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December 26, 2013 - Image 42

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2013-12-26

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arts & entertainment

Experiencing Life In Afghanistan

Reality eclipses love in An American Bride in Kabul.

Fern Sidman



n her 15th book, prolific author and
iconic second-wave feminist Phyllis
Chesler takes her readers on a trenchant
and profoundly intimate sojourn, 50 years in
the past, to a harrowing chapter in her life.
Chesler's memoir, An American Bride
in Kabul (Palgrave Macmillan), features
a duality of voices —one
of a young, winsome and
naive Jewish woman seek-
ing a glorious adventure,
the other of a seasoned
veteran with a here-and-
now retrospective tone
and an earthy wisdom.
The year is 1961, and
the young Chesler's aca-
demic proclivities bring
her to an American col-
lege on a full scholarship.
It is there that she falls deeply in love
with an exotic man, an "Omar Sharif"
lookalike. His name is Abdul-Kareem,
a westernized, wealthy Muslim foreign
student from Afghanistan.
Chesler and Abdul-Kareem craft
their very own European salon of sorts,
traversing intellectual and bohemian
realms and engaging in endless hours
of riveting conversation on esoteric
matters. Her paramour's offer of a
grand tour of European capitals and a
visit to his native Afghanistan is impos-
sible for Chesler to resist.
Only one caveat, says Abdul-Kareem.
They must get married, he says, or else
they could not travel together. One sus-
pects he did not want to offend his fam-


ily's devoutly Muslim moral beliefs. And
so it was.
Their time spent in Europe is the
proverbial calm before the storm. When
she arrives in Kabul, Chesler's American
passport is taken from her in a moment,
never to be returned. Most painfully,
what is taken from Chesler is her youth-
ful innocence — her freedom, indepen-
dence and dignity.
The lessons she learns in Kabul link
her inextricably to the feminist
mission that will define her
professional career.
Among the multitude of
culture shockers in store for
Chesler is the fact that her
father-in-law is a polygamist.
She is held captive in a "posh
purdah" style of existence.
Simply put, Chesler is now
living in a veritable harem,
against her will and with no
way out.
"I am expected to live with my mother-
in-law and other female relatives, wear
hijab and live in purdah. That means that
I cannot go out without a male escort,
a male driver and a female relative as
chaperones. I am also expected to convert
to Islam. I am living in a culture where
extreme gender apartheid is the norm
and where my reactions to it are consid-
ered abnormal:' she writes.
As Chesler offers her nuanced perspec-
tive on life in Kabul for the five months
she spent there, the reader is transported
back in time to an arcane land. We
imbibe the sights, smells and sounds of
Kabul as Chesler experienced them.
"The daily routine is as follows: In the
morning Abdul-Kareem and the men

+I I Nate Bloom
Om Special to the Jewish News


Film Fest

With many people off work between
Q' X-mas and New Year's Day, it's the per-
fect time to catch up on 2013's end-of-
4 the-year (and often best-of-the-year)
American Hustle is
set in the late 1970s
and is directed and
co-written by David

0. Russell (Silver
Linings Playbook), 55.

Christian Bale stars
as Irving Rosenfeld,
a brilliant con artist
(wearing a big Star
of David) who is forced by the FBI to
ensnare some corrupt New Jersey
politicians with Mafia ties. Jennifer


December 26 • 2013


Lawrence plays Irving's wife, with Amy
Adams as Rosenfeld's con-woman mis-
The comedy-drama, which has
landed on many critics' top-10 lists,
is inspired by the real FBI Abscam
operation, a sting in which a phony
Arab sheik offered bribes to members
of Congress. Mel Weinberg, now 89,
was a real Jewish con, who, like the
Rosenfeld character, helped the FBI
carry out the sting.
Inside Liewyn Davis, the new flick
from filmmaking brothers Joel and
Ethan Coen, follows a week in the life of
the title character (Oscar Isaac), a young
folk singer living on a shoestring as he
navigates the Greenwich Village folk
scene of 1961. Yes, there are allusions to
Bob Dylan, and F. Murray Abraham has
a short scene playing a music manager
much like Dylan's manager, the late

