The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 16, 2002

A slice of life under Taliban in Afghanistan
Syeda Saiyidain Hameed

My Forbidden Face
by Latifa in collaboraton with Chekeha Hachemi. Virago. London. Pages 180. £ 9.50

My Forbidden FaceTHIS book offers an insider’s view of the horrors of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It is narrated by Latifa, a 20-year-old who recalls her happy childhood during the days of the Soviet occupation. Throughout the book we see her pacing up and down the little flat in which the family is virtually imprisoned. There she deplores the life of confinement that she has been forced to lead for many years by the various repressive regimes in that beleaguered country.

The book is a collaborative effort featuring the author, co-author and translator. The narrative goes back and forth in time. We learn that Latifa is the youngest of four children from an educated middle-class family. Her mother is a trained nurse but by continuously upgrading herself and taking advanced courses she is more like a qualified physician. Her father has a modest business, which keeps them in fair comfort although under constant dread of being seized and destroyed by various warring groups. Her oldest brother Wahid is in the army, her sister Shakila is married, lives in Islamabad and is about to migrate to the USA, where her husband has set up a business. Her other sister Soraya used to be an air hostess with Ariana Airlines until the Taliban occupation of Kabul and now her career has come to a grinding halt. Her other brother Daoud is the typical disillusioned Afghan youth, who in the first part of the book is the 24-hour chaperone of his sisters, and in the second goes away to study in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.


The book has nothing to qualify it as a well-written work. It suffers from the translator’s devil, meaning gaffes like "at the border we were speaking Pakistani," the fact being that there is no language called "Pakistani." The translator has used the French "ch" sound to replace the "sh" sound. For example, the name Shakila is written as Chakila. For those who are familiar with Arabic and Persian names, the spelling is odd. But regardless of the stylistic anomaly, there is a quick paced unfolding of events, which keeps the reader’s interest alive. Incident after incident is recounted of Taliban repression of women as experienced directly or indirectly by the author.

Latifa recounts that one evening four women in burqa appeared in a taxi. The one who had brought them was Soraya’s school friend Nafisa. They were in great agony, in urgent need of medical attention. With difficulty the mother tells her daughters that these girls had been gangraped by 15 men when Taliban had taken them hostage on the plain of Shomali. Not only that they mutilated their genitals. "Ripped them." Latifa’s mother and her helper, Dr. Sima, spent the night sewing up the wounds. The girls bore all this pain minus anesthesia. Witness to this makeshift clandestine surgery, Latifa writes, "that night saw the beginning of the most important clandestine surgery in Kabul. The girls left in the morning…. To what fate? We never saw them again."

Opening a secret school is one way of defying the Taliban diktat as well as keeping busy. Latifa and her friend Farida decide to open one such school to take up where "Mrs Fawzia" left off. Fawzia was caught `in the act’ by Taliban. Someone had played informant. She was beaten up, flung down the stairs, dragged by the hair and jailed. Undaunted, she was still prepared to assist the girls in their bold new venture. Other such acts of defiance are like the intelligence they are able to gather from their brother Wahid while he was in the military prison. Another absurd scene is enacted during the marriage of Daoud with Marie. Taliban regime allowed nothing, no mixed ceremony, men and women separate, no suits, gowns, music, photography. The couple’s friends could not help themselves and played music and proceeded to photograph the exchange of rings. Just then Taliban burst on the scene, beat up the amateur photographer and broke the camcorder. Latifa notes:

"We slipped away like thieves, though the custom is that even the departure from the wedding is a real ceremony. The whole thing was a disaster."

At the end, Latifa, her parents and another woman Diba, who also ran a clandestine school, go to Paris at the invitation of Elle magazine to talk about "the situation in Afghanistan." The account of the highly perilous journey from Kabul to Peshawar, Islamabad, Dubai and finally Paris reads like an adventure. The three women speak at international fora about the condition of women. "Mother, Diba and I have become ambassadors for our poor country."

In the brief chapter "Afterword" Latifa talks about how the "black turbans of the Taliban are disappearing from our nightmares." Then she goes on to write about the sounds of women’s laughter and the barbers’ razors which bring cheer to her heart. She is content with the conditions of her exile, but wants to return and "hug my country to myself." She repeats the charge levied by all Afghanis on the rest of the world. How over the centuries they have been given knives, guns, rifles, kalashnikovs to be played with like children’s rattles. "For centuries the rhythm of generations has been played out like a chess game, grand masters succeeding each other, one after another, as if tribal wars were a national sport." My Forbidden Face is a book that should be read for anecdotes about the Taliban regime seen through the eyes of the young. It does not have the power of Diary of Anne Frank, a book which has become a classic of its genre, written by a young Jewish girl hiding with her family during the Nazi regime. The analysis of the collaborator and expression of the translator has to an extent banished the artlessness of youth. It should have been left in its raw form in order for it. to have the desired impact.