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Written with compassion, intelligence and insight, A Bed of Red Flowers is a profoundly moving portrait of life under occupation and the unforgettable story of a family, a people and a country.
"The picnic of the red flower" is a traditional time of celebration for Afghans. One of Nelofer Pazira's earliest memories is of people gathering in the countryside to admire the tulips and poppies carpeting the landscape. It is the mid-1970s, and her parents are building a future for themselves and their young children in the city of Kabul.
But when Nelofer is just five the Communists take power and her father, a respected doctor, is imprisoned along with thousands of other Afghans. The following year, the Russians invade Afghanistan, which becomes a police state and the center of a bloody conflict between the Soviet army and American-backed mujahidin fighters. A climate of violence and fear reigns.
For Nelofer, there is no choice but to grow up fast. At eleven, she and her friends throw stones at the Russian tanks that stir up dust and animosity in the streets of Kabul. As a teenager she joins a resistance group, hiding her gun from her parents. Her emotional refuge is her friendship with her classmate Dyana, with whom she shares a passion for poetry, dreams and a better life.
After a decade of war, Nelofer's family escapes across the mountains to Pakistan and later to Canada, where she continues to write to Dyana. When her friend suddenly stops writing, Nelofer fears for Dyana's life. With lyrical, narrative prose, A Bed of Red Flowers movingly tells Pazira's haunting story, as well as Afghanistan's story as a nation.
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About the Author
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.
Table of Contents
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 Naseema¹s Revenge
9 A House of Martyrs
10 Season of Grief
11 Leave My Daughter Alone
13 The Tomb
What People are Saying About This
"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."
Khaled Hosseini, bestselling author of The Kite Runner
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”?
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.