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An American Jewish 'Bride' Remembers Her Escape From Kabul

Oct 6, 2013
Originally published on October 6, 2013 11:14 am

Phyllis Chesler and Abdul-Kareem met in college. She was an 18-year-old Jewish girl from the East Coast; he was a young Muslim man from a wealthy Afghan family. They fell in love over New Wave cinema, poetry and existentialism, and eventually they married.

In her new memoir, An American Bride in Kabul, Chesler tells her story of excitedly traveling to Afghanistan in 1961 with her new husband, who said he wanted to be a modernizing force in his country. But, as she tells NPR's Rachel Martin, her passport was almost immediately confiscated upon arrival.

"I was shocked. I resisted, I refused to give it up and I was persuaded that it's a small matter, that it would be returned, sent to the home. I never saw it again," she says. "And I tried to leave — I would go to the American embassy and they'd say, 'We can't help you if you don't have an American passport.'"

Chesler soon found herself a virtual prisoner — an Afghan wife with no rights.


Interview Highlights

On what her days were like in Afghanistan

My Afghan husband went off to do something, I know not what – have tea with minister after minister, present his credentials and so on, which is how he would then get his place and move up, which he did. I was left home. I watched my mother-in-law sew. I watched her hit the female servants and curse them.

On not being able to leave the house without a male escort

My husband feared that if I wandered about I would be kidnapped and raped — an American kid in jeans and sneakers. But progress was in the air, there was hope in the air and my husband really believed that Kabul would soon one day become Paris on the Kabul River.

On how getting horribly sick helped her get out of Afghanistan

I got dysentery, but that was not as terrifying as the hepatitis, which had killed every other foreigner that season. And so I really speeded up escape plans. And at the very last minute, when I had kind of an escape plan in the works, my father-in-law, a very dapper fellow, he said, "I know about your little plan and I think it might be better if you leave for health reasons on an Afghan passport, which I have procured for you." I bless him forever for that.

... When I got back here and I literally kissed the ground at Idlewild [Kennedy] Airport, I said, "Back home in the land of liberty and libraries." I then had a note from the State Department, by and by, saying, "You have to leave. You came on a visa — it's up." I said, "Oh, sirs, I will chain myself to the Statue of Liberty. I'm not leaving." And it took two and a half years to straighten it all out.

On how she and her husband ended things

My husband would not agree to a divorce and I had to get an annulment. But when he fled just before the Soviets invaded, he came to call upon me. ... And he said to me, he said, "I had hoped that you would have been more ambitious, that you would have seen what you could accomplish in bringing this country into the 20th or 21st centuries. Instead, you turned tail and ran. True, you wrote a few books for a few people, but where does that measure up?" I was stunned.

On how she feels about him today

I sometimes think that I've yearned for the mystical union which we represent, for the bridging of cultures that cannot be bridged, for the continuation of tenderness when legal bonds have failed. Do I forgive him? I survived and I came away with a writer's treasure, ultimately. And he became a muse for this book. He's a character now in the book and I have tenderness for this character.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Eighteen-year-old Phyllis Chesler is a Jewish girl from the East Coast. In college she meets Abdul-Kareem, a young Muslim man from a wealthy Afghan family. They fall in love over New Wave cinema, poetry, existentialism. they get married. In her new memoir, "An American Bride in Kabul," Chesler tells how she excitedly traveled to Afghanistan back in 1961 with her then new husband who said he wanted to be a modernizing force in his country, with his wife by his side.

This was under the Afghan monarchy, pre-Soviet invasion, pre-Taliban. But once arriving in Kabul, Chesler found herself a virtual prisoner. She became an Afghan wife with no rights. Right off, she said her passport was taken away.

PHYLLIS CHESLER: I was shocked, I resisted, I refused to give it up and I was persuaded that it's a small matter, that it would be returned, sent to the home. I never saw it again and I tried to leave. I would go to the American embassy and they'd say we can't help you if you don't have an American passport.

MARTIN: So what were those early days like? There you are in Kabul, Abdul-Kareem's entire family has accepted you begrudgingly. How did you spend your days?

CHESLER: My Afghan husband went off to do something, I know not what, have tea with minister after minister, present his credentials and so on, which is how he would then get his place and move up, which he did. I was left home. I watched my mother-in-law sew. I watched her hit the female servants and curse them.

MARTIN: You were not allowed to leave without a male escort.

CHESLER: Yes. And, you know, my husband feared that if I wandered about I would be kidnapped and raped - an American kid in jeans and sneakers. But progress was in the air, there was hope in the air and my husband really believed that Kabul would soon one day become Paris on the Kabul River.

MARTIN: And that's what he kept telling you, to encourage you, to make you believe there was hope that all this would pass, that you two could be on the forefront of bringing change to this country.

CHESLER: Yes. It was some hope, it was some promise, but I was very bored.

MARTIN: You got horribly sick and that debilitating illness ended up buying you your freedom in some way, right?

CHESLER: Yeah, absolutely. I got dysentery, but that was not as terrifying as the hepatitis, which had killed every other foreigner that season. And so I really speeded up escape plans. And at the very last minute, when I had kind of an escape plan in the works, my father-in-law, a very dapper fellow, he said I know about your little plan and I think it might be better if you leave for health reasons on an Afghan passport, which I have procured for you. I bless him forever for that.

Now, on the other hand, when I got back here and I literally kissed the ground at Idlewild Airport, I said back home in the land of liberty and libraries. I then had a note from the State Department, by and by, saying you have to leave. You came on a visa - it's up. I said, oh, sirs, I will chain myself to the Statue of Liberty. I'm not leaving. And it took two and a half years to straighten it all out. My husband would not agree to a divorce and I had to get an annulment. But when he fled just before the Soviets invaded, he came to call upon me.

MARTIN: So, let's talk about that. Flash forward. Soviets invade and occupy Afghanistan. Your husband has since remarried, he has a new family. He flees to the States and gets in touch with you.

CHESLER: And he said to me, he said I had hoped that you would have been more ambitious, that you would have seen what you could accomplish in bringing this country into the 20th or 21st centuries. Instead, you turned tail and ran. True, you wrote a few books for a few people, but where does that measure up? I was stunned.

MARTIN: And yet, you still speak of him with a kind of fondness. Is that residual from that time when you were so young or is there something that binds you still?

CHESLER: I sometimes think that I've yearned for the mystical union which we represent, for the bridging of cultures that cannot be bridged, for the continuation of tenderness when legal bonds have failed. Do I forgive him? I survived and I came away with a writer's treasure, ultimately. And he became a muse for this book. He's a character now in the book and I have tenderness for this character.

MARTIN: Phyllis Chesler is the author of a new memoir titled "An American Bride in Kabul." She joined us from our studios in New York. Ms. Chesler, thank you so much for talking with us.

CHESLER: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.