A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistanby Nelofer Pazira
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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."
Khaled Hosseini, bestselling author of The Kite Runner
- Random House of Canada, Limited
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Read an Excerpt
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.
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.
What People are Saying About This
Khaled Hosseini, bestselling author of The Kite Runner
Meet the Author
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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