The blurb for An American Bride in Kabul by Phyllis Chesler is enticing -”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. Chesler found herself unexpectedly trapped in a posh polygamous family, with no chance of escape. 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.” Unfortunately it is entirely misrepresented and does not live up to its potential. Instead of telling the story of a Jewish-American girl’s harrowing life in Kabul it tells the story of a self-righteous and selfish young girl who spent 10 weeks in Kabul. The rest of the book is Chesler summarizing other books on Afghanistan, name-dropping other authors and historians and building up her own ego for being a woman before her time.
An American Bride in Kabul is a memoir I was anxious to read. I sought out, and received, an ARC of this novel. I moved it to the very top of my reading list and loved it, for the first 30 pages. My Twitter feed will indicate how immediately I loved Phyllis' story; however my love affair with her memoir ended up being shorter than her love affair with Abdul-Kareem and Kabul. Chesler honestly states that she was young, naïve and foolish when she fell in love with, married, and travelled to Kabul with her Afghan husband, Abdul-Kareem. He was wealthy, highly-educated and presented himself as a westernized foreigner who wanted to whisk her away and travel the world. Instead, they married and travelled to his home in Kabul where almost immediately Chesler began behaving as a spoiled, arrogant, self-righteous American brat.
She spent 10 weeks, yes 10 weeks, in Kabul and yet to read the book blurb, the marketing pitch or her own details of her time there it was as though she wasted away the best years of her life confined away from society. I had expected to read about a young woman who was forced to spend months or years living in a polygamous harem held against her will in a foreign country. I read a completely different story.
Chesler had a very ethnocentric attitude when she arrived in Kabul. She never presented herself as ever being willing to consider their perspective, point-of-view, customs or different way of life. She was very much an egotistical American brat who wanted everyone else to submit to her way of wanting to do things. She didn’t like what they ate so they should cook or buy special food for her. She sunbathed in a “skimpy bikini” (her words) despite knowing that their culture expected women to be covered up. She snuck out of the house to explore alone even after being informed it could bring shame to their family. Her husband began to beat her – or not – she writes that she cannot remember. Her mother-in-law was trying to kill her (this she claimed because she told the cook that Chesler was an Afghan wife and not to cook her special foods). The depiction through the memoir is that Chesler was unwilling to compromise and unwilling to give a new culture a chance. It was her way or it was wrong and that was simply the way it was. She complains about the very few times that she was “allowed” to go out yet she was there for 10 weeks; a foreign woman who did not know the language, would not submit to following the customs of the local culture, was arrogant, rude, self-righteous, demanding, and rebellious.
After her return to the United States (using a passport and a plane ticket given to her by her Afghan father-in-law) her husband, Abdul-Kareem, writes her letters begging for her return. She describes his tone as “ironic, sarcastic, self-pitying, pompous and utterly heart-breaking.” I chuckled. Aside from the “utterly heart-breaking” description it was exactly how I felt about her writing. There are so many problems with this book. The only polygamy is on the part of her father-in-law who has three wives. The “harem” is only that she shares a home with the other female members of the family. The “memoir” part of the book is very short as she spends so much other time talking about her education and referencing other books and quotes. The timeline is jarring as she will move forward two or three years and then backtrack to discuss something that happened only six months after her starting point. All in all, this is an utter disappointment.
Review by Ashley LaMar
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