The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi
Published by William Morrow
Publication date: May 6th 2014
Genres: Book Clubs, Cultural, Fiction, Historical
Nadia Hashimi merges the past with the present in the story of two women from one family. Rahima has the grave misfortune to be yet another daughter born into her family. In Afghanistan the lack of sons is a social and economic disaster. Her father is addicted to opium and does little or no work. Without a son to go out in the world and shop and work for the family their situation is desperate. It is Rahima’s beloved aunt Shaima who reminds her mother of an ancient custom: bacha posh—treating a young girl as a boy in families were there are no male children. So, from the time she is nine until she is thirteen, Rahima is Rahim to everyone, even within her home. Her hair is cut short, she wears boys’ clothes and is allowed to work, play, and go to school outside the family compound. It is a period of the greatest joy in her life until she unwittingly causes a fight between her parents and her drug addled father decides to marry off his three oldest daughters, including Rahima.
Aunt Shaima is the girls’ strongest ally and before they were sold off in marriage she visits and helps pass the hours by telling the tale of their great-great-grandmother, Shekiba, who lived in the early 1900s. As a young child hot oil spills on half her face and with no medical care she is disfigured for life. When her family dies of the cholera epidemic she is taken by her father’s mother to live in their compound and work as a slave. Later, she is used to pay off a debt and ultimately is given to the king’s household to help guard his harem. She works and lives as a man but is still filled with the insecurity of being a woman as she can be bartered away or worse at any time.
Hashimi writes an engrossing story but it is difficult reading for those who live in a secular society. In The Pearl that Broke its Shell women have no value beyond their ability to bear sons. They are chattel with no rights, even in 2007. There is no point in even dreaming of a better life because if husbands or male family members aren’t abusing you there is equally harsh treatment to be expected from mothers-in-law who are vicious and cruel or older wives whose envy and fear of being displaced makes them bitter. So, while Hashimi vividly portrays much of the color and culture of the country it is the sadness that permeates the page.
On the one hand diversity in reading is a marvelous thing. To read and learn of other cultures through fiction is a gateway to worlds we may never see. On the other, it makes us painfully aware of how much injustice there is out there and that the majority of it is directed at women and children. Both Rahima and Shekiba are strong, bright women who are beaten with impunity and denied what we consider to be the most basic rights of humans. Much in the way Khaled Hosseini does in A Thousand Splendid Suns so Hashimi also replicates a world with so much pain and injustice it seems unfathomable that anyone could survive. And yet, in their time and circumstances the two women use their wits and their will to persevere and to try and carve out some kind of lives for themselves.
Ask for too much and it might actually turn out worse. But I can pray for small things, like fertile fields, a mother’s love, a child’s smile—a life that’s less bitter than sweet.