The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi
See the entwined pair of hands? Although the girl and woman never meet, they remain forever bound by both blood and experience over a tumultuous century in Afghanistan. The woman is Shekiba, the only daughter in a family of sons, whose gender alone makes her a target of abuse and persecution. Four generations later, Shekiba’s great-great granddaughter, Rahima, remains trapped by the same traditions and laws that devalue women. And yet in spite of their constrained circumstances, both Shekiba and Rahima share an unusual past: both experience the brief freedom of living as bacha posh, an ancient custom that transforms daughters into sons.
When Rahima and her two older sisters are accosted returning from school, their education abruptly ends. In 2007 Kabul, while women again struggle under insurgent Taliban control, Rahima is given the chance to become Rahim, the son who can chaperone his sisters and mother outside their constricting home, go to school, play in the streets with other boys … and suddenly be free.
Rahima’s transformation as a bacha posh is especially encouraged by Khala Shaima, the girls’ maternal aunt whose “twisted spine” denied her marriage but allowed her comparative independence. She shares the stories of Shekiba, the ancestor who also lived temporarily as a man. In spite of onerous challenges, Shekiba survived: burning oil melted half of her 2-year-old-face, cholera claimed the lives of her mother and brothers, and the family’s fertile fields taught her to toil harder and better than any man. When, at 18, she loses her father, her estranged relatives grudgingly reclaim her, abusing her as a servant until they barter her away to another family. Shekiba eventually becomes Shekib, serving in the royal Kabul court as a guard policing the King’s harem, until tragedy forces her back into her womanly place …
Rahima, too, can’t stay free for long. Her opium-addicted father sells her and her two older sisters in marriage to a powerful warlord and his two cousins. Rahima is just 13; her sisters, 14 and 15. The men are decades older; Rahima is her husband’s fourth wife. As violent as her husband is, his mother proves to be the most vicious of all.
The American-born daughter of two Afghan immigrants, Nadia Hashimi adds to a growing list of lauded titles by medical doctor-authors: The Third Son by Julie Wu, The Blue Notebook and Bingo’s Run by James A. Levine, and even Hashimi’s best-known literary compatriot, Khaled Hosseini. [I always want to ask these inspiringly talented souls when they ever sleep!] Hashimi’s debut is an intricately-choreographed dance between two interlinked souls, downtrodden yet tenacious, victimized yet ultimately hopeful.
Expansively detailed, Pearl is no doubt difficult to read (or listen to as admirably narrated by Gin Hammond who moves effortlessly between childish excitement and aged gravitas): the deprivation and violence against girls and women demands witnesses, especially as such treatment is so widespread even now. Most ironically tragic of all is the horrifying treatment women endure at the whims of other women; women perpetuate the inequity and punishment as much as, if not more so, than the men. That said, the few women who lift up other women, who are dedicated to initiating lasting change refuse to be ignored, from unwavering Khala Shaima to the outspoken parliamentarian Zamarud willing to risk her life. They are the leading inspiration for brave changemakers forging the path that young Rahima, as long as she can survive, will need to follow …