Monday, November 10, 2014

The Secret Sky. A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan by Atia Abawi

The Secret Sky is a story about forbidden love in an country where a family's honour is based on the sexual purity of its women. To break that code even in the most minor of ways,  is to bring unending shame upon the family who can only restore its honour through blood - the blood of the woman who caused the dishonour. The author, Atia Abawi was an unborn baby when she left Afghanistan as her parents and older sibling fled the Soviet occupation. Although her parents often spoke of returning to their beloved homeland, the rise of the Taliban and the subsequent war with America made such a return impossible. Atia however did travel to Afghanistan in 2008 where she lived for five years as a foreign correspondent. Abawi writes "In the more than four years I lived in Afghanistan, I experienced life in the most spectacular ways -- and death in the most horrific. I learned quickly that Afghanistan is a land of contradictions. It hold unimaginable beauty and inconceivable ugliness." Abawi states that she has tried to illustrate real-life experiences as accurately as possible in the hopes that her readers "will get a small glimpse into a beautiful and tragic world unseen by many." Her novel, although fiction, is influenced by real events and real people. Which makes it all the more tragic and touching.

The title of this tragic novel is a reference to a line from one of the great Persian poet, Jalal ad-Din Rumi's poems which Abawi features opposite her Introduction. This is love: To fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.

The novel is divided into three parts. Part One is narrated by Fatima who lives with her father, Mohammad, her mother Mossuma, her three year old sister, Afifa and her younger brothers in a small village. Her older brother, Ali, was sent to work in Iran but was killed on the journey there. Fatima is on the cusp of womanhood, still a child but her body is changing into that of a young woman. As a result there are certain cultural restrictions on where she goes and who she is seen with. The girls her age are no longer allowed to leave their homes. Fatima remembers a time when all the children, both Pashtun and Hazara, played together.  Zohra tells Fatima that she's learned that Fatima's close childhood friend, Samiullah, who is a Pashtun, has returned home from the madrassa. No sooner than they have finished pulling water from the well, the two girls meet Samiullah on their way home. His piercing green eyes seem warm  and comforting to Fatima who cannot help but notice how tall and handsome he has grown in the past three years.

Fatima often goes to see her best friend, Zohra, whose grandmother is teaching her how to write and read. Her grandmother and her mother before her were educated in a time when Afghanistan was becoming a modern state. The following morning on her way to Zohra's home, Fatima encounters Samiullah in the woods. Although she knows she shouldn't be alone with him, Fatima agrees to meet him the next day. At Zohra's the two girls talk about marriage and Fatima mentions to her friend that she wants something more than marriage, telling her about the university in Kabul where women attend. Zohra tells a shocked Fatima that her parents are considering marrying her to a wealthy boy in another village.

The next day Fatima lies to her mother and meets Samiullah in the woods. They play hide and seek and sit near the stream talking. When Samiullah hears motorcycles the couple hide quietly behind a rock. At home Fatima overhears her madar begin to push her father to consider arranging a marriage for their eldest daughter, a prospect that upsets Fatima. Fatima and Samiullah meet again but the lies and the risk she is taking begin to worry Fatima. "...what worries me more is that it will ruin my family's name and honor to have their eldest daughter running around the village unsupervised. Not just unsupervised -- alone with a boy....I can't do this. It's far too risky." However, she does meet Samiullah and they spend some time together talking about Sami's time at the madrassa. Their meeting abruptly ends when their hear branches crackling.

Part Two is narrated by Rashid who is filled with anger and hate, yet who believes he is doing the work of God. Rashid is Samiullah's cousin - his father's younger sister Gul Bibi is Sami and his younger sister Nur's mother. Rashid's father along with the rest of his family was murdered and Gul Bibi took him into their family. Both Rashid and Sami were sent to the madrassa, like their father's before them to learn more about Islam and the Holy Quran. But while Samiullah hated it, Rashid seemed to have found his calling.

It is Rashid who has seen Samiullah and Fatima together in the woods, an act he considers sinful and blasphemous. He is determined to punish both but decides to wait. It is obvious that Rashid is poisoned by a hatred of his cousin. "...I see my uncle and my cousin the infidel lagging behind him. Sinner! He's so smug, trying to act sweet as he picks up the little kids, who are giggling like goats.....He lies to everyone and acts as though he is a man of virtue...."

Rashid has been sent by the instructors from the madrassa to help Mullah Latif and his men, who are considered thugs by the local villagers. They are known to extort food from the nearby villagers in return for protection. His time at the madrassa has taught him to look down on the people of his village who he considers as lacking in "any concept of good and bad, God and the devil." Rashid knows his uncle, Samiullah's father hates Mullah Latif, considering  him a thief.

