The February meeting of Muse and Views was held at Janet’s home to discuss Nadia Hashimi’s The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, Carla’s choice. Janet served delicacies to celebrate the Afghanistan setting of the book—dates and pistachios, chicken kabobs with a smoked paprika marinade, Afghani spinach dip, and rosewater cookies for dessert. In attendance were Carla, Colette, Beth, Shirley, Jane, Betty, Jolene and Janet.
Carla introduced the author as an American pediatrician of Afghani descent, with a degree in Middle Eastern studies and biology. Ms. Hashimi’s parents left Afghanistan in the 1970’s. Her mother pursued a Master's degree in civil engineering in Europe while her father sought the American dream. This book is the author’s first novel. Her second is entitled When the Moon is Low, again about issues in Afghanistan, this time following the story of people who flee the Taliban and end up in the dark world of the undocumented.
The Pearl that Broke Its Shell deals with gender identity and a male-dominated society. Ms. Hashimi introduces the notion of the bacha posh, a cultural tradition in which young girls dress like boys in order to help their mothers with marketing and other responsibilities. Only as boys do these girls seem to achieve a degree of freedom and education in villages dominated by oppressive warlords who routinely take young brides and beat them into submission (often with several older wives already under their control, who may choose to augment the abuse).
Club reviews were mixed. All were appalled by the violence suffered by women, particularly in smaller settlements. Even in the capital city, the book depicted democracy as a veneer, with puppet wives in Parliament often voting only as their husbands command. While many felt the story riveting, others were disappointed with the writing style, where western expressions and unrealistic plot twists to move the story along seemed to betray the author’s lack of experience. Possibly due to translation difficulties, no one was able to satisfactorily interpret the poem that inspired the book’s title. We did enjoy the fact that the central character, Rahima, was finally able to courageously break out of her shell and escape, helped by a western woman and two other modern thinkers. Interestingly, Janet added insights from her travels to Hawaii, where pearls in broken shells are often better than those drawn from in-tact oysters.
Several noted connections to previous reads. Annabel dealt with gender identity, and books such as The Kite Runner, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and 1000 Splendid Suns addressed related cultural themes. Lest we feel morally superior in the West, we also commented on our own society’s issue of objectifying women through pornography. All in all, we had a very interesting discussion of a book with educational value about a culture often in the news.