Phyllis Chesler, 72, is a feminist scholar and a professor emerita of psychology and women’s studies at City University of New York.
In her 14th book, “An American Bride in Kabul” (Palgrave Macmillan) out early next month, she shares for the first time the story of the five months she spent, as a young bride, held prisoner in a Afghan household. I did not enter the kingdom as a diplomat, soldier, teacher, journalist or foreign aid worker.
I came as a young Jewish bride of the son of one of the country’s wealthiest men. I am only 18 when my prince — a dark, older, handsome, westernized foreigner who had traveled abroad from his native home in Afghanistan — bedazzles me. We marry in a civil ceremony in Poughkeepsie with no family present.
Abdul-Kareem is the son of one of the founders of the modern banking system in Afghanistan. Then, when I express my desire to travel, he asks me to marry him. I did not know that this would be our final destination. I learn that my real mother-in-law, Abdul-Kareem’s biological mother, is only my father-in-law’s first wife. But before the caravan of black Mercedes-Benzes can leave, an airport official demands that I turn over my American passport. It will soon be returned to me, so I reluctantly relinquish it. That means — I would soon learn — that I would not be able to leave Afghanistan at will.He wears designer sunglasses and bespoke suits and when he visits New York City, he stays at the Plaza. I am Jewish, raised in an Orthodox home in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the daughter of Polish immigrants. Instead, we stay up all night discussing film, opera and theater. “There is no other way for us to travel together in the Muslim world,” he says. I am now subject to the laws and custom of Afghanistan, and as an Afghan woman, that means hardly any rights at all. Our arrival is celebrated with a feast of unending and delicious dishes.My dad worked door-to-door selling soda and seltzer. My husband’s father owns a compound comprised of numerous two-story European-style houses where the various families sleep with patios, expensive Afghan wool carpeting, indoor gardens, and verandas. Because of my foreign stomach, the foods — kebabs, rice dishes, yogurts, nuts — are baked with Crisco instead of ghee, an evil-smelling, rancid, clarified butter that is loved by locals but wreaks havoc on a non-native’s stomach.I am only 20, and I am now a member of this household, which consists of one patriarch, three wives, 21 children (who range in age from infancy to their 30s), two grandchildren, at least one son-in-law, one daughter-in-law and an unknown number of servants and relatives. The smell of ghee alone can make you throw up if you’re unused to it. He speaks Dari (even though I cannot) and leaves me with the other women. And I will spend every morning and afternoon that follows alone with my mother-in-law and female relatives. Secretly I stow away canned goods that I indulge on in the brief moments that I’m left alone.I am unprepared for my first-ever Muslim prayer service. As the excitement over our arrival wears off, so does my special treatment. Two weeks into my confinement and I have only left the compound twice — both times with a calvary of people guarding and watching. One day, I decide to sunbathe on the private terrace that adjoins my bedroom. Then I hear a loud commotion that sounds like men yelling at each other. You have managed to upset all of Kabul,” my husband says. I discover that mother-in-law has instructed the servants to stop boiling my drinking water.
Suddenly, all the men drop to the floor on all fours, prostrating themselves. He explains that a group of workmen a quarter-mile away caught sight of a “naked woman” and could not concentrate on work. Because the sewage system consists of open irrigation ditches that are used as public bathrooms and for drinking water, I contract dysentery. She gives me prayer rugs and prayer beads and urges me to convert to Islam.
A delegation had descended upon our house to demand that all women, especially I, be properly dressed. “Please, please just come in and put something on,” he says. By tonight, they’ll be telling their friends we are running a brothel.” I do as I’m told. Perhaps she thinks I am already “Afghan enough” to withstand any and all germs. If I don’t, I think, will she continue her campaign to sicken and kill me?
Later I write in my diary: “I have no freedom at all. The next day she barges into my room with a servant and confiscates my precious hoard of canned goods.
“Our food isn’t good enough for her — she eats from cans,” she says.
I am her captive, her prisoner; she, my jailer, might treat me more decently if I find ways to please her.
This is difficult for me to write about but I did it. In this country, a naked face is almost the same as fully bared breasts. My husband is informed of my escape, and he finds me and brings me home. “I have been here for three months and have been allowed out only five or six times,” I write in my diary.