Phyllis Chesler, 72, is a feminist scholar and a professor emerita of psychology and women’s studies at City University of New York. In her 14th book, “An American Bride in Kabul” (Palgrave Macmillan) out early next month, she shares for the first time the story of the five months she spent, as a young bride, held prisoner in a Afghan household.
I once lived in a harem in Afghanistan.
I did not enter the kingdom as a diplomat, soldier, teacher, journalist or foreign aid worker. I came as a young Jewish bride of the son of one of the country’s wealthiest men. I was held in a type of captivity — but it’s not as if I had been kidnapped.
I walked into it of my own free will.
It is 1959. I am only 18 when my prince — a dark, older, handsome, westernized foreigner who had traveled abroad from his native home in Afghanistan — bedazzles me.
We meet at Bard College, where he is studying economics and politics and I am studying literature on scholarship.
Abdul-Kareem is the son of one of the founders of the modern banking system in Afghanistan. He wears designers sunglasses and bespoke suits and when he visits New York City, he stays at the Plaza.
He is also Muslim.
I am Jewish, raised in an Orthodox home in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the daughter of Polish immigrants. My dad worked door-to-door selling soda and seltzer.
But none of this matters. We don’t talk about religion. Instead, we stay up all night discussing film, opera and theater. We are bohemians.
We date for two years. Then, when I express my desire to travel, he asks me to marry him.
The author Phyllis Chesler with her husband in 1959.
“There is no other way for us to travel together in the Muslim world,” he says.
Like a complete heartsick fool, I agree.
My parents are outraged and hysterical. They warn me that no good will come of this union. Little did I know then how right they would be. We marry in a civil ceremony in Poughkeepsie with no family present.
For our honeymoon, we travel around Europe with a plan to stop off in Kabul to meet his family. I did not know that this would be our final destination.
When we land, 30 relatives await our arrival. Among them, not one but three mothers-in-law. I am too shocked to speak, too shocked to question what these three women might mean for my future.
I learn that my real mother-in-law, Abdul-Kareem’s biological mother, is only my father-in-law’s first wife. Her name is Bebugul.
There are bear hugs and kisses all around. The family is warm and inviting — I try to forget about my husband’s glaring omission.
But before the caravan of black Mercedes-Benzes can leave, an airport official demands that I turn over my American passport.
Everyone stops. Both the official and my husband assure me that this is a mere formality. It will soon be returned to me, so I reluctantly relinquish it.
I will never see my passport again.
That means — I would soon learn — that I would not be able to leave Afghanistan at will. I am now subject to the laws and custom of Afghanistan, and as a Afghan woman, that means hardly any rights at all.
My husband’s father owns a compound comprised of numerous two-story European-style houses where the various families sleep with patios, expensive Afghan wool carpeting, indoor gardens, and verandas.
I am only 20, and I am now a member of this household, which consists of one patriarch, three wives, 21 children (who range in age from infancy to their 30s), two grandchildren, at least one son-in-law, one daughter-in-law and an unknown number of servants and relatives.
This is my new home. My prison. My harem.
The author’s Afghan passport, given to her after her American passport was taken. It did not allow her to escape.
Our arrival is celebrated with a feast of unending and delicious dishes. Because of my foreign stomach, the foods — kebabs, rice dishes, yogurts, nuts — are baked with Crisco instead of ghee, an evil-smelling, rancid, clarified butter that is loved by locals but wreaks havoc on a non-native’s stomach. The smell of ghee alone can make you throw up if you’re unused to it.
Abdul-Kareem comes alive during the celebration. He speaks Dari (even though I cannot) and leaves me with the other women.
I am unprepared for my first-ever Muslim prayer service. Suddenly, all the men drop to the floor on all fours, prostrating themselves. I had never seen Abdul-Kareem pray before.
When I awake the next morning, my husband is gone. I am completely alone. And I will spend every morning and afternoon that follows alone with my mother-in-law and female relatives.
As the excitement over our arrival wears off, so does my special treatment. The household meals are now only made with ghee. I can’t eat any of it. Secretly I stow away canned goods that I indulge on in the brief moments that I’m left alone.
Two weeks into my confinement and I have only left the compound twice — both times with a calvary of people guarding and watching.
I am bored, so bored.
One day, I decide to sunbathe on the private terrace that adjoins my bedroom. I don a pink bikini covered in purple polka dots. Then I hear a loud commotion that sounds like men yelling at each other.
“What are you doing? You have managed to upset all of Kabul,” my husband says.
He explains that a group of workmen a quarter-mile away caught sight of a “naked woman” and could not concentrate on work. A delegation had descended upon our house to demand that all women, especially I, be properly dressed.
I start laughing.
“Please, please just come in and put something on,” he says. “Rumors spread here quickly. By tonight, they’ll be telling their friends we are running a brothel.”
I do as I’m told.
Author Phyllis Chesler in 1959, the year she was whisked away to Afghanistan.
Later I write in my diary: “I have no freedom at all. No opportunity to meet anyone or go anywhere. His family watches me suspiciously. Am I getting paranoid?”
