Skip to main content

Interview: May 9, 2014

Nadia Hashimi's parents left Afghanistan in the 1970s before the Soviet invasion. In 2002, Hashimi visited Afghanistan for the first time. It wasn’t that trip, though --- at least not directly --- that inspired her debut novel, THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL, but an article about the ancient Afghan custom of having girls dress and act like boys until they reach a marriageable age. In this interview with’s Alexis Burling, Hashimi opens up about her childhood as a first-generation American, how impressed she was by her Afghan cousins’ dedication to their education, despite obstacles, and why she feels “somewhat hopeful” for the political and social future of Afghanistan. On a lighter note, she talks about sassy Afghan women and how lucky she feels to have time in her life to be a writer and a pediatrician, in addition to being a mother. You were born in the United States and grew up in New York and New Jersey. Your parents are from Afghanistan and came to America in the early 1970s. Describe what it was it like growing up as a first-generation American with parents from a different culture. How did they balance new and old traditions in their household?

Nadia Hashimi: As an adult, I look back on my childhood as a first-generation American and don’t think my experience was all that different than that of my neighbors. (It’s harder to see that through adolescent eyes, of course!) America is such a salad bowl of cultures, and New York boasts exceptional diversity. Every household celebrates its own culture in some form. I was fortunate to grow up with a large extended family, and together we fasted during Ramadan and welcomed the first day of spring as our New Year's. Our Afghan heritage was kept alive through stories and customs. We also, along with our neighbors, had turkey dinners on Thanksgiving and even celebrated Christmas sometimes with an exchange of gifts or a nominal tree. My parents were happy to be part of the American community and taught us that adopting new traditions did not negate old ones.

BRC: You took your first trip to Afghanistan in 2002. This was also the first time your parents had been back since they moved to the United States. What was this experience like for you? How did it inform the inspiration for and the writing of THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL?

NH: My trip to Kabul with my parents was both emotional and exciting for me. On a personal level, it was my chance to meet uncles, aunts, cousins and distant relatives for the very first time. I’m close to my family here in the United States, and I wondered, looking at my female cousins, what our relationship would have been like had we grown up together.

I was impressed, too, with how determined my cousins were when it came to their education and goals. Some of them had lived as refugees in neighboring countries and then returned to Kabul. Despite the obstacles, they had attended schools and were committed to making something of themselves. I also visited a couple of local schools that had reopened. Seeing their spirit and watching school girls smile brightly as they lined up to start their school day, I was struck by how much Afghan girls valued education. Classrooms were reorganizing and recovering at that time with much enthusiasm. Even the youngest girls and boys understood not to take their schooling for granted. I had no inkling at the time that I would be writing THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL, but seeing these young students definitely shaped my impression of girls growing up in Afghanistan. 

BRC: The book is about two generations of women who were once disguised as and lived part of their lives as boys. Does this practice still exist in Afghanistan?

NH: Yes, it does. Unfortunately, we don’t know just how prevalent the bacha posh practice is because no one is tracking numbers. It’s something that families do quietly so as not to draw attention to the masquerade. The bacha posh tradition is not rooted in religion, but rather in the cultures of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. There are theories that it came from a need for boys or men to fight in times of war but evolved to fill a different “void.” It’s not happening in every household, but it is happening, and, to me, it’s a red flag. Gender inequality is a global issue, even here in the United States, but in Afghanistan it has reached misogynistic levels. I hope there comes a time in the near future when girls won’t have to change their identities to experience the respect and liberty that boys enjoy. 

BRC: Shekiba and Rahima lived during two different time periods in Afghanistan --- the first, in the early 20th century when the country was under Amanullah Khan’s rule, and the second, just after the fall of the Taliban. In writing the book, how did you differentiate between time periods when describing the setting? How do these differences reflect the political and physical changes that have taken place in real life?

NH: Setting a story in a foreign country is tricky, but going back in time is even more challenging. It’s like trying to bring a yellowed postcard to life. When I was creating Shekiba’s world, I had to consider the everyday technology of the time as well as key events (like the cholera epidemic). It helped to read accounts from people who’d traveled through Afghanistan in those years and look at old photographs of landmarks like the presidential palace. Shekiba lives in an Afghanistan on the verge of independence and progress, which she tastes when she reaches Kabul. 

