Author: Nadia Hashimi
Publisher: William Morrow
Publishing Date: April 2017
Number of Pages: 450 pages
Genre: Historical, Afghan Literature
Kabul, 2007: The Taliban rules the streets. With a drug-addicted father and no brothers, Rahima and her sisters can rarely leave the house or attend school. Their only hope lies in the ancient Afghan custom of bacha posh, which allows young Rahima to dress and be treated as a son until she is of marriageable age. As a boy, she has the kind of freedom that was previously unimaginable… freedom that will transform her forever.
But Rahima is not the first in her family to adopts this unusual custom. A century earlier, her great-great-grandmother Shekiba, left orphaned by an epidemic, saved herself and built a new life in the same way – the change took her on a journey from the deprivation of life in a rural village to the opulence of a king’s palace in the bustling metropolis of Kabul.
The Pearl that Broke its Shell is a book that I randomly bought on one of my excursions to the bookstore. Its appealing cover and interesting title immediately caught my attention and made me purchase it because I am superficial like that. But I didn’t expect that it would take me into a roller coaster ride the way Khaled Hosseini did. Just like Hosseini’s works, I devoured Hashimi’s every word as I was drawn in by the centripetal force that is the beauty of Afghan prose.
The novel relates the story of present-day Rahima and her great-great grandmother, Shekiba, whose story was told by Rahima’s Aunt Shaima. Both Rahima and Shekiba were transformed into bacha posh, an Afghan cultural practice where young women are allowed to dress as a son and be treated as such until they reach marriageable age. But the prose goes beyond the bacha posh and naseeb (destiny) – the story is an all-encompassing epic about the life and the struggles of women in the traditionally-strung Afghan society.
“The human spirit, you know what they say about the human spirit? It is harder than a rock and more delicate than a flower petal.”
~ Nadia Hashimi, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
On a bigger picture, Rahima and Shekiba’s stories draws the light on the condition of women in Afghanistan. Afghan women are being treated like second rate citizens in their own country. Horrific stories of the way women are being treated in Afghanistan, and its neighboring Pakistan, is an open secret. Stories of women being stoned to death or being decapitated by their own families are not uncommon in both countries. The indifference of the rest of the country towards these atrocious acts is very appalling.
But in the cavernous oblivion that drowned out the voices of women, Rahima and Shekiba are warriors who stall tall amidst these adversities. Instead of letting themselves be victims of circumstances, they fought with every ounce of their strength to overcome these disparities in social standing. In order for them to do so, they had to overcome different sets of challenges from their own families, fellow women, and from the doubts welling within themselves.
What is even more disheartening, and it was highlighted in the story, is that in the span of nearly a hundred years barely nothing has changed. From Shekiba’s time to Rahima’s time, violence towards women are still common. Women, practically girls, are still being forced into marriage by their parents at a very early age. Women are beaten into submission by their husbands. Women still yearns to have sons to gain standing within their own households. There was progress but it was slow. Women are have become part of the parliament but their opinions are barely, if ever, heard.
The period they spent as bacha poshes has opened their eyes to the possibilities of freedom, as co-equal of the men of their society. Figuratively speaking, Shekiba and Rahima represent the dreams, desires and aspirations of every woman in Afghanistan. The challenges they have overcome made them stronger women. Their experiences beyond the small town they came from showed them that there is a big room for change.
For a country that predominantly hinges on its traditions, progress is painstakingly slow. Nonetheless, Afghanistan is moving towards the right direction. Rather than purely focusing on the evils of traditions, Hashimi also showed how Afghan women can be helped. Sadly, majority of the help comes from outside forces and strangers. Hashimi was able to subtly underline the fact that for change to happen, it must come from within.
The book’s ending is a powerful one. In spite of the violence committed against her, Rahima never lost hope. Instead of choosing to be stuck in her situation, she fought back and proved that there is still a glimmer of hope for the likes of her. She is a pearl that broke its shell. Yes, Afghan men may have broken her body but they will never break her spirits.
“People who are beset by tragedy once and twice are sure to grieve again. Fate finds it easier to retrace its treads.”
~ Nadia Hashimi, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
Hashimi’s prose was faulty at times. There was an abundant description of customs but there was a paucity in the description of Afghanistan as a whole. I didn’t feel sensorily transported. However, Hashimi’s portrayal of the events is on point, stirring her readers’ emotions on every imaginable curve that she could. South Asian authors have found the equilibrium of relating dark sides of reality while writing a compelling tale. Although there was a stark contrast in their narratives, both Hosseini and Hashimi made me fall in love their country. They are both marvelous writers who showed a different facet of Afghanistan beyond the wars that has left it in rubbles.
Overall, The Pearl that Broke its Shell is a dark but necessary tale, one that strikes a nerve in both the brain and the heart. It is not a powerful prose but it is a relevant one that gives voice to abused women, not just in Afghanistan but all over the world. Its sweeping story that ignites a whole array of emotions. Although Hashimi’s writing was all over the place, the novel is a page-turner with a wonderful ending filled with hope.
A point to ponder on. In everything that has been told and written about the abuse committed against Afghan women, did Afghan men ever stop and reflect about the way they treat them?
Recommended for those who are interested in Afghan and South Asian culture and literature, those who liked Khaled Hosseini’s works, those who want to understand and appreciate Afghanistan beyond the wars that has ravage it over the years, and those who want to read books related in the first person perspective.
Not recommended for those who cannot tolerate graphic descriptions of violence against women, and those who are looking for a pleasurable and light read.
About the Author
(Photo by Amazon.Com) Nadia Hashimi is an American-born Afghan novelist. She was born on December 12, 1977 in Queens, New York City.
She graduated from Brandeis University with degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Biology, then obtained her medical degree from SUNY Downstate. Before pursuing a career of writing, Hashimi was a medical practitioner in the emergency department of the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
In 2014, she published her first work, The Pearl that Broke its Shell. Its international success was shortly followed by When the Moon is Low (2015) and A House Without Windows (2016). She also has published two children’s book. From medicine to writing, Hashimi is realigning her energies to politics, running as the Democratic candidate for Maryland’s 6th congressional district representative.
She married neurosurgeon Amin Amini in 2008 and the couple has four children. They are currently residing in Potomac, Maryland.