I hope you have enjoyed a lovely Christmas (or as good a Christmas as circumstances allow). Mine was pretty low-key (as I like it) but it got quite busy in the running up to it, and, if things don’t get even worse (fingers crossed) I should be busy again next week, but I had to share this review with you.
I don’t think many (if any) of those of you who read my blog don’t know blogger, writer, and all-around wonderful Mary Smith, and the many hats she has worn over the years (including as an aid worker in Afghanistan), and you probably now she became unwell during the lockdown and like Sue Vincent, another beloved member of the blogger community, was given a devastating diagnosis. Sue has sadly parted from us, and it seems that Mary’s health has taken a turn for the worse as well, to the point that I doubt she will ever get to read this review, but I couldn’t think of a better memorial for her.
Although I had only written this post a few days before Christmas, a few hours before it was due to go live I read on Mary’s blog a post written by her ever-present DH (you can check it here and leave a comment) informing all the people who knew her that she passed away the morning of Christmas Day. It seems that unfortunately, I was right, and she will never get to read this, but I hope it can help others to remember her, and to pay attention to a cause she felt so strongly about.
Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni (Real Stories of Afghan Women) by Mary Smith
Drunk Chickens and Burn Macaroni (subtitle) offers a remarkable insight into the lives of Afghan women both before and after Taliban’s rise to power. The reader is caught up in the day-to-day lives of women like Sharifa, Latifa and Marzia, sharing their problems, dramas, the tears and the laughter: whether enjoying a good gossip over tea and fresh nan, dealing with a husband’s desertion, battling to save the life of a one-year-old opium addict or learning how to deliver babies safely.
Mary Smith spent several years in Afghanistan working on a health project for women and children in both remote rural areas and in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Given the opportunity to participate more fully than most other foreigners in the lives of the women, many of whom became close friends, she has been able to present this unique portrayal of Afghan women – a portrayal very different from the one most often presented by the media.
About the author:
Mary Smith has always loved writing. As a child, she wrote stories in homemade books made from wallpaper trimmings – but she never thought people could grow up and become real writers. She spent a year working in a bank, which she hated – all numbers, very few words – ten years with Oxfam in the UK, followed by ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She wanted others to share her amazing, life-changing experiences so she wrote about them – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and journalism. And she discovered the little girl who wrote stories had become a real writer after all.
Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is an account of her time in Afghanistan and her debut novel No More Mulberries is also set in Afghanistan.
Mary loves interacting with her readers and her website is www.marysmith.co.uk
Having read and reviewed one of the author’s books before (No More Mulberries, a novel set in Afghanistan and inspired by her experiences in the country), and having visited her blog and followed some of her adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I purchased this book a while back but hadn’t got around reading it. Recent events in Afghanistan reminded me of its existence, and although late, I’m happy I finally got to read it.
Although the book is written in the first person, and it narrates the events from the author’s point of view, it is not one of those books where you can feel the author is breathing down your neck and trying to write herself (or himself) into everything that happens, insisting in becoming the protagonist and regaling you with her (his) opinion on everything, whether relevant or not. This is not a book proclaiming “Look at what I did! Aren’t I amazing!”. Quite the opposite. Smith is self-deprecating, often acknowledges her difficulties getting a good grasp of the language, her misconceptions and at times adherence to the limited and less-than-insightful Western point of view of Afghanistan’s people, especially its women, and what she sees as her weaknesses (that I am sure will resonate with many readers, because who wouldn’t want access to electricity, running water, and a bolt in the toilet?)
