Fortunately for her, she lives in the New York literary world, and one wonders which one more influences the other. Certainly her new book, “An American Bride in Kabul,” is a tour de-force, conveying a magnetic personal story with takeaway truths.
This memoir is Chesler’s singular tale of living in the misty, virtually inaccessible world of the Middle East, of blending in to an alien culture, all in the name of love. It is also a tale of escape, with a dollop of nuance that reminds us yet again that life is, well, complicated.
The gist of this amazing tale is this: A nice Jewish teenager from Brooklyn falls in love with a wealthy Afghan. Upon marrying, she found herself stripped of her freedoms and even her identity. In 1961, trapped in the Middle East, she was even more isolated than perhaps she’d be today.
Throughout the twisting, turning “telling” of this adventure, Chesler also reveals something of a bombshell: That long-ago love still burns. Despite being held prisoner for a time, despite the attempts of her mother-in-law to get her to convert from Judaism to Islam – and despite the decades since – Chesler still has a heart relationship with the dashing young man who captured her heart a half-century ago.
An added bonus for the reader is Chesler’s rich description of the culture she came to be fascinated by. And in the end, the whole experience ignited her passion for defending freedom and women’s rights. Today she is a leading champion of those vital goals.
The reader is also treated to a mighty literary talent on every page.
Let yourself be transported to another place and time: “The car finally stops somewhere in the center of the city. I get out, stand up, look up – am awestruck. We are surrounded and embraced by majestic mountains. Kabul is a city in a valley, a city in a crater. For a moment it feels like the dawn of the world. Afterward, whenever I spend time in the American and Canadian Rockies, I will always be reminded of Kabul, with its wide open sky and thrilling mountains.”
The passionate relationship with Abdul-Kareem that Chesler so expertly describes began in the days when the worlds from the east and from the west began their first tentative steps toward, if not embracing, at least trying to understand each other. The world war was fading from view, and a dashing American president was on the horizon, one who had seen the world for himself as a young man. This was the world in which Chesler knew held exciting possibilities.
She couldn’t have known, of course, just how exciting the future would be.
A fascinating plot point in “An American Bride in Kabul” is the seemingly irresistible pull that her lover’s culture had on him, once he returned. As so often happens when a young Muslim man rubs elbows with Western culture, Abdul-Kareem, upon returning home, almost inexplicably reverted precisely to his cultural roots. Those roots threatened to choke Chesler in every possible way.
Her wrenching admission of repeating the “oath” to Allah leaves the reader spellbound; she also reveals there were other women in similar situations: “This is not something I ever tell anyone. Nevertheless I have never forgiven myself.
“Recently Maria, a divorced American woman, turned to me for help. She was trapped in Bahrain because, like Betty Mahmoody, who had been trapped in Iran, Maria was also a mother who would not leave without her daughter.”
Chesler describes talking with Maria:
“‘Are you a Christian?’
“She was silent for a long while.
“‘Did you convert to Islam?’
“Finally, and so softly I could barely hear her, she said, ‘Maybe. I think so. Yes.’ She sounded ashamed, broken, as if she had sold her soul. I could understand how she felt.”
Chesler’s story of her own escape is one you’ll have to read for yourself, but an equally powerful sub-plot is her view of Islam today. Remember, Chesler is a true champion for freedom, for anyone and everyone. She recalls a chilling conversation with a friend, just after 9/11. The friend was trying to “see the view” of the jihadists, a common refrain from the Blame-the-West crowd.
Chesler then goes on to describe all the gruesome, seventh-century worldviews inherent in militant Islam, and then delivers a shattering indictment of her friend: “My heartless friend stands for all these values.”
There you have it: A woman whose senses all drank in the exotic world of Afghanistan and in whose heart affection for the dancing young prince still resides … is defined by steely resolve and a moral clarity few really possess, if we’re being honest.
So it is that “An American Bride in Kabul” – though reading like a novel – is the heart story of an amazing woman and writer.