What happens in a society where women count for so little that daughters are seem as essentially worthless? Well, some of these daughters may be brought up as boys. The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan follows several of these girls, whose “secret”, interestingly, is not much of it, as most of the adults and children around them know that they are girls even if they are dressed as boys and, most important, allowed to act as boys. The normal expectation is that, at puberty, they will revert to their birth gender, although it’s not always easy to return to second-class citizen after having tasted the first-class life.
The author relies on a precious few examples, so this is far from a magisterial narrative, and she occasionally lapses into infelicitous general explorations of gender or politics — but the stories of these girls, and the society they live in, are haunting.
There’s much that is awkward and boring in Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War. Awkward prose, at times, and also the awkward peeking into the very private lives of real women and their families. Boring minutiae of ordinary people’s lives, boring details of who did what to whom, both at war and at home. But I found the book absorbing, as it follows three women who joined the National Guard to get money to go to college, or just get a stable income — and never imagined they would be deployed (and deployed again) to Afghanistan and Iraq. Their jobs are almost mundane, if rehabbing AK -47s can be called mundane. There is no hand-to-hand combat, no heroics, although, as one of the woman finds out, a truck driver can encounter plenty of dangers and death itself.
What I found most interesting is how these three women, with little education and poor job opportunities, blossom in the military, taking on leadership roles, both officially and not, and making serious efforts to better understand the local population. In contrast when they go back home they are swallowed up in the deep problems of their families and making a living, and they seem to struggle much more. It’s also sobering to see how little is done to help the transition back to civilian life…
And the Mountains Echoed opens with a breathtaking bedtime story that introduces the brother and sister whose families’ sagas constitute the rest of the book, starting with an artfully twisted separation in Kabul. Many years later, they will reunite, in California. The first third of the book, which takes place in Afghanistan, I found enchanting, capturing sibling rivalry, brotherly love, and the awfulness of a bad marriage.
I had trouble with the middle of the book, which takes place in Paris and contained just enough inaccurate details to break the spell of the story: 8th graders would not attend a lycée in the 1980s; the Sorbonne is not the only university in Paris. The scenes in Northern California read as much more authentic down to the layout of houses (but the 101? I think not! We do not use articles with the freeways here.) So with that I heartily recommend relishing that perfect beginning!
Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town is an ethnographic study of a small Afghan town, focused on its potters and how they acquire clay, make the pots, sell them, and transfer the business to the new generation. The facts, however humble, would be useful for NGOs to grasp, so they know to whom to give kilns (the men, who are responsible for the firing, not the women) and when to push to get a road paved (when local officials are fighting over turf and will turn it down rather than give a rival an advantage). It’s a little sad to think that foreign aid donors will not spend a little effort getting to know the recipients of their largesse before making investments.
The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future is a memoir by the best-known Afghani woman politician, not so ably assisted by her co-author who seems to supply an awkward style and frequent syntax errors — but the focus is on a life that’s out of the ordinary. Left to die by her mother, brought up in a very large household with seven wives, way more than the Muslim maximum of four, having witnessed decades of war and survived a tragic marriage, Koofi tackles tradition, the education of women, tolerance and diversity. If you can get past all the horrors, it’s a very inspiring tale of overcoming poverty, violence, and obscurantism.
Lipstick in Afghanistan starts with an interesting premise, but unfortunately sinks to romance novel lows as the heroine, a nurse working for a non-profit transparently based on Medecins Sans Frontieres finds herself working alone in a small Afghan town where, in the course of six months, she manages to fall in love with a Special Forces soldier (likely enough), befriends an Afghan woman (hard to believe since she speaks only English), arranges a marriage for her housekeeper (doubtful), smuggles a child to safety (highly unlikely), manages to escape an ambush where her best friend is killed (sadly, very likely), and sheds floods of tears throughout (a little unwieldy for a nurse).
There are nice touches here and there of local cultures, of how women in particular live day-to-day, of how children find some fun, but I found the story overly melodramatic.