In fact, I have reason to be paranoid.
I discover that mother-in-law has instructed the servants to stop boiling my drinking water. Because the sewage system consists of open irrigation ditches that are used as public bathrooms and for drinking water, I contract dysentery.
Perhaps she thinks I am already “Afghan enough” to withstand any and all germs. Perhaps she wants me dead.
She then begins her conversion campaign. She gives me prayer rugs and prayer beads and urges me to convert to Islam.
If I don’t, I think, will she continue her campaign to sicken and kill me?
The next day she barges into my room with a servant and confiscates my precious hoard of canned goods.
“Our food isn’t good enough for her — she eats from cans,” she says.
I am her captive, her prisoner; she, my jailer, might treat me more decently if I find ways to please her. This is difficult for me to write about but I did it. I repeat the words: “There is one God, Allah, and Mohammed was his prophet.”
I am now a Muslim — at least in my mother-in-law’s eyes — but that still isn’t enough for her. When she is angry at me, she spits at me. She calls me “Yahud” or “Jew.” When I complain to my husband, he dismisses me as being dramatic.
I must escape.
Looking both ways, I walk out feeling like a criminal. I board a bus and notice that all the other women are at the back of the bus wearing burqas. I am horrified, slightly hysterical.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on me. I am without even a head scarf or a coat. In this country, a naked face is almost the same as fully bared breasts. I am lost and dizzy with fear. My husband is informed of my escape, and he finds me and brings me home.
But the desire to flee still nags at me.
“I have been here for three months and have been allowed out only five or six times,” I write in my diary. “Is this imprisonment meant to tame me, break me, teach me to accept my fate as an Afghan woman? I want to go home.”
Abdul-Kareem is fed up with my unhappiness. “He has begun to hit me,” I write. “Had I known something like this could ever happen, had I known that we would have to live with his mother and brothers, I would never have come here.”
I attempt a second escape to the American embassy. But once I arrive, I’m escorted away. Without a US passport, I no longer have any rights as an American.
I try twice more to escape — one with a return to the American embassy and another with the help of a friendly German expat. But before I can set any plans in action, I fall deathly ill.
My temperature climbs to 105 degrees, but I receive no sympathy from my family. After days of struggling — and falling into a coma—a local doctor is called. He diagnoses me with hepatitis, explaining there’s nothing more he can do.
This is my lowest point. I fear that if I die here I will be buried in a Muslim cemetery, forever forgotten.
I continue to fight for my survival and beg to see an American doctor. My family agrees, but only if I am closely guarded.
The doctor, however, manages to get me alone for a brief moment and tells me that I must return to the States for treatment. Then he orders a nurse to give me fluids. The next thing I remember is someone tugging at my IV line.
It’s my mother-in-law.
I call out and am rescued by a sister-in-law, who sits with me through the night. I tell my husband about his mother’s attempt on my life. He dismisses it.
But he now realizes that if I survive this disease, I will leave him. So he contrives a way to make me stay.
That night, a he climbs into my bed when I am feverish and sick and forces himself on me. I’m too weak to fight back. He is trying to impregnate me because if I am carrying his child, I will not be allowed to leave.
Slowly, I recover. But I have missed two periods.
I have to get out and it has to be now. I have only one card left to play: the royal card. I must appeal to my father-in-law, who alone has the power to return to me to my home. I send word through a servant that I would like to see him.
He arrives and almost immediately says: “I think it will be best if you leave with our approval on an Afghan passport, which I have obtained for you. You have been granted a six-month visa for reasons of health.”
He must have decided that he did not want a sick — or dead — American daughter-in-law who was trying to flee on his hands. Perhaps he never wanted a Jewish American daughter-in-law at all.
He already has the passport in hand: #17384. I have it still.
I feel saved; I feel graced. My husband grows incensed and begins to hit me and call me names. But I stand my ground. Even when I board the first plane out, he still believes that as a dutiful wife I will one day return to him.
When the plane takes off, I am filled with more fierce joy than my body can contain. And when I finally land on American soil, I literally kiss the ground.
I suffer a painful miscarriage shortly after my return. My body made that decision for me. I rush past any anguish, return to college, find a job and apply to graduate school. Two years after returning, I get my marriage to Abdul-Kareem annulled.
I’ve never told this story in detail before, but felt that I must now. Because I hear some westerners preach the tortured cultural relativism that excuses the mistreatment of women in the name of Islam. Because I see the burqa on the streets of Paris and New York and feel that Afghanistan has followed me back to America.
I call myself a feminist — but not just any feminist. My kind of feminism was forged in the fires of Afghanistan. There I received an education — an expensive, almost deadly one — but a valuable one, too.
I understand firsthand how deep-seated the hatred of women is in that culture. I see how endemic indigenous barbarism and cruelty is and unlike many other intellectuals and feminists, I don’t try to romanticize or rationalize it.
I got out, and I will never return.
Adapted with permission from “An American Bride in Kabul” (Palgrave MacMillan) by Phyllis Chesler, out Oct. 1. The name of her husband and his family have been changed.