The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi
Before the review, a disclaimer: I decided that a triple Cannonball or greater would not be feasible or even fun with my current workload. I’m working a few jobs and trying to shoehorn research in (on my own time and dime, because adjunct faculty do not get time built into our jobs), all while trying to hold a few church offices. Last year, I had a really hard time reviewing enough books and I have barely made my reading goals the last two years in a row. I thought a slower pace would suit me best, because the whole point of Cannonball Read is to read and fight cancer. So, I find that I am in fact on pace to make my double Cannonball since I reached the halfway point in advance and with a fairly long book!
I’ve heard plenty about Nadia Hashimi’s The Pearl That Broke Its Shell and decided to give it a try to see if it would fit my syllabus for my global literature course. And I’ve come to a decision, which I’ll be more than happy to unpack in my review.
This is the story of Rahima, a young girl in 2007 Afghanistan. She is from a rural area and struggles even to be allowed to go to school with her sisters. Her father is a drug addict, and her mother is in disgrace for only bearing daughters. Thus, Rahima becomes a bacha posh, that is, a girl who poses as a boy, in order to help the family around the house. Her story intersects with her great-great grandmother Shekiba, who was desperate to keep her family land safe from her greedy extended relatives, but suffered many twists of fate. The stories do kind of intersect at some point as Rahima’s life takes perilous turns.
As I noted in my Goodreads review, this book was a mixed bag for me and merited a solid three stars. On the one hand, Nadia Hashimi writes with incredible care of her characters and brings a very different world alive. On the other hand, I’m starting to feel as if we’re getting the “single story” of Afghanistan and other nations who have been troubled by extremist Islam and patriarchal societies where women are property and nothing more. To be clear, THIS STILL HAPPENS AND IT IS BAD. Yet where are the stories of the Saudi women piloting planes and being the change they wish to see? Most stories of Arab and Muslim women that are being accessed to English-speaking readers are of abuse and torture and escape, and I worry that this is presenting a perpetual victim-image to the mind of a Western woman, who treats an Arab or Muslim woman as if she is an object of pity and suffering instead of a person in her own right. I think it’s a real problem to still be telling imbalanced stories without a real sense of nuance or resolution to make better life for women that does not involve them fleeing their homes, Not Without My Daughter-style. I realize that this is not my lane, as a white woman. I’m just concerned about representation and I don’t know what the best depiction should be for Afghan women.
Also, the story of Rahima being made a bacha posh is interesting, but I had already read and reviewed Jenny Nordberg’s excellent journalistic account in The Underground Girls of Kabul, so this did not feel new or original. The writing is workmanlike—not bad, but not outstanding in a way that seeped in my bones like Homegoing.
I’m glad I read this book, but I am hoping it can springboard different stories of Afghan women and not just tell the ones we smug Westerners keep expecting to hear and pat ourselves on the back because “we aren’t like them.” This is (one way) how The Handmaid’s Tale becomes a reality.