What the author wants, as the subtitle makes explicit, is to highlight the story of a full as possible a catalogue of Afghan women. And the ones we come across in the book are very different: some have had access to education and are trying to get a job; others have always lived in a small village and their life is having children and looking after them and their husbands; some have pretty enlightened husbands who allow them to go to work or to learn; others have to stay at home and keep to the traditional role or face the consequences; some are feminists who would not dream of covering their heads and are fighting for freedom; some are happy to break some rules and others would never do that; some are old; some are young; some easily accept guidance and education and others are suspicious of anything foreign… That is precisely the point. They are not all open to new ideas, they are not all daring, but they are not the stereotypical idea many people in the West have of women in Afghanistan (and in other Middle-Eastern countries, but perhaps Afghanistan more than others). They have complaints, they get scared, they don’t always want to get married and have children (indeed, abortion and terminations do come up in the book more than once), they have a sense of humour, they tell jokes and laugh, they are curious, love fashion and clothes, some are religious but not all, some are superstitious (as are we)…
We get to meet many women throughout the book, and some of them become close friends of the narrator (I hesitate to call her the protagonist because although the story happens around her, and she includes her impressions, thoughts, and feelings at times, this is not her story or an autobiography where she tells us everything that happened to her), and we get to like some of them more than others because that is what life is like everywhere. The author is skilled at choosing episodes and anecdotes that stick in one’s mind, so many that it is difficult to choose one or two. If you wonder about the title, well, you might guess it is something to do with food, but I won’t reveal the reasons for it (you should read it yourself), and there are some other wonderful images that made me smile (and chuckle), like the description of one of the women’s immediate love for motorbike races on the TV (never having watched television before), the exchange of traditional remedies (old wives tales) and how bizarre they could be (both in the West and in Afghanistan), impossible shopping trips, the importance of the type of tea you drink, the never-ending salutations, trying to explain to uneducated women what microbes are, totally missing the signs of relationships going on below one’s nose…
This is a book full of love, for Afghanistan (there are some beautiful descriptions of places, some that unfortunately get destroyed with the war, and in the latter part of the book, when the author returns for a visit, and sees Kabul for the first time, the author’s interest in history come to the fore), for its people, and especially for its women. There are frustrating moments, when nothing seems to be possible or to go right, there are moments of pride as well (when the women who attended the training started helping others in their communities), there are scary moments, and there are truly horrifying things that happen as well, although those are not witnessed directly by the author (but we get heartbreaking testimonies from those who lived and survived some truly harrowing experiences). The book has many amusing moments, it is full of insights and inspiration, but it is not a light read. The chapters describing later visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan paint a clear picture of some of the things that happened in the country under the Taliban rule (and later, after 9/11, the American intervention), and they are particularly poignant knowing what has recently taken place there. It is a difficult read because it is impossible not to imagine that many of those behaviours and crimes might take place again (and some already have). I know there are many books about the history of the area, and many articles and documentaries about the conflicts and the different factions, but I can’t think of many (if any) where we get the opportunity to read about Afghan women’s everyday life, in their own terms, from the perspective of somebody who lived, worked, and learned with them, and they accepted as a friend and adopted family member. She does talk about some of the women who became vocal and held important positions —even if fleetingly—in Afghanistan as well, but, as she says:
But, it´s not only the high profile women who work towards women’s rights in Afghanistan. Every girl in school and university, every woman working outside the home in whatever capacity, is engaged in bringing and retaining a kind of freedom to her sisters and her daughters.
We need to make sure that her voices continue to be heard.
At a personal level, the author’s explanation for her decision to return home rather than stay there for a longer period gave me much food for thought. As somebody who spent many years away from home (although for very different reasons and in a far less adventurous and culturally diverse setting), I understood perfectly her comment about people who sometimes spend so long away that home doesn’t feel like home any longer. It reminded me of a wonderful passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun that similarly spoke to me many years back, and I share here (he is writing about his two American protagonists who decide to return to America after their visit to Italy):
And now, that life had so much human promise in it, they resolved to go back to their own land; because the years, after all, have a kind of emptiness, when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment, when we shall again breathe our native air: but, by-and-by, there are no future moments; or if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries, we have none at all, or only that little space of either, in which we finally lay down our discontented bones. It is wise, therefore, to come back betimes — or never.
Who would enjoy this book? Anybody looking for a non-fiction read providing a moving and true account of Afghan women’s lives (both in a big city and in a small rural area) in the late 1980s and 1990s, with some later updates (and some of those reflections are very prescient, knowing what has happened since); anybody who would like to know what life is (or was although I suspect not that many things have changed) for aid workers there, and anybody who enjoys a well written true account of what life was like in the country at the time. And, of course, anybody who has read any of Mary Smith’s books, because she writes beautifully and compellingly about the little details that are what make life so important. Thanks to the author for sharing her memories.
If you want to read Mary’s own thoughts on the current situation in Afghanistan, I recommend you check this post:
Here, a post from another blog on women’s current situation in Afghanistan:
And a more general one, about the situation for those who had been working with the Americans when they left:
Thanks to Mary for everything and my deepest sympathy to her family (we will never forget her).
Thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, and… well, you know. Make sure you stay safe and let’s hope 2022 brings us some good news, for a change. We sure need them.
Oh, in case you are wondering if I’d recommend Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun… Well, it depends on what you like. He writes beautifully, as you can appreciate in the quote, but the style might not suit impatient readers or those who value plot over everything. The Scarlet Letter is a much better novel, but The Marble Faun has some wonderful descriptions of Italy, is much more fanciful (he wrote what they termed “romance” at the time, that wasn’t to do with love stories, but rather with fanciful events, with some similarities to what we would term paranormal now, but not quite) than The Scarlett Letter, and it is also heavy in symbolism and explores some tropes that we have all become familiar with (the innocent American abroad, blonde vs dark-haired women, legends). He wrote some wonderful short stories as well, so that might be a good introduction for those thinking about reading his work.