Rahima’s Afghanistan is very different. It’s a war-ravaged country with poor local economies, little opportunity and a weak central government. The nation’s larger situation trickles down into the homes of the people living in areas outside the major cities. The widespread opium trade, for example, has created addicts out of fathers or mothers. Conveniences like televisions and an organized infrastructure have not reached some areas of the country. Rahima is stunned by Kabul because she sees a world so unlike her home. Kabul is a bustling city with more cosmopolitan views. There’s a gradient between major cities, where change comes first, and the villages. Both Shekiba and Rahima feel the difference as their lives take them to Kabul, and they begin to see how the political scene shapes their world. 

BRC: Tradition is most important in the Afghanistan in your book. Yet Shekiba and Rahima both flout it, against all odds. Writing about these rules for an American audience, one with different values and cultural traditions, can be tricky. How did you manage to walk this fine line when shaping the story?

NH: While American readers may not be able to identify with the specific traditions that Shekiba and Rahima are expected to honor, I do believe they can relate to the rebellious spirit of these two women. Tradition is important in any society, but even more important is the need to break rules from time to time. Testing boundaries is an uncomfortable but necessary part of any society evolving. Rahima and Shekiba flout tradition because it doesn’t feel right. I hoped their desire to question the status quo would transcend any cultural differences between them and the readers.

BRC: Khala Shaima, Rahima’s aunt, is such a pistol of a woman. What sass and strong spirit, despite her disfigurement! Might you talk about the process of shaping her character?

NH: The burqa has created this image of Afghan women as shrouded, meek shadows of people, but if you can get past that, I would bet many readers would be surprised at just how “sassy” Afghan women can be! It’s a tough environment, and you have to be tough to survive. These women tell raunchy jokes, fire off insults and fight for their rights. I channeled all the strengths I’ve seen in different aunts and grandmothers to mold Shaima’s character, and early on in the story, she seemed to come alive. It was as if I could hear her talking, and I was simply there to put her voice on the page. I’m not half as sassy as she is!

BRC: Can you explain what naseeb is for those who don’t know? How does it influence Afghan thinking? Do you think there is a counterpart in American culture?

NH: Naseeb as a concept is equivalent to “destiny” in the American culture. The difference, at least to me, is that “destiny” has a positive connotation, something you would want to fulfill. In the Afghan culture, naseeb is used to explain any event in an individual’s life but very often to rationalize misfortune. To an Afghan woman, for example, naseeb explains why she was struck with illness or why she lost a young child. While it can be used for both good and bad experiences, it’s definitely a go-to consolation word for life’s darker moments.

BRC: In many ways, Rahima’s story is a modernized version of Shekiba’s struggles. What made you decide to write the book as two parallel narratives? Was one section more difficult or interesting to write than the other? Did you write them in tandem or separately?

NH: The inspiration for this book was a New York Times article that talked about the bacha posh tradition. Mentioned in the article in passing was a time when Afghanistan’s King Habibullah used women dressed as men to guard his harem. The idea that two young women at two distant periods of time could find themselves in such similar circumstances sparked the idea for the parallel narratives. I wanted to connect the women of Afghanistan across time and geography, and, in a way, I was hoping one would learn from the other’s legacy. I wrote the two storylines in tandem, though; at times, one storyline would take off and I would have to come back to the other. There are definitely some events in the book that were hard to write because they were so gritty and emotionally draining. I have to say, though, those particular sections are even harder for me to read than they were to write now that I’ve grown so attached to the characters!

BRC: Midway through the novel, Parwin makes a frightening choice. As the author of this tragedy, do you see Parwin’s actions as inevitable, or could she have followed another path? How about Benafsha and her actions?

NH: I struggled with Parwin’s decision. She has a delicate strength in my mind, a girl with talents swept away by her circumstances. Parwin is the music, the artistry in Rahima’s world, and all that beauty is snuffed out when she becomes a child bride. Given her character, I think her life becomes unbearable, as it does for so many Afghan women. Self-immolation is a frighteningly common practice in Afghanistan and speaks to the desperation these women feel. I don’t think Parwin could have tolerated the home life she was thrown into for much longer, unfortunately. Everything that was important to her was taken away. 

