Home » blogs

Once I lived in a harem

Phyllis CheslerToday I am the grandmother of two precious girls - and one day I will have quite a story to tell them.

Girls: I once lived in a harem in Afghanistan. My Afghan bridegroom was a wealthy, Westernised "chap" (he conducted himself as if he were British), a man I had known for years at college in America.

He was my first real boyfriend. He had never mentioned that his father had three wives and twenty-one children and that I would be living in purdah, isolated and segregated together with my mother-in-law - and that she would expect me to convert to Islam.

This was not the adventure I had in mind. My idea was to travel across Europe, then see the incredible sites in Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif and return to finish college. But officials seized my American passport when we landed and I automatically became the property of a large Afghan family - and the citizen of no country on earth.

I learned about Eastern people in a way that the great British travelers (Sir Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, Rosita Forbes, Freya Stark) could not. I learned (the hard way) that without a husband and sons a woman cannot survive and that women and children are a man’s property. They are his to protect or abuse. They are his to kill. It is the way things are.

This is seen as “normal.” Exposing it is considered a capital crime.

I fancied myself quite the rebel but I found myself trapped in the Middle Ages, without a passport back.

My Afghan family had servants, the latest model cars, chauffeurs, gardens, balconies, villas - and if one sat out at night, the stars were a cluster of golden grapes, close enough to pluck. The carpets were thick and beautiful, my sisters-in-law were sophisticated and kind.

But I was not allowed to leave the family compound without a male chaperone and a female relative or two. My mother-in-law kept giving me kerchiefs (hijab) and a long coat for family outings. She also launched a campaign to convert me to Islam.

My unexpected house arrest was not as shocking as was my husband’s refusal to acknowledge it as such. Of course, I escaped as soon as I could. When I first saw women in ghostly burqas huddled at the back of a bus, I was outraged and frightened; that my family treated this as normal made things worse. My husband insisted that this custom was on its way out. He was right—but the good times did not last for long.

I was living in a culture where extreme gender apartheid was normal and where my reactions to it were considered abnormal.

Eventually, after I became ill and nearly died, I was allowed to return to America temporarily “for reasons of health.” Thereafter, I refused to return, but I had entered America on an Afghan passport with a six-month visa. I had to fight to remain in my own country. Meanwhile, my husband would not agree to a divorce, forcing me to obtain an annulment.

Other things you might like...
  • Get your guest post published.
  • Chat about travel on our forums.
  • Browse through the other guest posts on               the Gransnet blog.

My Afghan husband and I both remarried but we met again in New York when he escaped the Soviet invasion. Our families befriended each other. I knew his children, attended their graduations, I loved his recently deceased wife, our children bonded. In its way, this relationship endured for half a century.

I had originally wanted to use my own experience as a way of reviving the more daring adventures of other Western women travelers to Afghanistan and to the Islamic world; their stories are fabulous.

However, in my lifetime, Afghanistan turned into a Margaret Atwood dystopian novel - even darker and more misogynistic than The Handmaid’s Tale. Given the increasingly barbaric persecution and subordination of Muslim women, I decided to connect my own brush with purdah and gender apartheid to the surreal lives of Afghan and Muslim women today.

Despite everything, I am still romantic about my Afghan adventure - just not in the usual sense of romance. I love that I was there. I love the breathtaking diversity of the people.

Perhaps I once lived somewhere in central Asia in a previous life. If so, I hope that I was a warrior, not an imprisoned concubine; a scribe, not one of many wives in a polygamous household.

The subject of Afghanistan and its people still haunts me - but I am a writer and the material has also proved irresistible, wondrous. Ironies abound. I fled the indoor and secluded life of the harem, but as a writer I actually lead such a life. When I write, I am usually wearing a long loose caftan. Part of me will always long for perfumed gardens, interior courtyards, brightly glazed hookahs, the smells and sounds of the bazaar, snow-capped mountains, and a thrilling expanse of sky.

Some believe in vino veritas, that wine loosens inhibition and allows one to speak forbidden truths. For me in scribo veritas. Only by writing do I discover the truth.

Really, why did I go to Afghanistan?

Why else than to be able to tell you about it now, at this moment in history. It was kismet, bashert, fated, written in the stars; clearly it was my destiny.

And so, once upon a time, long, long ago, your grandmother lived in a harem…

You can read more from Phyllis Chesler in her book, An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir and leave your comments on the thread.