The next morning Rashid accompanies Sami into town to open the family store. Many of the stores are now closed and Sami tells Rashid that this is because of the Taliban. This angers Rashid who begins to question Samiullah about Fatima's family suggesting that because they are Hazara they are cheats. Samiullah outright rejects Rashid's assertions saying they must not judge people based on the actions of their ancestors. Learning that Rashid is teaching the Quran to younger students. Sami encourages Rashid to teach the true Quran to the children. This enrages Rashid who openly accuses Samiullah of running "around with that peasant whore in the woods" - a reference to Fatima. Horrified at what Rashid has said and his hateful attitude towards Fatima and her family, Samiullah prays to God asking him to protect Fatima, guide him and protect Rashid from his own hatred.

Desperately in need of guidance, Samiullah decides to visit Mullah Sarwar in a nearby village to seek advice. Mullah Sarwar helped Sami make the decision to return home from the madrassa.  Sarwar tells Samiullah that God has bestowed a great gift, that of love, upon him but that marrying Fatima will mean overcoming many obstacles.

When Samiullah returns to his home he finds Fatima's father, Mohammad, Zohra's father, Karim, and Rashid with his father, Ismail. Rashid accuses him in front of the other men of "disrespecting" Mohammad's family, Mohammad's daughter and his own family. After Rashid leaves, Sami attempts unsuccessfully to explain to Karim and his father about his relationship with Fatima. Sami asks Mohammad for permission to marry his daughter, but both men refuse. Ismail tells Samiullah that he will not sanction such a marriage as Fatima is a farmer and as such beneath marrying him.

Part Three picks up Fatima's narrative but also now includes narratives by both Rashid and Samiullah as the crisis within their families reaches a climax. It begins with Fatima being sent home from Zohra's home by Karim who then angrily confronts Zohra asking her if she knew what was going on between Sami and Fatima.

After two days of being ignored, Fatima's father tells her that Samiullah has requested her in marriage. He tells Fatima that she cannot marry him and her mother tells her she is whore, slapping her and reminding Fatima that she is lucky they are not going to kill her. He announces that she will marry her friend Zorha's father, Karim and be his second wife. Fatima is horrified and distraught begging her father to reconsider Samiullah's proposal. The next day Fatima is attacked by her mother who drags her to the kitchen by her hair, kicks her in the stomach and then pours boiling water over her arms. She tells Fatima she is a whore who has disgraced their family and warns her that if she tells her father she will burn her face.

Fatima receives Sami's letter and does go to the well to get water, although she is in agony. Sami meets her and discovers her terrible injuries. He tells her that this is further proof that they must flee to Kabul because the people who support this sort of thing will not stop until they are both dead.
"There are people more dangerous than your mother who will want to punish us. Those are the ones I am afraid of. You are in the most danger."

That night Fatima comes to the decision that she must leave her home and her village. She knows her father will never look at her again, her mother will not forgive her and will likely turn all her siblings against her. Feeling responsible for what has happened she decides to meet Samiullah and together they flee to Mullah Sarwar's masjid. Can they possibly escape the terror that now hunts them, seeking their death to restore honour to their families and their village?


The Secret Sky is not a novel for the faint at heart; there is murder, beatings and torture as well as references to the sexual abuse of young boys. It's not overly graphic but, if as Abawi states that she has based her novel on real people and real events, it makes the story all the more tragic. It is a brilliant effort that paints a realistic picture of a culture caught in the throes of a radical shift in thinking complicated by cultural practices around honour and old prejudices between two ethnic groups Hazara and Pashtun. The Hazara are considered the

The Secret Sky outlines in a general way how the Taliban came to gradually overrun Afghanistan. Young people were sent into Pakistan to the madrassas to learn about Islam but in fact were indoctrinated into a radical form of the religion which encouraged people to fight against foreigners and to help create an Islamic state based on strict Islamic laws. According to such laws, men and women who are unrelated cannot be together. Such contact, even though not physical is considered to sully a woman's reputation. These young people returned to their villages bringing with them this radical form of Islam which was then gradually forced onto the local rural villages. It was compounded by cultural practices surrounded a distorted view of family honour which holds that women can be tainted by even the slightest contact with an unrelated male. Whereas before families may have handled these problems and perhaps married off the couple, the radical Islamic teaching now insisted that they were to be punished with death. Also many of these young men returning from the madrassa's in Pakistan set up a sort of Afghan mafia and went around demanding protection money from farmers, villagers and store keepers.

