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An American Bride in Kabul

An American Bride in Kabul

by Phyllis Chesler


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Few westerners will ever be able to understand Muslim or Afghan society unless they are part of a Muslim family. Twenty years old and in love, Phyllis Chesler, a Jewish-American girl from Brooklyn, embarked on an adventure that has lasted for more than a half-century. In 1961, when she arrived in Kabul with her Afghan bridegroom, authorities took away her American passport. Chesler was now the property of her husband's family and had no rights of citizenship. Back in Afghanistan, her husband, a wealthy, westernized foreign college student with dreams of reforming his country, reverted to traditional and tribal customs. Chesler found herself unexpectedly trapped in a posh polygamous family. She fought against her seclusion and lack of freedom, her Afghan family's attempts to convert her from Judaism to Islam, and her husband's wish to permanently tie her to the country through childbirth. Drawing upon her personal diaries, Chesler recounts her ordeal, the nature of gender apartheid—and her longing to explore this beautiful, ancient, and exotic country and culture. An American Bride in Kabul re-creates a time gone by, a place that is no more, and shares the way in which Chesler turned adversity into a passion for world-wide social, educational, and political reform.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137279408
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/07/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,092,566
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Phyllis Chesler is an emerita professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York, bestselling author, legendary feminist leader, and psychotherapist. Dr. Chesler has appeared on CNN, Fox News, The O'Reilly Factor, The Today Show, Oprah, and multiple NPR programs, including NPR's At the Opera.

Read an Excerpt

An American Bride in Kabul

A Memoir

By Phyllis Chesler

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2013 Phyllis Chesler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-36557-6


From Brooklyn to Kabul

I am eighteen and I have just met my prince. He is a dark, handsome, charming, sophisticated, and wealthy foreign student. We are in college in America. I am the only woman who matters to him. I have a nineteen-inch waist and embarrassingly full lips. The whole world is mine. I believe I am invincible and will live forever.

True, he is a Muslim and I am a Jew. I am very Jewish. But he is the Agha Khan, and I am Rita Hayworth. He is Yul Brynner, and I am Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I.

Years later I would learn that this beloved musical is based on the chilling diary of Anna H. Leonowens. Entitled Siamese Harem Life, it documents the slavery, cruelty, and other practices that are considered customary in the East.

Unfortunately I fall in love before I find this extraordinary volume.

My prince, Abdul-Kareem, is from Afghanistan. He is not really a royal prince but he conducts himself like one. Everyone around him treats him with exaggerated deference — especially Americans who love to rub shoulders with royalty.

His father helped found Afghanistan's first modern banking system and owns and runs the country's largest import-export company, in addition to many farms, homes, and properties. When he visits New York, he stays at the Plaza.

I am a first-generation American on my father's side. My mother is the only one in her family who was born in the United States. Her parents and sisters came from the Austro-Hungarian empire — in other words, from Poland. I feel lucky to live in a country where a young woman on a full college scholarship can meet such an interesting person from such a faraway place.

Abdul-Kareem wears a silk handkerchief in the breast pocket of his well-made suit. He also wears designer sunglasses, even in winter. I've seen men do that only in movies. He is suave and self-assured and has thick dark hair, golden skin, and penetrating eyes. I have never met anyone like him. Years later I decide that Abdul-Kareem most resembles the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.

The whole thing is biblical. He is Prince Shechem, I am Dina.

Some say that one of the lost tribes of Israel left Babylon for Persia and then went to Afghanistan. Maybe Abdul-Kareem is a descendent of Joseph, that most splendid Hebrew Egyptian, a figure I adore.

When I get to Kabul, it is like stepping into the Bible. Here are the nomads, caravans, fat-tailed sheep, camels, turbans, veiled and shrouded women, a pleasant confusion of ancient dust and mingled male voices.

When we meet in America, Abdul-Kareem has just returned from his first visit home in almost ten years. He tells me nothing about his trip and I do not press him for details.

I am curiously indifferent.

Afghanistan never comes up in our conversations.

Abdul-Kareem spent some time in Europe, then attended private school in the United States. He speaks English perfectly.

