Suraya Sadeed is a lucky woman. She and her new husband escaped Afghanistan soon after the Soviet invasion. The young couple made their way to the United States, and though they had no money, no home, and no car, they were well-educated and eager to build a dream life together. They did it, too! Within a few years, Suraya was a hugely successful real estate agent drawing in the big bucks and wealthy enough to buy several homes for her family.
Sadeed might have floated right along on her happy cloud if not for two dramatic turns: her husband’s sudden death and a news story about refugees in Afghanistan. Grieving for her loss as well as for the tragedies endured by her homeland, Sadeed threw herself into relief work with more spirit than knowledge. Her first trip back into the war-torn country she’d left behind was a shock. The Soviets were gone, of course, run out by the Mujahideen; those local forces, however, were not the saviors one might have expected. Under Mujahideen, Afghanistan was all but destroyed; lawlessness prevailed, and the entire culture crumbled under the weight of destruction.
Then came the Taliban forces. Ruling with an iron fist, they were at least able to put an end to most of the criminal activity, but their twisted version of Islam and rampant desire for power made life even harsher. When Sadeed arrived there on relief mission, she found that women and children were in a particularly precarious position. Women couldn’t see male doctors, for instance, but women were not allowed to work outside the home so there were no female doctors available. Sadeed saw her own daughter in the faces of the young Afghan girls; the difference was merely one of geography, with Sadeed’s daughter in college while the Afghan girls were denied any education at all.
What began as a mission to supply warm blankets to refugees quickly evolved into an organization called Help the Afghan Children. Within a few months, Sadeed and her volunteers helped establish medical clinics and underground schools, and organized dozens of deliveries of blankets, clothing, and food. Despite the dangers that held back so many of her Afghan-born friends, Sadeed’s grief and anger pushed her into the heart of drug lords’ domains, where she seldom hesitated to stare down both gun-slinging outlaws and gutless politicians.
Perceived as a Westerner by most of the Afghans she met, Sadeed balances both worlds with a clear eye. Despite her assertive personality and get-it-done attitude, she understands why the women of Afghanistan had not taken a similar approach in dealing with Taliban edicts.
“If you asked Afghan women what their needs were, few would say: we need to be liberated from the burka. In fact, quite the reverse. Many chose to wear the burka, for it offered a refuge from the predations of uneducated, ignorant men.
Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse is a modern history of Afghanistan that makes sense of the politics in the region that Westerners can easily understand. It is also a gritty and unrelenting picture of the country that has suffered under foreign and domestic forces for decades. It seems unlikely that such a place could survive or that its people would still cling to the home they’ve known and lost. Sadeed’s book explains the loyalty and shows us the courage inherent in the people of Afghanistan in a way that no brief news story could possibly achieve.
“In the West our basic needs –water, food, shelter, clothing—are met. Most Westerners can barely conceive of an alternative reality like that which exists in Afghanistan. We Westerners assume it is the same the world over, and so we presume that other cultures and peoples have the same priorities as we do. In trying to break down such assumptions I’d taken to asking Americans the following question: would you choose food for your children to fill their empty bellies, or equal rights as a woman? The answer was so obvious: women’s rights were irrelevant to a mother with a starving child.”