disappear and are gone all day.
The women mainly stay at
home. The servants clean and Phyllis Chesler and her ex-husband from
cook Bebegul (her mother-in- Afghanistan, Abdul-Kareem
law) stays in her own quarters
and sews and hums to herself.
She orders her servants about, checks on
their work and sits in the garden:' Chesler
When Chesler kisses the ground at
Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York
As she battles a raging hunger each day City, she carries with her a fierce determi-
because her mother-in-law has ordered
nation to focus on the horrendous plight
the servants not to cook her food in
of women in Afghanistan.
Crisco, but in foul-tasting ghee, Chesler
Chesler and Abdul-Kareem reunite
starts scrounging around for canned
when he arrives in New York prior to the
foods before she is beset with a horrible
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980,
case of dysentery — and later the near-
and she even develops an amiable rela-
fatal hepatitis that killed most foreigners
tionship with his children from another
that year.
marriage. But his patriarchal arrogance
Now that her physical well-being is in
emerges, and he chides her for not show-
jeopardy, her mother-in-law works on
ing enough ambition about bringing
the spiritual end by coercing Chesler to
Afghanistan into the modern world.
convert to Islam. Fearing for her life, she
What makes this book so compelling is
reluctantly converts; the guilt she harbors that Chesler's personal narrative is juxta-
for doing so is reflected in her work.
posed with historical and factual insights
Abdul-Kareem eventually becomes
into why she was treated like chattel.
more bellicose. He takes to verbal tirades
And it is precisely this part of the book
and begins hitting Chesler when he can't
that actually trumps her roller-coaster
keep her under the patriarchal grip that
ride of a story. Quoting a treasure trove
he would like to.
of Western sources, Chesler allows the
Severely weakened by the hepatitis,
reader a comprehensive understanding
and fending off her mother-in-law who
of the role of tribal warlords, of Afghani
tries to kill her by pulling out the life-
monarchy and the culture it engendered.
sustaining IV from her arm, Chesler con-
The genesis of the inferior status of
cludes that she must escape at all costs.
Afghani women, and the "indigenous
She beseeches the American consulate
barbarism" they were subjected to, is
in Kabul to help her and is summarily
meticulously explored as is the abject his-
refused because she has no U.S. passport.
tory of the Jews who were persecuted in
She then contrives a plan with the
economic, religious and social ways.
assistance of a foreign couple, but at that
Chesler is to be lauded for plunging
juncture, her dapper father-in-law inter-
into dark and treacherous waters, for
venes and acquires an Afghani passport
penning a book in which each page is
brimming with rich insights.
for her to leave on the grounds of her

Albert Grossman.
Saving Mr. Banks purports to tell

the true story of how the author of the
Mary Poppins children's books, Brit P.J.
Travers (Emma Thompson), was cajoled
into giving Walt Disney (Tom Hanks)
the right to make the 1964 film Mary


Disney did this by bringing Travers
to Hollywood, where she met with his
crack, young songwriting team, Richard
Sherman, now 85, and his brother,
Robert Sherman (1925-2012). They
are played, respectively, by Jason
Schwartzman, 33, and B.J. Novak (The
Office), 34. These two actors (while in
character) sing the Sherman brothers'
Oscar-winning song, "Chim Chim Cher-
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on
a bestselling memoir by Wall Street
penny-stock manipulator and corrupt

stockbroker Jordan Belfort, now 51.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, it stars
Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfort.
The Jewish cast members include
Rob Reiner, 66, as Belfort's father;
Jonah Hill, 30, as Belfort's top aide;

Jon Bernthal (Mob City), 37, as a drug-
dealing money launderer; and Jon
Favreau, 47, as Ira
Lee Sorkin, now 70,

as Belfort's (real-life)
defense attorney.

The Secret Life of
Walter Mitty stars
Ben Stiller, 48, in

the title role of this
updated version of
the famous comedic
James Thurber character. Stiller also
wrote and directed the flick.


Grudge Match, directed by Peter
Segal, stars Robert DeNiro and

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