Apart from his appearance, there is little evidence of any real foreignness about him. We never discuss Judaism, Islam, or the role of women. It will be a long time before I learn anything about the history of his country or about its religious and tribal culture.

For now we share more bohemian interests: the new Italian and French cinema. Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and Two Women. Federico Fellini's La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, and La Dolce Vita are quasi-religious experiences for us.

We adore Giulietta Masina, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, and Anna Magnani. After seeing François Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, we talk of nothing else. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman is a fast-rising god to us.

Somehow life seems more romantic and certainly more serious in black and white and in a foreign language. The actors, especially the intercontinentals, Anthony Quinn, Ingrid Bergman, and Irene Papas, seem sexier and more important with their tragic outlooks on life.

We agree: Most American actors seem far too optimistic and naive. The movies all have happy endings; we are far too unconventional and too pretentious to believe in them.

I make an exception for Marlon Brando (The Wild One, On the Waterfront) and James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden).

When we see Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali,Aparajito, and Apur Sansar), Abdul-Kareem is uncommonly quiet. These films about the life of the poor in India speak to him in another way. India is closer to home. The on-screen, on-the-wheel-of-life suffering is endless, irredeemable, yet the people maintain enormous dignity.

This is who we think we are: film buffs, culture vultures, artists, intellectuals, bohemians. Abdul-Kareem decides that he will be a film and theater director. He suggests that I write scripts, stories, and novels upon which he'll base his films. Or, he says, maybe I should act in the productions: "That's what you once wanted to do, isn't it? Now you'll have your chance."

This sounds both unrealistic and delightful. It appeals to my vanity.

We also talk endlessly about Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Strindberg, Ibsen, and Proust. We listen to jazz, ragtime, opera, show tunes, doo-wop, rock 'n' roll, and the blues.

We fancy ourselves existentialists, twin souls spinning in space without moorings, except in each other. Neither of us is Christian. We are both somewhat exotic in America. Together we are a trendy item on a campus where many students party in the Caribbean during winter break and spend summers at family homes in France or Italy.

As for me, I must succeed academically or I will lose my scholarship. I am always studying: in the coffee shop, in my room, on the lawn, in the library, even in class. Abdul-Kareem and I read side by side in the school cafeteria or at the diner down the road, where we enjoy greasy hamburgers smothered in fried onions.

We spend hours talking animatedly to each other, unaware of the world around us.

Abdul-Kareem is the first man with whom I sleep. The earth does not shudder beneath me, and I do not see God, but I still have to marry him.

I am a good Jewish woman and as such am not supposed to sleep with a man before marriage. But now that I have broken this rule, we must marry. These are the rules. The die is cast.

Abdul-Kareem and I live together in series of small furnished apartments in New York City during our winter and summer breaks.

I would rather just travel the wide, wide world together, like gypsies or abdicating aristocrats who have permanently taken to the road — but Abdul-Kareem tells me we must marry, that there is no other way for us to travel together in the Muslim world or for me to meet his family. To embark on this adventure of a lifetime, I must, ironically, embrace the tradition of marriage. Yet this marriage is not exactly traditional because I am marrying a non-Jew, a non-American — a stranger, really, from a distant land.

My parents are religious Jews; they are hysterical and terrified. My father is bereft. My mother has always viewed me as a bad seed and a changeling, and that view is now confirmed.

I believed that marriage to Abdul-Kareem would grant me all the freedoms that I never enjoyed as a child. I would be out of my family's tight grasp; I would travel to Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, India, and the Far East. We would live in Kabul for a while, then move on to Paris, and then back to New York so I could finish college.

The rebel that I am is a slave to romantic fantasies. Finally all those fairy tales have had their way with me. I am special, not at all provincial. My life will unwind like a foreign film. Ah, but the rebellious runaway is also a good girl who's doing precisely what the fairy tales advise: marry a prince, live in a villa, if not exactly a castle.

I was a complete fool. When I finally returned to America, I literally kissed the ground at Idlewild (Kennedy) Airport.

Abdul-Kareem believes that he is rescuing me from my savagely critical mother and from my father, who loves me but who, in Abdul-Kareem's view, cannot provide for me properly, lavishly.

