Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Under The Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples

Under the Persimmon Tree tells the story of two families in war-torn Afghanistan beginning a month after the September 11th attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The story is narrated by two people; American born Elaine Perrin, now Nusrat Faiz, married to Dr. Faiz Ahmed Faiz and living in Peshwar, Pakistan, and Najmah a young girl fleeing her destroyed village in Northern Afghanistan.

The novel opens in Golestan Village, Northern Afghanistan, where Najmah lives with her mother who is expecting a baby very soon, her brother Nur, and her father, Baba-jan. The day begins like any other until a visit by the Taliban ends in catastrophe for Namjah's family. The Taliban take their food and kidnap her brother and her father to be soldiers. A few days later as Najmah and her mother struggle to survive, her baby brother, Habib, is born.

Namjah's Uncle Mohiuddin comes often to the family home, not to help, but to display his avarice openly for their father's land. Her uncle grows poppies for opium, a crop Najmah's father refuses to grow. He also supports the Taliban. Mohiuddin tells Najmah and her mother that they must leave the Kunduz Hills, as they will never be able to manage the farm, but they refuse. They know that Mohiuddin wants their land and it is their duty to protect it until the men return from fighting.

Najmah takes the goats to the mountains to graze and one night watches a wonderful meteor shower. She does not understand this celestial display and is terrified. When she decides to return to her home in the valley Najmah witnesses the destruction of her family. Her life is further shattered by this event. She is taken in by her neighbour's son, Akhtar, and his wife Khalida, who with their two sons plan to walk to the border town of Torkhum, to escape the Taliban and the coming war with America. When they arrive in Torkhum, Najmah decides she must travel on to Peshawar to see if she can locate her father and younger brother.

Meanwhile, in Peshawar, Nusrat visits her husband, Faiz's family. Nusrat met Faiz when she was attending Columbia University in New York. They both lived in the same old brownstone walk-up. Faiz was a physician working at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital. A year after they were married, Faiz confessed to Nusrat that he was concerned about the terrible situation developing in his homeland, Afghanistan. He felt he needed to return there, but with an American wife, Faiz felt this was not possible. However, Nusrat was willing to go with him, and in 2001 they traveled to Peshawar, where Faiz's father had moved the family. Shortly afterwards, Nusrat opened her garden with its huge persimmon tree to the poor refugee children while Faiz went to Mazar-i-Sharif to work in a medical camp.

Now Nusrat, has not had word from Faiz for weeks. To take her mind off of her husband's situation, Nusrat decides to organize a dinner party and afterwards invite her husband's family to watch a meteor shower in the backyard. But Asma refuses saying such shooting stars are an omen.

The story of Nusrat and Namjah intersect when Namjah manages to travel alone to Peshawar and is eventually taken to Nusrat's home. Now they both wait as the American forces gradually liberate more and more of Afghanistan, to learn the fate of their loved ones. While they wait, Nusrat teaches Namjah English and helps her to heal from her terrible ordeal, all the while coming to the realization of what has happened to her beloved Faiz.

Under The Persimmon Tree is a deeply touching story; the heartrending love story of Nusrat and Faiz, and the loss and suffering of Namjah. Having read most of Suzanne Staples books now, I feel this is her best effort.

Elaine and Faiz's love story is beautifully described in flashbacks narrated by Nusrat. The gentle, caring Faiz is a most wonderful antidote to a heart broken by the loss of a beloved sister. And Namjah's family life, although difficult in the best of times, is tied to the land,where "the sky is so close you can reach up and touch it with your hands, and to the beautiful mountains.

The author very effectively paints a portrait of a society destroyed by the Taliban rule, of a people terrorized by religious fanaticism and cruelty. We see how the poor farmers of Afghanistan were often powerless to protect themselves and to avoid becoming part of the Taliban insurgency.

An interesting aspect of this book was Elaine's struggle to find meaning in her life after the death of her sister, Margaret. Sadly Elaine's Christian faith  did not continue to develop as she grew into adulthood and therefore could not help her to understand and come to terms with the loss of her sister Margaret. The void she felt spiritually was reflected in the modern, plastic home with its purple Koolaid and packaged food as compared with the texturally rich and colourful apartment that Faiz lives in. Faiz's beliefs are woven into his daily living, something Elaine's modern American family seemed to lack.

Elaine's belief that her Christian faith was unable to provide answers to the questions of why, led her, after meeting Faiz, to look towards Islam and to eventually convert. When she goes to see the Imam Inayatollah of a mosque in Manhattan Elaine tells him, "I am a mathematician...I need a religion that's compatible with science and mathematics. In Islam, is there a belief in an order to the universe." She is directed to consider the work of Muslim astronomers and mathematicians. At this time in her life, Elaine seems to feel that Christianity has no concept of an ordered universe - that things just happen and that it cannot explain the reason behind her sister Margaret's death. Of course this is not true. as Nusrat comes to understand much later on. Christianity, although long maligned as incompatible with science, has a rich history of both the preservation of scientific knowledge and the discovery of the nature of the world. There are more than enough Christian scientists and mathematicians whose work has demonstrated that God has designed a universe governed by laws that can be known and understood. Eventually, Nusrat comes to understand that the answers she was looking for could have been found in her faith, had she chosen to see them.

Nusrat also begins to realize that her rejection of her parents faith and her Judaeo-Christian heritage have hurt her parents greatly and that this is something she must address.

Under The Persimmon Tree tackles themes of identity, loss, love, coming of age, and war. It is beautifully written and provides another window into a unique and beautiful culture, far different from our own.There is a helpful map of Afghanistan and a glossary of Dari terms in the back.

Book Details:
Under The Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux     2005
275 pp.

1 comment:

Melina Papadakis said...

great review!! I read the book as well and loved it!