the importance of “digging into the grave of history”?

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