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An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir

An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir - Phyllis Chesler Actual rating: 3.5 stars. Partly because, yes, I think some of this was poorly edited, and partly because I don't feel right giving a full four stars to any book that needs a warning label. Like the one I'm giving it right now: Do NOT read this if you're already bummed out. It was stupid of me to pick this up right now. But it's an important book, so I'm glad I read it. And, yes, I'm glad I'm done.

If you're already familiar with Phyllis Chesler -- author of vitally important books such as Women and Madness, Mothers On Trial, and Women, Money, and Power -- you may be as startled as I was to learn that when she was still a teenager, she married a man from Afghanistan. On his insistence, she went with him to his native country to live with his family. She almost died there before managing to escape.

The man she fell in love with in America became her captor and abuser in Afghanistan. And yet she now considers him a friend, dotes on his children from his second marriage, and mourns the death of his second wife, whom she considers a sister.

An American Bride in Kabul is the story of how this can all be true. Probably the most compelling aspect of it is that Chesler doesn't try to rationalize how one of the founding feminists of American second-wave feminism can feel genuine fondness for a man she acknowledges is "a misogynist, a charming misogynist, an educated and seemingly assimilated misogynist, but awful where wives and feminism are concerned." Emotions are irrational, or this world wouldn't be such a mess.

This book is at its strongest -- is spellbinding, in fact -- when Chesler focuses on her own story. She quotes from a diary she kept while still a prisoner. She explains to her Western readers what a harem truly is (it's not about sex and it's definitely not sexy). She compares her own experiences to those of other Western women who have ventured into similar marriages (she did a lot of research before writing this book). And she is ferociously commanding when she addresses Western feminists and their failings when it comes to sexism in the Middle East.

I think the tenth and eleventh chapters needed some editing. It's startling that anyone writing about 9/11 could be less than compelling, but Chesler's chapter on that very topic felt like something from a different book than the one she'd started. And, yes, all right, I'm shallow; but it was hard for me to switch gears and go from a gripping personal story to a twenty-page chapter about the history of Jews in Afghanistan. Chesler manages to weave this history into her own story with a surprising twist, but before she got there, I felt myself drifting.

Nevertheless, this book ought to be required reading if only for the parts where Chesler addresses the Western tendency toward moral relativism and our fear of looking racist if we tackle Middle-Eastern sexism.

Read this early in the morning on a summer's day so you'll have a long afternoon of sunshine in which to recover.