Leaving Home and Finding It Again


A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan
By Nelofer Pazira
Free Press, , 408 pp.

In 1978, five-year-old Nelofer Pazira was marched to a prison in Kabul to visit her father, a prominent physician and one of thousands to be imprisoned by the Communist government that year. Flustered and confused, she reached him only to be greeted with a stern rebuke. "You mustn't cry," her father warned her from behind the bars of his dank cell.

Organizing her family's escape from Afghanistan ten years later, Pazira still finds herself bound by the same injunction. Boys my age are sent to the front line and return dead and injured. Girls carry the burden of an entire household. It is part of the particular burden of the Afghan woman in exile, Pazira suggests, to make a final reckoning of her country's fate.

A Bed of Red Flowers is a memoir of young woman's life in Afghanistan during the seventies and eighties, as well as Pazira's attempt, years later in exile, to understand her country's bloody disintegration. Pazira was born to a privileged family that suffered steady dispossession in war-torn Afghanistan, fled to Pakistan in 1989, and ultimately found sanctuary in the West. Now a journalist based in Canada, Pazira starred in the widely acclaimed 2000 film Kandahar. Released just months before 9/11, the film was inspired by Pazira's life. It tells the story of an Afghan woman's return to Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule. Less an intimate rumination than a journalistic history of her country, A Bed of Red Flowers is driven by the author's passion to narrate the history of a country that, she suggests, America and the West still do not know.

Pazira's mother and father belonged to an urbanized elite that embraced many aspects of a Western lifestyle in the late sixties and seventies. Her father was a respected physician in Kabul and her mother a teacher of Persian literature. Nelofer herself enjoyed a modern education, one of only five percent of Afghan women with the same privilege. The year after her father was first imprisoned, in 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, launching a brutal, decades-long war with American-backed guerillas, the mujahidin. With the war, the Pazira family's privileged life was steadily dismantled.

As a teenager, Nelofer identifies strongly with the mujahidin, whom she idolizes as a nationalist force resisting the Soviet invaders. After school she and her friends regularly line up to throw rocks at the Soviet tanks, and at one point she even acquires a gun and joins an underground resistance movement.

For many years her father and mother quarrel over whether to leave the country. Then in 1989, the threat of her brother's conscription finally sends the family into exile. The passages describing the Pazira's flight to Pakistan make up some of the most harrowing parts of the book. Exile forces Nelofer and her family to reconsider their understanding of the class and religious tensions underlying the war. For their journey across the desert to Pakistan, this modern Afghani family poses as tribe of devout provincials. For the first time in her life Nelofer dons a burqa, the traditional Muslim cover of Afghani women. Back in Kabul she only occasionally saw women in burqas, and neither she nor any of the women of her family wore them in their daily lives.

Thus disguised, Nelofer and her family encounter a people and a culture they barely recognize. They spend a few nights in the home of some poor villagers, where Nelofer prefers to go hungry rather than share food that has passed through so many unwashed hands. It is at this point that Nelofer realizes that, with her limited experience, she is unqualified to judge the village women whose lives differ so much from hers. Naseema, the family's guide and host, is one of many women left orphaned and widowed by the war. Barely older than Nelofer, she has made it her life's purpose to avenge her parents' murder by Russian soldiers. She regularly crosses the desert in a burqa and delivers fleeing families across the border to the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

Early in her stay in Pakistan, Nelofer cracks open a window to take a peek at the neighborhood. The sound of gunshots causes her to retreat in terror. Women, her hosts explain to her, are not allowed to be seen without "proper cover," even from the windows of their homes. It is a jarring introduction to freedom in the new country, and to her new identity as a Muslim woman.

Here and in many passages, Pazira is careful to suggest that the problems of Afghani women cannot be attributed merely to the Taliban. At one point, she meets an Afghani woman in a refugee camp who begs to be paid with a burqa for her appearance in Kandahar. Outside Afghanistan, burqas have become extremely hard to come by, and the young woman is sure that it is just the accessory she needs to create erotic allure on her wedding night. Pazira refuses, but is left unsettled by the exchange and its implications for the future of women in Afghanistan.

The making of the film Kandahar makes up a lengthy and interesting section of the memoir. Parts of the movie were shot in a refugee camp on the Iran-Pakistan border. The Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, known for his brilliant and canny realism, chose the actors from the poor refugee families. At every turn, the crew meets the reluctance of fathers and husbands to allow their women to be "shown". Actresses are hired only to disappear the next day, snatched back to their homes by enraged fathers. Pazira becomes the object of scrutiny and suspicion as again and again, she is enjoined to leave the film crew, drape herself in a burqa, and settle down to be a proper Muslim woman.

Pazira frequently evades private details about her life, so the memoir, though often highly dramatic, lacks the intimate episodes and reflections that would have made it a true personal history. Her quest to find her friend Dyana is meant to drive the book's second half, but Pazira's description of the friendship suffers from her evasiveness. Dyana finally is no more than a shadow-self for Pazira, a way of keeping alive her connection to her lost country she has lost.

Pazira concentrates the final section of the book on a series of interviews she conducted with former Soviet soldiers in January 2004. Islam, the Taliban, and even the American-led war and occupation of Afghanistan, are given scant treatment as she focuses on what she believes is the true point of departure for modern Afghan history: the Soviet invasion of 1979. As she forces our gaze from both her life and present-day Afghanistan, her passion and conviction are unbridled. For all the gaps and evasions of her telling, hers is a remarkable journey. From a Kabul prison cell as a girl of five, Nelofer Pazira's journey ends at Lenin's tomb; she has become a woman, a journalist, and an exile for whom the search for Afghanistan is her life's calling.

Jasmin Darznik is a lawyer and doctoral candidate at Princeton University. She is writing a dissertation on the topic on the narratives of Middle Eastern women in exile.

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