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Birchbark Blog

Things I Didn't Know

Louise Erdrich - Friday, December 12, 2014

Last August we were sorting through the advanced readers copies that had collected on the bookstore shelves. My daughter Pallas picked up The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg. I thought I'd seen the last of that book, but Pallas came back for Christmas and put that reading copy in my hands. She told me to read it, I did, and now I have to say to you. READ THIS. The Underground Girls of Kabul is subtitled: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. This book. If you read it, you will never forget Azita, Mehran, Zahra, Shukria, or Shahed -- all women who have been raised as boys in Afghanistan -- and then forced to return to being women. Nordberg explores a cultural practice that astonished me. It makes sense -- to "make" a girl at birth into a boy, for at least part of her life, is to give her a taste of what it is to be human. To have a will. Often, it is a magical practice that will supposedly prompt a woman's body to produce a male. Most hauntingly, one of these women became a "brother" to a real brother in order to protect him from possible poisoning by a previous wife in a polygamous marriage. She ate everything and drank everything before her brother. You will not stop reading this book until you find out what happens to these women -- what is happening to them now.

Karima Bennoune, a professor of international law at UC-Davis, grew up in Algeria. Her impassioned and superbly intelligent book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, begins with this sentence: "Could I defend my father from the Armed Islamic Group with a paring knife?"  Bennoune's father, Mahfoud Bennoune, taught Darwinism and was a fearless critic of armed fundamentalists like the Islamic Salvation Front, who sponsored assassinations of of Bennoune's fellow professors. Her experience impelled Karima Bennoune to travel the world, at great personal risk, in order to interview moderate Muslim people, often women, who cogently and steadfastly insist on human rights in violently fundamentalist settings. She has described herself (I was lucky enough to meet her) as "the woman who makes people cry" because these stories about people who strive to maintain humanity, who die for the right to dissent, to speak freely, become educated, dance, write, paint, sing, bare their faces to the wind, their hair to the sky, and who insist that the memory of those killed in this struggle not be erased, these stories include unbearable loss. Yet the stubborn will to resist is mesmerizing -- I could not stop reading this book until page 195 (the hardcover). In the middle of this page, I had to set the book down in order to cry, too, along with the people whose existence gave me a sense of human grandeur. 

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