Benafsha’s path is paved in love. It’s odd, but in a country of arranged marriages and strict modesty, romance actually flourishes! Afghan poetry and songs are rich with passion and devotion. Benafsha is that love story --- that Romeo-and-Juliet kind of love that defies reason and circumstance. Her commitment to her beloved makes sense only because she believes the love between them is so profound that it transgresses this world. She accepted her fate because she knew the risks that accompanied her perilous relationship. If Benafsha had chosen any other path, her romance would have lost that fairy tale quality. 

BRC: Each of your characters has dealt with hardship: Madar-jan, Rahima, Shekiba, Parwin, Khala Shaima and Benafsha. As a female and their creator, if you had to choose one of your characters’ lives to jump into, which one would it be and why?

NH: Eek. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to jump into any of their shoes! Once you’ve tasted “the good life,” it’s unimaginable to live any other way. I’ve been blessed with an upbringing and environment that gave me opportunities, liberties and autonomy. For me or any reader to answer this question, we can get a quick glimpse at how hard it would be for a bacha posh to transition back to a meek girl who is not in control of her path. 

But since I should answer the question, I would choose Khala Shaima, the spirited aunt who is ever present in her nieces’ lives. She has so much spunk and plays a big part in giving her family a different perspective to consider. Despite her physical ailments, she’s a firecracker and has no one reining her in. I admire her quick wit, bravery and the impact she’s had on the lives of these young girls. 

BRC: THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL discusses many important issues in Afghanistan: political corruption, child brides, violence against women and gender inequality. If your readers want to learn more about these issues, might you recommend some books or articles they should read? How about noteworthy organizations dedicated to helping Afghan people and putting a stop to these injustices?

NH: I made a conscious effort to bring up some of the major issues in Afghanistan because I think acknowledging them is the first step to making any kind of positive change. For those interested in learning more, I would highly recommend Fariba Nawa’s OPIUM NATION. She chronicles her travels through Afghanistan tracing the opium trade and describing, through real stories, how the international drug trade affects the everyday people in the country. In terms of organizations, Women for Afghan Women works hard on the spectrum of women’s issues with lots happening in Afghanistan. Skateistan is one particularly cool organization that promotes education, leadership and creativity in Afghan youth. I especially love that they teach young girls to skateboard. It is so cool to see helmeted Afghan girls challenging the social norms and gliding down ramps with outstretched arms. 

BRC: The book ends on somewhat of a hopeful note. What are your thoughts about Afghanistan’s future?

NH: “Somewhat hopeful” is a good way to sum it up. I think the country as a whole is challenged by the geopolitics of the region. As long as we have countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia funding extremist factions, Afghanistan will never enjoy peace. The new government needs to learn to stand on its own feet and cleanse itself of the internal culture of corruption. There’s going to be a long recovery process, but I think it can happen if the younger generation stays motivated and invested. I am hopeful because of what we see in spite of the many obstacles. The recent presidential election saw a nearly 60% voter turnout (equivalent to the US voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election) despite kidnappings, violent threats and suicide attacks at election centers. There was a female candidate running for vice president and many women running for provincial seats. We’re again seeing women as doctors, lawyers or otherwise working outside the home. That’s a pretty steep curve of progress given that women had been barred from the public world just over a decade ago! The younger generation is especially determined to have a voice in the country’s future, and they are working hard to bring about changes. I think that energy is going to push Afghanistan into a new era.   

BRC: This might be too personal of a question, but did anything change for you/your family after September 11th? How about your attitudes towards the United States? Afghanistan?

NH: I was actually quite surprised by the experience my family and I had after September 11th. Growing up with immigrant parents, I knew my family was not fully “American,” but I was fortunate to grow up in a very open-minded town where we very much felt part of the community. I was living in Brooklyn at the time of the attacks and sitting in a medical school lecture that morning. My cousin (and best friend) was evacuated from World Financial Center where she worked. I watched smoke float across the river and waited, along with my classmates, for word that my family had gotten out safely.

