As my friend pressed the book into my hands she said apologetically “It’s harrowing, but worth it.” And because I trust my friend, I took it, smiled and went home to read.
I’ve known harrowing and heart rending, both in real life and in stories – that moment “because we are too meny” in Jude the Obscure, oh my, I was sobbing for a long time; Schindler’s list, Hotel Rwanda – both have harrowing segments, but it’s not the overall character of their story, it’s not the ultimate defining word that I would use to describe either one.
And so I started to read, encountering a story that is startlingly similar to one that real life women around the world live every day. I submerged myself into the world of Meriam, where a gutless father’s cowardice leads to the cruelest blow of abandonment. Where a daughter believes the grand lies of her father and misses the point of her place in the world. Where she yearns so much for her father, who is so obviously not what she thinks, that it turns to anger and cruelty towards her mother – cruelty she cannot take back when her mother kills herself. And there is the first point I cried… and put the book down for a day.
And in that day there were questions. What lies do I believe about those I love? What costumes do those around me wear and what stories do they weave? How much can we all see through those stories and accept them because a) we want them to be true and b) we know and love the true essence of those people. How much do I let those I love see through my own stories? And who am I punishing for the yearnings I have unfulfilled, who do you punish for those yearnings?
I picked the book back up hesitantly, and threw myself back into Meriam’s world. A world of arranged marriages, where the success or failure of a marriage hinges on successful pregnancy, where the desperation of losing a child is faced alone, without your husband. A world where the first step to truly harrowing is the removal of affection as a punishment. And actually, this is true in all lives; the habit starts in childhood and unfortunately continues, removing your affection, your company, your smile from another person’s life is the cruelest punishment and utterly opposite to self-sacrificial love – and is the first step to a dark, dark road. But as always, there is an escape, a redemption, a way out for us all. It’s not a road that is a one way street. So, yes it ends badly for Meriam’s husband, but there is still a way for you. And yes, his violence later on is the logical outcome of this initial action of indifference, of removing affection, of utterly ignoring any and all of Meriam’s needs; because once you grow indifferent to a person, you cease to see them as that, and then it becomes easier to treat them as literal whipping boys.
I did get somewhat nervous here and spoke to my friend. “It’s not going to turn into an ‘all men are bastards’ story is it?” – I really wasn’t interested in a story like that, I have enough issues with men without some of my negative preconceptions being encouraged. She smiled patiently and shook her head. “It’s worth it, just wait. Keep going.” Once more I trusted her and continued to read.
And then I met Laila. Happiness, a good father, a distant mother who prefers her sons, but isn’t overly horrible, the freedom of the city, no the enjoyment of the city. The tragedy of Kabul is that it was once a beautiful, poetic, life filled place and it becomes the place of violence, of having to hide beauty away, of hiding women away (and therefore controlling them.) In Laila’s childhood it is not beyond the realms of possibility that she can aspire to be a teacher, a doctor or a lawyer – as many girls of Kabul once could. And that that is torn from girls, that it is an educated woman that is most offensive and terrifying to the dark forces that consume Afghanistan, yes that is the great tragedy from which all other tragedies flow. The gentle love story between Laila and Tariq is an oasis amidst the pain – a ray of Hope that things might turn out alright. But itdoes not last and our hope entwined with Laila’s is utterly crushed when we hear, along with her, of Tariq’s death.
Although the romance between Laila and Tariq was very much a balm, the true heart of the story for me was the burgeoning friendship of the two women as they begin as strangers – to Laila, Meriam is very much the “other”, first encountered in a public space as the woman behind the burkha – migrate to barely tolerated co-wives and finally embrace affection, kindess and loving sisterhood. It is this love that is the true love story of the book. It’s a love founded on shared fear, shared rejection, shared love of Laila’s children and the small kindesses first sharein a place as simple as a kitchen. That the community of the two women is first kindled in a kitchen is no mistake, once more we are brought back to the second founding pillar of community, that of food.
It is the love between them that gives them the strength to run away from the repulsive, controlling and violent Rasheed. It is the experience of the love shared between them that keeps despair at bay when they are caught and viciously punished by Rasheed. It is love over all other things that places a weapon in Meriam’s hand to take another human life. Now I’m not a supporter of the idea of redemptive violence, or that the militant conquering Christ is the true reflection of the servant king who sacrificed himself for us all. But this moment between Meriam and Laila, where Meriam kills, where she takes another life, not only so the people she loves no longer need to fear violence, pain or oppression, but so that they don’t have resort to violence themselves is one that shouts self-sacrificial love. To take on a stain to your own soul so that someone else doesn’t have to is the real motivation behind the thought that it’s one thing to die for someone, but do you love them enough to kill for them? And the fact that Meriam then almost peacfully accept the consequences in the death sentence, that she is somehow finally happy – that she has both saved her friend from a living hell, and saved her from having her soul tarnished by violence – that she has found meaning and purpose in her life, that her purpose was that one moment where bothe her life and soul were offered as a sacrifice for real balls out love – yes, that was beautiful and harrowing and desperate and uplifting. And yes I cried.
Yes, it was harrowing. But it really really ws worth it. And harrowing isn’t this story’s defining feature. It is love, it is hope, it is purpose. It is honouring friendship, it is sharing burdens. It is real, unadulterated Sacrifice. I urge you to read this, to share this, to open yourself up to the kind of love that can redeem, can bring hope, and is willing to sacrifice everything, even your potential place in Paradise.