I took a somewhat different approach than usual in reading In My Father’s Country. My boyfriend and I read it concurrently, sharing our thoughts as we went. He had seen the author on The Daily Show and wanted to read it, so we thought it would be fun to read it together. It turned out that my boyfriend quickly took a vehement dislike of the author and ‘sharing our thoughts’ involved a litany of criticisms. This certainly affected my view of the book, but it also generated some interesting conversations that added to my reading experience.
In My Father’s Country is the memoir of Saima Wahab who was born in Afghanistan a few years before the Soviet invasion. Her father was killed by the Soviets and the family fled to Pakistan. As a teenager, Saima came to the United States, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen. She then served as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan for several years.
To me it seems that Saima is caught between American and Afghan cultures, but doesn’t always recognize it. Interestingly, she almost always identifies as Pashtun and almost never as Afghani.* Moreover, she is consistently has negative comments about Farsiban people, members of the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. It’s not surprising that she might have some biases, after all, we all have biases and it can be difficult to overcome them. What is surprising, given the amount of time she has lived outside of Afghanistan, is how unaware of her biases Saima seems. I don’t think she realizes how narrow-minded her comments might seem to her American audience.
What probably bothered my boyfriend the most was the large part of the book devoted to Saima’s series of relationships with (American) men. She repeatedly entered into serious relationships, only to panic about the idea of marriage and the association with oppression and control that it had for her. Given that Saima grew up in a culture where wives were in the control of their husbands and didn’t have any models in her life for marriage between equals, I can understand her reaction. At the same time, I agree that she shows surprisingly little compassion towards the men she hurts in the process.
My boyfriend, who grew up in India, said that he has noticed a pattern of women in India being more likely to treat men with little regard for their feelings. My speculation is that it might be easy for these attitudes to arise in cultures with strong gender segregation and few male-female friendships. If you are a woman who grows up without having friendships with males, you might be less likely to put yourself in their place and empathize with how they might feel. Similarly for men without female friendships- the gender segregation in Afghanistan could reduce men’s empathy towards women and make it easier for men to treat women so poorly. (Combined with other factors of course.) I’d be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts. Do you think that gender segregation in socializing might promote decreased empathy between men and women?
Sometimes there is a minor detail in a book that grabs my attention disproportionately. In this book that detail is Saima’s mentioning that her mother’s kitchen in Kabul was unique for having kitchen counters. Suddenly, I realized the significance of having kitchen counters. If you don’t have kitchen counters, you cook squatting on the floor. You probably get used to it, but it must always be hard on your body. I wonder what the relationship is between kitchen counters and economics- At what level of wealth do families usually invest in kitchen counters? How does that vary by culture? What other items are higher or lower priority than having kitchen counters? Does having counters affect what people cook?
* I initially assumed that this identification by ethnic group rather than nationality was predominant in Afghanistan. However, according to Wikipedia, in a 2009 survey over 70% of those surveyed identified as Afghan first rather than identifying by their ethnic group. There certainly could be biases in the survey based on who the surveyors were able to reach, but it does indicate that Saima may not be not representative of most people in Afghanistan in identifying by ethnic group rather than nationality.