Abdul-Kareem assures me that he will be able to take care of us far better as his wealthy father's son than as Mr. Muslim Foreigner in America. He convinces me that we will travel widely and lead cultured lives. He does not tell me that once we land in Kabul, I will be placed under house arrest.

I can just hear him! "House arrest — really? Phyllis, you are so dramatic. If we lived alone, how could you have managed on your own?"

His is also a rather grand rebellion. He chose to marry a dark-haired, dark-eyed American Jew whose family has no political standing. He chose to marry for love. He chose a woman as his intellectual companion. In retrospect this was madness.

I was told privately that Abdul-Kareem's older brothers were puzzled, even disappointed, because I did not have blonde hair and blue eyes and could easily pass for an Afghan girl. "He could have gotten one just like this right here at home," I heard one of them say.

Did we once really love each other? Were we soul mates? I am not sure. I dare not remember — the pain would be overwhelming and pointless.

Do photos tell the truth? I am looking at some old black-and-white photos of us holding hands and looking into each other's eyes. We look very much in love. We are in an idyllic setting, surrounded by trees. I cannot remember who took the pictures.

The truth may be more complicated. I wanted to travel. This was the only way I could do so at that time.

Twenty years later, after Abdul-Kareem and his family escaped from the Soviets, he tells me that he has never gotten over me. I remain silent. I find this hard to believe.

At the time he says this, he needs my help. He is probably trying to flatter me — or get me into bed. Have I become heartless — or have I finally learned something?

Abdul-Kareem gently chides me. He asks me how I could forget how close we were — how we once talked for twenty hours, fell asleep, woke up, and immediately continued the conversation.

I do not remember this.

I do remember how safe I felt when he was behind the wheel of his car. I remember how much he enjoyed a good Jewish joke.

Although I do not want to get married (my parents are married; I have never imagined myself as a bride or a wife), Abdul-Kareem nevertheless persuades me. At the last minute I ask a dress designer friend, a woman who once lived in Senegal, to transform a creamy white raw silk Afghan turban into a cocktail-length wedding dress for me.

I wonder whatever happened to that lovely little dress. I never wore it again. I have no memory of what I did with it.

We marry in a civil ceremony in Poughkeepsie, New York. We have no family present. Toby, one of my college roommates, is my witness, and Hussain, an Afghan man with whom we have enjoyed many Sunday picnics, acts as Abdul-Kareem's.

Afterward we all have a glass of wine and a meal and then go home, change into jeans, pack, and leave for Europe. Europe!

We travel to Europe in nineteenth-century style on Le Flandre. I remember we had champagne in our stateroom and that my youngest brother came to see us off. My parents were not there. Indeed my parents tell no one what I've done. No relative or family friend was ever told that I had married a Muslim and sailed clear off to Afghanistan.

On board I feel we are starring in a black-and-white movie. Sometimes we dine at the captain's table, but I spend most of my time on deck, pondering the wide blue sea — and reading. Nestled luxuriously in a deck chair, covered by a blanket, sipping coffee, I read straight through Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet. It is all very romantic.

We have a huge fight on board. I cannot remember about what. I do remember that some other passengers looked quite startled, perhaps even frightened. We are fighting as we land in Southampton.

Abdul-Kareem finally has to tell me that our stay in Europe will be a brief one, that we are expected in Kabul as soon as possible, and that his expense allowance, never large, has been curtailed — which is pro forma for all Afghan students studying abroad.

Maybe that's why we were fighting.

He did not, perhaps he could not, bring himself to tell me that we were almost broke. And so our London lodgings turned out to be a rather seedy bed-and-breakfast. I didn't care. I was finally here, in the city of the high red buses and the almost circus-like large black taxi cabs, the country of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Dickens, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, and the queen. What did it matter that we'd be eating fish and chips rather than having tea at the Ritz? Still, our suddenly shrunken budget was a sign of more ominous things to come.

I make the proverbial tourist beeline for the British Museum, which brazenly, beautifully houses the treasures of ancient Egypt, Greece (the Elgin Marbles, the muscular but graceful Amazons), Rome, and China, together with the portraits of royalty, and of horses and dogs.

