Books can be a window, giving us insight into other places and other ways of life; they can also be a mirror, giving us insight into our own hearts. I picked up Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse expecting to learn about Afghanistan—and I did. I also discovered that bias and stereotypes still lurked in the shadows of my supposedly enlightened mind.
When I picked up this book, I looked at the picture on the front (a faceless woman in Muslim dress), read the subtitle (the true story of a woman who risked everything to bring hope to afghanistan), and quickly skimmed the description on the inside cover, letting my eyes rest on a few choice sentences (delivering relief and hope to Afghan orphans and refugees, to women and girls in inhuman situations deemed too dangerous for other aid workers or for journalists. Her memoir…is as unconventional as the woman who has lived it.)
That was quite enough to convince me to read the book. I love a good memoir about the courageous adventures of an unconventional woman, and I was not disappointed. The heroine flew in a rickety helicopter with a stoned pilot, talked back to the Taliban, broke laws, charged into war zones, and changed lives.
I was, however, surprised. You see, the plucky author, whose name I had not bothered to read on the cover, was not an American woman, or a European woman; Suraya Sadeed was an Afghan woman. I realized I had unconsciously assumed that defying a patriarchal culture in order to effect change was the exclusive purview of white Western women, that a woman raised in a Muslim home in a Muslim culture would never have the moxie to take such risks, even though it was for the sake of her own people.
Granted, Sadeed had spent much of her adult life in the United States, but even as a teenager she was remarkably like the prototypical rebellious American girl: mouthing off to her teachers, dating a guy with a motorcycle, and sneaking out behind her parents’ backs. I had a hard time reconciling her daring personality with my preconceived notions of Muslim women.
After marrying the man with the motorcycle and emigrating to the U.S., Sadeed channeled all her audacity and grit into building a successful real estate career. She accumulated property and wealth and all the trappings of success. But when her husband suddenly died of a heart attack, all of those things lost their meaning.
Moved by the plight of Afghan refugees, she left behind her real estate business, started a charity called Help the Afghan Children, and began raising money and personally delivering aid to places where bombs still fell and bullets still flew. Suddenly all her gifts of personality and temperament had a new purpose, and in using them to serve instead of to chase success, she found healing for herself as well. Sadeed writes:
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had another reason for going to Afghanistan. After losing Dastagir, I needed to go to a land of pain and learn how people survived their losses—and by doing so, I might learn how to deal with my own trauma and mend my own hurt.
Sadeed found, as have so many others before her, that the best medicine for her own pain was forgetting herself and reaching out to help others in pain.
Somewhere on the road to Jalalabad I had come back to myself. I had realized that I couldn’t measure my happiness by numbers alone. I had helped countless refugees. And what I had gotten in return—experiencing the joy of helping others—was immeasurable. I could feel a new kind of happiness burning in my heart, and I was impatient to return to Afghanistan to do more.
And so I was reminded again of how much of human experience is universal in spite of our many cultural differences: courage, adventurousness, grief, healing, self-sacrifice, generosity. Now that I’ve read this book, I’ll remember that… until the next time I forget.