Book review: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

Two generations of Afghan women, separated by 100 years of their country’s war-torn history, but their plight almost identical…

Wednesday, 28th January 2015, 9:00 am
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

Afghan-American Nadia Hashimi’s remarkable debut novel is a powerful and harrowing reminder that in 2011 Afghanistan was declared the worst country in the world to be a woman by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Hashimi’s parents emigrated to the States in the early 1970s before she was born but her life is still steeped in the history and culture of Afghanistan where women are stripped of their rights and must continue the struggle to be valued as part of society.

Through friends, family and women working with the Afghan parliament, Hashimi has learned of their frustrations, heartbreak and triumph, and penned this fascinating and compelling story to share the women’s experiences in a fictional work ‘that is made up of a thousand truths.’

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Written with the same cultural awareness and emotional intensity as the works of Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri and Lisa See, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is a moving and exquisitely tender tale which interweaves the lives of two women from the same family battling to control their destinies.

Born a century and several generations apart, Rahima and Shekiba share the same courage and dreams, and both find freedom in the Afghan tradition of bacha posh which allows girls to dress and live like boys until they reach marriageable age.

In Kabul in 2007, nine-year-old Rahima and her four sisters are the only children of their opium-addicted father and a mother who slumps under the weight of disappointment that she has produced no boys.

Increasingly angry and forceful, their father allows them to rarely leave the house and to attend school only periodically as the older girls are starting to attract the attention of local boys.

The beleaguered family’s ‘safety net’ is their aunt Shaima whose birth defect, a crooked spine, has made her unmarriageable and who now channels all her energies into her nieces.

When the girls are banned by their father from going to school again because they have no brother to escort them there, Shaima recalls her great grandmother Shekiba who was born over a century ago and who used the age-old tradition of bacha posh in an attempt to forge her own destiny.

It is agreed that Rahima, already a resourceful and forthright girl, will dress and be treated as a boy until she is of marriageable age. As a son, she can attend school, go to the market and chaperone her older sisters.

One hundred years earlier in Kabul, we meet Shekiba. Her face was left badly scarred by a childhood accident, a catastrophe in a country where deformities are not easily forgiven.

Made to feel ‘ugly’ and ‘a horror,’ she is forced to wear a burqa to hide her scars.

When she is orphaned and left entirely alone by a cholera epidemic, Shekiba tries to make her own life until family intervene and she is packed off to dress as a man and work as a guard at King Habibullah’s harem because the king doesn’t trust men to watch over his women.

But what will happen once Rahima reaches puberty and she is forced into marriage? How will she survive when her independence gained through living as a boy is taken away? And will Shekiba always have to live as a man?

This is a beautifully written and crafted story about two women empowered by a tradition that allows them to participate more fully in society by taking on a male role. But inevitably, there are limits and legacies to their freedom.

We witness women at all levels of society, and in two different centuries, facing the same restrictions and prejudices, whether it is in the back streets of Kabul or the opulence of the king’s palace.

Rahima draws strength from the courage and determination of her amazing great great grandmother Shekiba and it is this tenacity, this desire to survive despite everything which Hashimi sees as the quality changing the face of Afghanistan today, and giving hope for tomorrow.

A gripping and revealing insight into a woman’s life in one of the world’s most troubled countries.

(William Morrow, paperback, £8.99)