The Pearl that Broke Its Shell
Nadia Hashimi has a unique investment in THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL, more than an author normally would when writing a first novel. Though she was born and raised in the United States --- living most of her childhood and early adulthood in New York and New Jersey --- her parents are first-generation immigrants, having left their home in Afghanistan to come to America in the 1970s. The narrative of Hashimi’s book --- the struggles of two generations of women coming of age in Afghanistan --- mirrors the experiences of those who share her heritage.
In addition to acquiring a degree in Biology and later becoming a doctor, Hashimi also majored in Middle Eastern Studies. In 2002, just after the September 11th attacks, she traveled to her parents’ homeland for the first time, uniting with relatives and witnessing firsthand the deep cultural history and political changes she had been reading about during her studies at Brandeis University. The experience also inspired her book.
Jumping back and forth in time over the course of a century, THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL interlaces the stories of two women who share comparable fates. The first, set in modern-day Kabul, follows nine-year-old Rahima --- the third youngest child in a family of daughters. The second, set in the early 1900s during King Habibullah’s reign, concerns Rahima’s great-great-grandmother, Shekiba. Despite the differences in Afghanistan’s political climate, the characters’ stories are remarkably similar.
"THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL is an intimate portrayal of a woman’s plight in Afghanistan, dealing with lack of education, inequality, domestic violence and sexual servitude."
Like so many women in Afghanistan, Rahima begins her life with a handicap: her gender. To give her a leg up and so she can help with chores around the house, her mother begins dressing her as a bacha posh --- an ancient custom that allows girls to be treated as boys until they are of marriageable age. But the freedom is short-lived, and soon, tempted by the promise of a large bride price and unlimited access to opium, her father marries off the 13-year-old Rahima, along with her two older sisters, Shahla and Parwin, to wealthy men who are old enough to be their father.
For Rahima, life with her new husband --- a warlord infamous throughout the region --- is anything but comfortable. Though she’s surrounded by opulence, her duties as his fourth wife resemble those of a baby machine and slave. She soon bears him a son, but to a limited reprieve, and it’s all Rahima can do make it through the day and avoid punishment, especially after Parwin sets herself on fire in protest.
Rahima’s situation is near hopeless, but her son --- and the stories about her great-great-grandmother --- keep her going. Shekiba, too, faced inordinate hardship as a child. Half of her face was disfigured in an accident when she was a baby. After her family perished in a cholera epidemic, Shekiba was sold off by opportunistic relatives and became a different sort of bacha posh --- a servant for King Habibullah. Along with other women who dressed as men, she was tasked with watching over the king’s harem. But jealousy and secrets among the women ran rampant, and Shekiba was thrown in jail and nearly stoned for a crime she didn’t commit.
The women’s journeys aren’t all suffering, however. Rahima, especially, experiences glimpses of joy (with the birth of her son) and hope (a taste of freedom when she accompanies her husband’s first wife to Kabul as the assistant to a member of Parliament) amidst the sorrow. “I had already experienced her double life, living as a boy,” Hashimi writes of Rahima comparing herself to Shekiba. “I wanted to see the places she’d seen. But I wanted more than she had too. I didn’t want to be a pawn the way she had been, passed from one set of hands to another. I wanted to be bolder. I wanted to make my naseeb, not have it handed to me…. She looked for chances to make her own naseeb. I, her great-great-granddaughter, could do the same.”
THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL is an intimate portrayal of a woman’s plight in Afghanistan, dealing with lack of education, inequality, domestic violence and sexual servitude. But while the tale of Rahima’s and Shekiba’s long endurance is an important one to tell, perhaps what’s more significant given today’s near-constant state of global upheaval is how old policies and traditions began evolving. Though she touches upon these developments toward the end of the book with Rashimi’s experiences in Kabul, Hashimi glosses over large swathes of history --- the assassination of King Habibullah, the third Anglo-Afghan war, Parliamentary elections --- in just a few short chapters.
Still, it’s hard not to be inspired by the image we are left with at the end of the novel as Her Majesty Queen Soraya Tarzi, newly appointed education minister, lifts off her chador and says, “Do you think, however, that our nation from the outset needs only men to serve it? Women should also take their part as women did in the early years of our nation and Islam. From their examples we must learn that we must all contribute toward the development of our nation and this cannot be done without being equipped with knowledge.”
For Rahima, Shekiba, Hashimi and all Afghan women, these times, they are a-changin’.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on May 9, 2014
The Pearl that Broke Its Shell
- Publication Date: May 6, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 464 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow
- ISBN-10: 0062244752
- ISBN-13: 9780062244758