MY FORBIDDEN FACE is a true story written by a 16-year-old girl who faithfully recorded events over a five-year period as they happened to her and her family in their country of Afghanistan after it was taken over by the Taliban.
Early last year, Latifa and her parents escaped Afghanistan with the help of a French-based Afghan resistance group. She is now 22 years old and living in Paris. The author's real name is unknown to readers; she used the psuedonym Latifa to write the book because she still has family and friends back in Afghanistan, where she was born and raised in an educated, middle-class family.
Latifa briefly describes her family's life as a happy, contented existence in a united, affectionate, religious, and liberal family. Her father has his own import/export business; her mother is a doctor. One of her sisters, 20-year-old Soraya, is a flight attendant, the other, Shakila, is married, living in Pakistan and on her way to the US with her husband. Her older brother Wahid fought during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while another brother Daoud is an economics major in college. Latifa looks forward to being a journalist. As the youngest, she is spoiled and catered to.
The story begins on September 27, 1996 --- the day that the white flag of the Taliban is flown over Kabul, the same day that Latifa goes to the town's square to see the mutilated body of a former president and then becomes a prisoner in her home.
In shock and horror, Latifa observes how life in her country has changed in one day: "Just yesterday, despite the civil war, life was 'normal' in Kabul, even though the city is in ruins. Yesterday, I went to the seamstress with my sister to try on dresses we were going to wear to a wedding today. There would have been music. We would have danced," she writes, in a manner reminiscent of Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager who chronicled the horrors of the Nazi regime.
From 1997 to 2001, the Taliban brutalize the city, heaping inhumanities and indignities on women, who are banned from working, from schools, from public life and from leaving their homes without a male relative. Under the Taliban, media do not exist (Latifa and her family tune into BBC or Voice of America), but the Taliban do use the local radio broadcast to read from the Quran and announce their rules --- no pets, no music, no television, no photographs, no guns, no portraits, no Western books, no education for girls and only religious classes for boys.
There are poignant scenes of Latifa in her room with the posters of Brooke Shields and Elvis, her sweatpants and running shoes, while her family packs away family heirlooms, stores away makeup and colored clothes, sets free their canary and sends their dog Bingo away to relatives in the countryside.
Latifa and her family somehow survive the years by first helping their mother tend to her patients with the frugal medications and supplies she has until she runs out of them. Then, he mother helps her daughters and their friends run a school to teach the neighborhood children, who come to study without any books or pens, fearful of being caught in the pursuit of a well-rounded education.
With honesty and pain, Latifa describes her world --- the world of a girl in Kabul --- educated first during the Soviet occupation, then under communist regimes throughout four years of civil war, and finally as a witness to the horrors inflicted by the Taliban.
Now, she fervently wishes great things for her country, beginning with unity, prosperity enhanced by education and medical facilities. "I pray God that whoever will lead our country may be, in his heart, as much Pashtun, as Tajik, as much Uzbek as Hazara…that our culture may be reborn from the ruins of our pillaged museums."
But she also adds, she will "do more than just pray. Because when the last talib has put away his black turban and I can be a free woman in a free Afghanistan, I will take up my life there once more and do my duty as a citizen, as a woman, and, I hope, as a mother."
Reviewed by Sonia Chopra on March 13, 2002