We have tea at Russell Square, where the Bloomsbury literati once gossiped and dined and scandalized. We dash off to Madame Tussaud's, Piccadilly Circus, and the West End. Abdul-Kareem is humoring me. He has done all this before. I want to stop and browse in every used and antiquarian bookstore we pass.

I like being in a city without being surrounded by towering skyscrapers. The human frame seems more the measure of things when it is not dwarfed by shining glass monuments built to scrape the very sky.

Onward we go, too quickly, to Paris. I have a photo of myself in front of a French kiosk. Was I really once that young and thin?

France: George Sand's land, Colette's land, Edith Piaf's land, too. I have listened to the Sparrow incessantly and know the words of many of her songs by heart. France means Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Marie-Henri Beyle — the great writer Stendhal — whose work is the subject of my nearly completed college thesis.

We visit the Louvre to ponder the enigmatic Mona Lisa and pay our respects to the Vermeers, Rembrandts, and Caravaggios.

I like Ingres and am entranced by his Odalisque and Turkish Baths. Ironic but telling: I am being introduced to the Muslim world through the eyes of those dreamy Western painters who expressed their own sensuality by painting their European patrons dressed in elaborate turbans, framed by large pillows and a Moorish arch or two.

We pile into the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, which houses all the riotously colorful French impressionist paintings: Monet, Manet, Renoir, Seurat, Degas, and of course my beloved madman, Van Gogh. I consider them all my friends.

Exhausted, in too much of a rush, we visit Versailles. I find it cold, very cold, and am not impressed by its vast mirrored emptiness or by the manicured formal gardens. Of course at this time we are both huge fans of the French Revolution and are not likely to be impressed by the aesthetic decisions of heartless kings and queens. (Oh, how I have changed my mind about some of this.)

But we are in Paris. We must visit the Left Bank. For me that means hours of dawdling among the bookseller stalls, never wanting to leave, but it also means visiting the cafes where, innocents that we are, we actually hope to run into a living existentialist or two. We walk for hours up and down the Champs-Élysées.

On our last night we go to a cabaret with a garish can-can show (Abdul-Kareem's choice, not mine). The women dance topless, and I am shocked, titillated, slightly disapproving.

All this time Abdul-Kareem is preoccupied, impatient, but he tries hard to hide it. He wishes to indulge my passion for art, history, books, and travel, but he obviously has some serious things on his mind.

He chooses Munich as the city from which we will leave for the Middle East. Munich frightens me, mainly because I like it. I like the large soft comforters on our bed, the homey-cozy restaurants and cafes, and the heavy rich food. But the grotesquely large municipal Hansel and Gretel clock, with its combined German exactitude and deceptively childish facade, offends me. This is the country that, not long before, put all its Jewish, gypsy, and political Hansels and Gretels right into the smoking ovens.

Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact here; it gave Hitler the Sudetenland. It was a consummate act of appeasement. The Nazis marched here only sixteen years earlier. Some areas of debris from wartime bombings still are cordoned off. Why am I comfortable here at all? Years later I will have a much more disconcerting sense of familiarity and comfort in Vienna: the city of both Freud and Herzl — Hitler's city, too.

When we land in Beirut, the air is softer and oddly exciting. But we cannot stay; we are due in Teheran.

Abdul-Kareem's Iranian friends send a car and driver to meet us at the airport. We are given a brief tour of the city. We drive down Isfahan Street and Firdowsi Avenue and the grand Lalezar Avenue. Of course there is also a Pahlavi Avenue.

Our hosts — people much older than we are — pick us up for a night out on the town. I remember a room with access to its own private balcony. The food, the traffic, and the laughter all flow together.


Excerpted from An American Bride in Kabul by Phyllis Chesler. Copyright © 2013 Phyllis Chesler. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Section 1 In Afghanistan

1 From Brooklyn to Kabul 3

2 The Imprisoned Bride 19

3 Burqas 33

4 Harem Days 47

5 My Mother-in-Law 63

6 Trapped 79

7 Escape 95

Section 2 In America

8 Home in America 109

9 My Afghan Family Arrives in America 127

10 The Jews of Afghanistan 145

11 9/11 163

12 9/11/11 179

13 America in Afghanistan 193

14 Hard Lessons 207

Acknowledgments and Dedication 221

Bibliography 223

Index 231

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