In my mind, I was like any other American, shocked and frightened by an attack so close to home. I was caught off guard by the hateful comments shouted as I walked home from school that day with three olive-skinned classmates. I was scared for my parents when rocks shattered the windows of our convenience store in an idyllic upstate New York town where we knew nearly everyone. I couldn’t believe people would channel their rage towards us. Soon thereafter, many people came to my parents and expressed remorse for the hateful vandalism on behalf of our close-knit community. It was heartwarming and opened doors for discussion.

When I was young, few people could find Afghanistan on a map. For decades, it was a forgotten land exploited by parasitic extremists and foreign powers. All of that changed after September 11th. The world learned that the Afghan people were victims, too. The United States sent its men and women in uniform to my parents’ homeland, and it is my hope that the sacrifices they made will not be in vain. Afghanistan is now a household name, and the awareness that came from September 11th has helped bring my Afghan and American identities together. 

BRC: THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL is your debut novel. Congratulations on getting it published! How would you describe your experience as a first-time author?

NH: Writing a novel seemed like an impossible dream to me, but my husband was convinced I should give it a try. I doubt I would have started this book without his encouragement. To find myself now with the amazing team at William Morrow and to have the proud support of my family and friends has been a thrilling experience. It’s so exciting to see this project that I worked on for months quietly and independently now appearing on websites and reaching people’s homes. I’ve started getting feedback from readers who have enjoyed the story and connected with my characters, and I’m so very humbled. I’m especially grateful because the story brings attention to so many issues affecting women in Afghanistan and in other parts of the world. I’m honored that folks are reading it, and I love to hear what readers think!

BRC: If your readers wanted to take a trip to Afghanistan to see the sites and learn more about the culture, where would you recommend they go? What should they do?

NH: It’s tough for me to recommend a trip to Afghanistan in light of the ongoing unrest. The US State Department issued a travel advisory in February 2014 warning against travel to Afghanistan. There was an uptick in violent attacks, unfortunately, around the recent elections. I hope that safety will improve soon and that visitors will be able to take in all that Afghanistan has to offer. It once was a popular travel destination and renowned for its hospitality and breathtaking landscape. Kabul, the capital, is an amazing blend of old history and new construction. It has bustling markets, quiet neighborhoods and historic buildings. Outside the capital there are landmarks like the majestic Blue Mosque of Mazar-i-Sharif and breathtaking mountain ranges. I’m sure most of Afghanistan wishes to see a rebirth of tourism. Afghans are proud of their country and its history, and are eager to share it with the rest of the world!

BRC: You are also a pediatrician and work in the Emergency Room at a children’s hospital in Maryland. I bet you have long workdays! How do you balance your “day” job with being a mother and a writer? Do you write in your sleep?!

NH: I think juggling is an essential part of motherhood, whether or not you work outside the home. I wish I could say I woke up at three a.m. and wrote until the sun came up, but it was a bit less disciplined in my case. I was expecting my daughter at the time and slowed my work schedule a bit to allow time for writing (and putting my feet up!). I love my work as a pediatrician, but it was also exciting to try something totally different. I’m blessed to be able to do two things I enjoy outside of being a mother. That being said, I am typing this response at nearly midnight, so maybe I am capable of writing in my sleep?!

BRC: What’s Lady Docs Corner Café, and how did that come about?

NH: Lady Docs is a group of female physicians in Maryland. It’s a sort of sisterhood of doctors (and other health care professionals) who get together for Saturday morning “boot camp,” social dinners and other excursions. Our collective website is a wellness resource with blogs on topics such as adult medicine, pediatrics, psychology and even recipes for healthy eating. I joined relatively recently but have been so happy to get to know this amazing group of dedicated and dynamic professionals.

BRC: What’s next for you?

NH: I have a second novel coming out next year about a family that escapes a dangerous political situation in Afghanistan. A teenage son is separated from his mother and younger siblings as they make the treacherous journey to Europe to unite with family. It’s based on the very real plight of refugees desperately trying to find a better life abroad and the struggle Europe is having in dealing with the flux. I love writing and hope I can continue to tell stories. It’s a challenging but incredibly rewarding process. Fingers crossed that more books are in my naseeb!