Sunday, November 18, 2007

My Forbidden Face by Latifa

My Forbidden Face Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman’s Story is the eye witness account of a young woman who was born and raised under the Soviet occupation but who, as a teenager, witnesses the takeover by terror of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

‘Latifa’ is not the author’s birth name but her assumed name now that she and her family live as exiles in France as a result of having a fatwa slapped upon them and receiving death threats.

This book is a revealing account of the political overthrow by the Taliban, the rapid revolution of terror and chaos and its endless creativity for inventing illogical laws to maintain control and suffocate its citizens.

As a Muslim, the author argues how the Taliban, though operating within the veil of rigorous religion, has departed from the essence of Islam. Like all fundamentalist groups, the Taliban is described more by what it is against than for what it stands for: No videos (tapes are stripped from cassettes and draped around trees), no TV, no photographs (no memories), no alcohol, no dancing (even at weddings), no whistling kettles, no dogs, no birds, no nail polish, no cultural treasures (the Taliban vandals destroy the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan) and no more kites in Kabul (‘the Taliban have outlawed the skies’).

Latifa tells of the marginalization of women under the Taliban, since it has decreed that women will no longer work, no longer be able to go to school and no longer have any health treatment. The account depicts the confinement of women, their thirst in an intellectual desert, their punishment by rape and the cruel tradition in which Afghani women who are violated are obliged to marry their rapist or be condemned to exile or death.

The author relays the psychological and physical impact due to the restrictions on her as a budding journalist, the profound depression ‘that is swallowing up’ her medico mother, the heavy weight that presses down on her father and brothers whose business and livelihoods suffer.

Despite the bleak mood of the book, there are touches of humor as Latifa tells of how she and her friends grew up nicknaming women who wore burqas as ‘bottles’, ‘upside-down cauliflowers, ‘storage sacks’ and collectively as ‘a regiment of parachutists’!

Any mirth quickly evaporates as Latifa and her fashionable friends are forced to wear the heavy burqas with the distinctive latticework, whose mesh is reduced even further by the short-sighted, stick-wielding Taliban police.

For a young journo and writer (the book was published when the author was only 22), whose first language is translated into French and then into English, this book is superbly written and contains a wealth of colorful images. Latifa describes her cloistered experience as feeling like ‘a canary in a cage’. She likens her wearing of the burqa to existing in ‘a moving prison’.

Latifa tells of the shutting down of the media in Afghanistan and its replacement with a diet of mindless propaganda. She rages against the international amnesia that has afflicted world governments and foreign journalists. This feeling of being forgotten by the BBC and the Voice of America is summed up by Latifa’s brother who says of Afghanis, “We’re like rats in some dark hole that is inaccessible to the rest of the world.” (p153)

Although set in the minor key, this book presents promising glimpses of the courage of its author and her family, who represent the many unnamed heroes whose stories are never told, in the running of a clandestine health clinic out of their home, the establishment of a secret school for children and the operation of an underground newspaper to satisfy the appetite for local and international news.

Written in exile, this book is a promise of hope, a literary treat to a nation starved of storytelling, a tribute to women who have kept their dignity and, as the author hopes, a key to other women, “whose speech has been padlocked and who have buried their testimony in their hearts and in their memories.” (pv)

Latifa with Chékéha Hacheim, trans. Lisa Appignanesi, My Forbidden Face Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman’s Story (London: Virago, 2002).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 49.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of My Forbidden Face.

Other books that are reviewed on Afghanistan that convey similar themes but offer their unique perspective are the following, with their links:

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen (Pakistan and Afghanistan)

Other books reviewed that highlight the oppression of women include:

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi

My Name is Salma by Fadia Faqir

State of Terror by Karen women