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Sunday, September 8, 2013

"An American Bride in Kabul" by Phyllis Chesler. Book Review

A Collection of Writer's Sketches, Rather Than a Fully Realized Book

Phyllis Chesler's "An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir" is more a collection of a writer's sketches than a fully realized book. While reading this awkwardly spliced-together volume, I asked, "Where are the editors?"

Reading the book is a jarring experience, as the reader is shunted from one topic, and one genre, to another. Approximately forty percent of the book is an annotated bibliography, a listing of books and films about Islam, with Chesler's mini-reviews along with extensive quotes from the texts. Some of the book consists of excerpts from Chesler's 1961 diaries. Some of it is a transcript of her interviews with her Afghan husband. Chesler sometimes writes in the present tense; sometimes in the past.

There are at least three misuses of the word "literally." The editor let slip this hapless simile: "where icy storms are as common as ice storms." As always in badly organized writing, points are repeated, without ever being developed to full impact.

The lack of discipline, and attendant lack of clarity, matters. Criticisms of Islam are explosive. Leftists in the West have denigrated Western Civilization and have inoculated Islam against any critique. Those who critique Islam are demonized as "racists," and "Islamophobes." Of course, no such demonization adheres to critiques of Christianity, the left's whipping boy and scapegoat.

On the other hand, Muslims themselves are also victimized. Most Muslims are decent human beings. Criticism of Islam must be delivered in a respectful, coherent manner. Phyllis Chesler obviously loves her Muslim family and friends, but "An American Bride in Kabul" fails at coherence.

The "memoir" portion occupies the opening pages of the book. This portion does not offer the consistently vivid, probing, intimate details that make for a great memoir. There was so much I wanted to know that I could not glean from Chesler's account, which is more "telling" than "showing." Chesler tells us that her Afghan father-in-law was something like a God in his household, but there are no vivid scenes that bring his character to life. I wanted to *see* Kabul in the pages of this book, and I never did. I finally did a Google image search. I didn't get a strong sense of the characters Chesler encountered, until a couple of well-written scenes close to the end of the memoir portion. Chesler describes her mother-in-law persecuting her because she is Jewish, and Chesler describes her mother-in-law tormenting a slave-like servant. Good scenes, but the memoir portion needed more of them.

The memoir portion, brief as it is, never reads smoothly. Chesler inserts excerpts from her diaries and mentions of other books.

The rest of the book is a hodgepodge of thoughts, genres, and points. Chesler talks about her continued relationship with her Afghan ex-husband and his second wife, she talks about 9-11, and she talks about the Soviet invasion.

An editor could have helped this book. It could have been organized as an anthology. There could have been coherent, powerful chapters devoted to the memoir portion, the political portion, the eyewitness history of the Soviet invasion, and the annotated bibliography portion.

Isolated elements in the text that intrigued me and that I wished had been better developed include the following.

Chesler, citing other authors, points out that Jews were persecuted in Afghanistan, in accord with the Koran, and Islamic tradition, and that Afghanistan allied itself with the Nazis. Rich Afghans, like the family she married into, got rich by fleecing persecuted Jews. Nazis found refuge in Afghanistan after WW II.

British explorers and travel writers like Freya Stark and Sir Richard Burton often romanticized Muslims and demonized Jews. TE Lawrence was an exception.

Some attribute explosive Islamist violence to suppressed libido. Males deprived of women blow up, literally and figuratively. Chesler says that hunger for a father's love may also play a role. Polygynous Muslim patriarchs have only so much time for each son, and power play them off against each other.

Hungry and frightened by her mother-in-law's abuse, Chesler converted to Islam in an attempt to get more food and better treatment. She says she will never forgive herself for this. Even after her forced conversion, her mother-in-law spews the word "Jew" at her repeatedly, spits at her, and comes close to killing her when she is bedridden with hepatitis.

The most provocative sentence in the book: the West could stop funding terrorism by "refusing to buy Saudi oil, taking over their oil fields, or investing in other sources of energy." YES.

The biggest dropped ball in "An American Bride in Kabul" is this. Phyllis Chesler used to be one of the people she now rants against. As a youth, she joined a leftist, anti-religious organization. She was a "Bohemian American." She didn't take religion very seriously. She seems to be a bit anti-Christian. She didn't realize that America and the West are special. When she escaped from Afghanistan, she literally kissed the ground on return to America. "The next time I visit Kabul it will be with the Marines," she says.

She still travels in leftist circles. She meets directors of battered women shelters who utterly refuse to acknowledge the reality of honor killing because to do so would be "racist." She has friends who insist that America deserved the 9-11 terror attacks, and that the dead from the WTC were guilty people who deserved to die. Chesler is uniquely situated to offer a devastating critique of leftists and Cultural Relativism and their complete failure to come to terms with jihad and gender apartheid. Perhaps Chesler has offered that critique in other works; in "American Bride" the criticism is vitiated by being scattered throughout an unorganized text.

I recommend other books on the topics Chesler covers:

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea "
Guests of the Sheikh"

Robert Spencer's "Did Mohammed Exist?" Review

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Infidel" review

Nawal el-Sadaawi's "Hidden Face of Eve"

"Speak Bird Speak Again" review

Wafa Sultan "A God Who Hates" review

PBS Frontline documentary on the Dancing Boys of Afghanistan,

1 comment:

  1. I went to my bookshelf and pulled down Phyllis Chesler's Women and Madness and also her book About Men, a Playboy Book Selection at the time.
    The book on women - she is a qualified psychologist says the back blurb - is one that really helped me understand the damage done to my mother and our family by the label given to her of "paranoid schizophrenic" by the psychiatric community. I can't say what she is writing about now in this latest book, which is a memoir about a time in her life I had not known about. I might check out the book for myself. Danusha, want to send me your copy? Christina Pacosz