It is difficult to comprehend Mossuma's attitude towards her daughter when she finds out she has been seen with Samiullah because the concept of family honour is so alien to Western culture. Neither family questions either Fatima nor Samiullah as to what exactly happened in the woods and it is assumed that the couple met to have sex. Mossuma has a very mercenary view of her children, seeing them as a means to gain either wealth or status. She sent Ali to Iran to earn money for her against the wishes of her husband. She then tries to marry off Fatima when she hears of Zohra's impending engagement, in the hopes of making a match with a wealthy family, but Mohammad will have none of it. So when Mossuma learns of Fatima's "indiscretion" she knows she has lost another opportunity to gain status. Fatima recognizes this. "Her children aren't people to her. We are her accessories, like a new payron or bangle. She wanted me to marry the boy in the other village because it would have made her look good, not because she was looking out for my welfare. She sent Ali to Iran to make money for her, not so he could build a better life for himself."

Not only does Abawi have a powerful storyline, she creates strong, realistic characters. Fatima is a sweet innocent girl who is not ready yet to leave the carefree ways of childhood behind. She dislikes the changes in her body because they signal her transformation to womanhood and a different code of behaviour that will see her leave behind her best friend and playmate, Samiullah, forever. Despite knowing this code and the repercussions if she disobeys it, Fatima decides to take a risk for the sake of friendship. It is a risk that will cost her and her family dearly.

Samiullah is an honourable young man who unthinkingly puts Fatima at risk of being stoned. His love for her sees him take every risk to protect her and get her to safety.

Fatima's father, Mohammad is a kind, hard-working man who protects his children but still places importance in the distorted idea of honour to some degree. When Mossuma wants to marry off Fatima, Mohammad outright rejects her suggestion saying, " I said enough! No more! I'm not marrying my daughter off to strangers. How do we know how these people will treat her?...I can't trade her to someone in another village for a little bit of money; just because it is in our culture doesn't make it okay...She isn't a sack of wheat. I can't just sell her for a few Afghanis and breathe easily for the rest of my life..."  Mossuma's argument that the boy is from a wealthy Hazara family does nothing to appease Mohammad who tells her there are no innocent groups in Afghanistan, that many including himself have been involved in the killing of innocent women and children. Mohammad defends Fatima even when he learns of her "indiscretion", telling Mossuma he will not beat his daughter. However, bound by his culture, he does agree to marry her off as a second wife.

Mullah Sarwar and Rashid represent two different versions of Islam that are competing for the minds and hearts of people in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Mullah Sarwar, is a gentle, intelligent and courageous mullah who is careful to not to judge and seeks to discern. He tells Sami and Fatima,  "Don't listen to what people may have told you growing up...Our culture and tradition is not our religion. As a Muslim woman, you have the right not to be forced into marriage...." He helps Sami and Fatima, first marrying them and then hiding them.

Rashid is the strongest character in the novel and this is reflected in his narratives which reflect his pride and anger. When Rashid returns to his village from the madrassa he looks down on the people as being ignorant in many ways. Filled with pride, he describes himself as "I was the best; I still am." He is insulted that his uncle's family, who took him in after the murder of his family, hasn't  slaughtered a goat upon his return.  After he sees Samiullah with Fatima he views himself as the person to ensure that he is punished. He refers to Sami repeatedly throughout the story in derogatory terms such as "my cousin the infidel", "He's a pathetic fool and a dropout. A failure!"  and a "little ant".  His bitterness and anger at the murder of his family continue to haunt him and it is Mullah Sarwar who recognizes this telling Rashid that his family has given him enough love to survive but that if he takes that love out of his heart, he may "fall into a dangerous insanity that you may not be able to come out of."  Rashid is driven by the need to show his family that he is the "good one" but Mullah Sarwar tells him that he will only succeed in creating yet another tragic story. He tells Rashid that his rage is not because of Sami and Fatima but something he is holding inside himself and that he must fix before he causes even more harm. Eventually, Rashid overwhelmed by the deaths he has already causes, comes to realize the truth of what the Mullah has told him and by the end of the novel he redeems himself by an act of sacrificial love.

Overall, The Secret Sky is a remarkable novel which touches on cultural expectations regarding women in Islamic countries, honour killings, forgiveness, sacrifice and love. The Secret Sky is a love story set amid the turbulent struggle against radical Islam in Afghanistan. It is tragic, unsettling but hopeful.

Book Details:
The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi
New York: Philomel Books      2014
290 pp.

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