NAW Interview with Nadia Hashimi

Nadia Hashimi

Nadia Hashimi was born and raised in New York and New Jersey. Both her parents were born in Afghanistan and left in the early 1970s, before the Soviet invasion. Nadia works as a pediatrician in Maryland. The The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is her first book. Learn more about her here.

NAW-  Please give me your bio in brief elaborating on how and why you decided to write?

I grew up in New Jersey and New York before going to Brandeis University where I majored in Biology and Middle Eastern studies.  I went on to attend medical school in Brooklyn and then completed a residency in pediatrics at NYU Medical Center in New York City.  In 2008, my husband and I moved to Maryland and I began working in an urban pediatric emergency room. I’ve always had an interest in literature and aspired to write when I was much younger but it was placed on the back burner while I focused on my career in medicine, which has been incredibly rewarding.  At the encouragement of my husband, I decided to put the time and effort into writing which I’ve found to be equally rewarding!

NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘The Pearl That Broke Its Shell.’ How did you get the idea for the book?

As an Afghan-American woman, the plight of women in Afghanistan, particularly during the Taliban regime, was very compelling and I was in search of a way to bring attention to the obstacles they face.  Around that time, my cousin shared with me a New York Times article on the bacha posh tradition.  The article mentioned a time in Afghanistan’s history when a king used women dressed as men to guard his harem.  Can’t trust men around so many women, I suppose.  I thought the bacha posh tradition was a remarkable vehicle for exploring the implications of gender in Afghanistan and a story line quickly took shape.  I’m very grateful when I hear feedback from readers who remark that the story has helped them better understand the lives of women abroad.  There’s no better feedback than inspiring compassion and cross-cultural understanding.

NAW- Tell us about the research you carried out for the book? You visited Afghanistan for your research, right? What was it like being back in your home country?

I visited Afghanistan for the first time in 2002 with my parents but I did not have serious thoughts about writing a book at that time.  I spent my time there visiting family, local historic sites, areas of reconstruction and my parents’ childhood homes.  I also met with some Afghan physicians, public health officials and toured a couple of hospitals and schools.  It was inspiring to see the positive energy and mood in light of the physical state of affairs.  Neighborhoods were reduced to rubble, buildings were pockmarked from rocket attacks and yet the young people were incredibly enthusiastic about returning to schooling and normalcy.  Since my parents had left in the 1970s (prior to the Soviet invasion), they were returning to a country they barely recognized.  I think it was more of a bittersweet homecoming for them.

Though my trip to Afghanistan helped me recreate the setting for the book, much of the research happened remotely.  I spoke with family, friends of family and read interviews of Afghan women who lived, at some point, as a bacha posh.  I was able to get insider details on the workings of the parliament.  The history of Afghanistan was chronicled in detail by Louis Dupree as well as several other historians.  It was actually quite fun piecing the history together to paint a picture of Afghanistan at the turn of the century and giving voice to historical figures.

NAW- The incidence of bacha posh is a very fascinating and interesting one. Tell our readers about it. The practice is an ancient one, right? Or is it still practised?

The bacha posh practice is poorly tracked but from the research I’ve done, it reaches back generations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I know of one woman now in her eighties who lived as a bacha posh for 9 years of her childhood.  It is interesting to note that the practice pre-dated the Taliban regime so it is not a response to the restrictive edicts they imposed on girls.  As for how common it is, there are no real numbers since it’s done without much fanfare.  I don’t think much consideration has been given, historically, to the psychological impact the practice has on these girls.  Whether it’s a good or bad idea is very much debatable but it’s my hope that the practice will become unnecessary in the very near future as I do believe it symbolizes the disheartening gender gap in Afghan society.

NAW- The book oscillates between two very different time periods. How did you get information about ancient customs and practices considering you never lived there? Was it difficult getting information?

Describing the Afghanistan Shekiba lived in was challenging but the research was quite enjoyable.  I read through historical texts and tried to pull out details about the technology and major events of that time period.  The cholera epidemic that decimated Shekiba’s family was an actual event and in some cases whole families were consumed by the disease.  Kings of that era traveled in caravans and on carriages so I stayed true to those details.  I used photographs and descriptions of the palace to recreate the setting for Shekiba’s life as a harem guard.  Based on the stories from my own ancestors, many everyday Afghan customs have not changed much over the years.  If we all reflect on our own cultures, we might be surprised by how little customs and practices have changed over the course of a century.  I suppose that’s what makes them customs as opposed to fads.

The PearlthatBrokeitsShell

NAW- The women in your book are rebellious and courageous too. Is an average Afghan woman like that? I mean we’ve seen pictures of and imagined an average, Afghan woman to be highly oppressed, with no rebellious streak whatsoever.

Friends, don’t let the burqa fool you!  Afghan women are incredibly spirited and resilient.  During the Taliban regime, girls attended secret schools, refusing to be denied an education.  While some women live by conservative societal expectations, there are many that have stepped outside of their traditional roles.  When I think of the Afghan women I know, I think of boisterous laughter, lively dancing, dedicated physicians and outspoken community leaders.  In the recent elections, despite threats and bombings, Afghan women of all ages accounted for 36% of all the votes cast.  They have re-entered the public sphere in a big way, taking on serious positions despite ongoing threats.  They are rising up!

NAW- Do you have friends and family back in Afghanistan? If yes, then how receptive were they of your book? Do people know you as a writer in Afghanistan?

I’m blessed to have a large, extended family in Afghanistan.  Thanks to the internet and social media, we can be in touch and they’ve been quite supportive of my book though it is not directly available there.  Beyond my family, I don’t think anyone in Afghanistan knows much about the book though social media is sure to change that!

NAW- Generally speaking, women and men have never been treated as equal even in the west. Being an Afghan woman, do you think you have to work doubly hard for people to take your work seriously? Something Khaled Hoseeini, for example would never have to encounter. How receptive or diffident were people of your first book?

I think the literary world is a bit different than other professional fields in that it is a bit more of an equal ground for men and women.  I’ve encountered much more patronizing attitudes in the medical field actually.  I’ve been called “nurse” after repeatedly introducing myself as a doctor.  And I’ve been treated blatantly differently than my male counterparts by other physicians.  These are things that happen in our western world each and every day.

My Afghan family and friends have been incredibly supportive.  In fact, many of my uncles and relatives have shared with me that they are particularly proud that I am bringing the voice of Afghan women to the spotlight.  Thus far, I’ve not experienced much negativity and I’m thankful for that.

NAW- You have touched upon several themes in your work but I want to ask you about the drug addiction problem. Alcohol of course is not an issue in Afghanistan but how much of a problem is opium or other forms of drug abuse? I have Afghan friends and many of them have stated that their relatives are addicted to opium.

Drug addiction is a major problem in Afghanistan for several reasons: trauma of war, high unemployment rates, and lack of sustainable local economies.  Many Afghan refugees returned from neighboring countries addicted to heroin.  The drug is very available and affordable, making it hard to resist for so many.  For those who are addicted, the resources to battle and overcome addiction are incredibly limited.  The treatment centers are overwhelmed and have nowhere near the capacity needed to service the population of addicts.  Afghanistan is itself a major producer of opium, despite attempts to convert opium farms to other profitable crops.  That’s due, at least in part, to local and central government corruption as well as a steady foreign demand for the drug.   I would recommend Fariba Nawa’s enlightening book Opium Nation for a hard look at how the big picture of the opium trade trickles down to impact the Afghan people.

NAW- How is life for an ordinary woman in Afghanistan? Could you notice any visible changes during your visit?

Life in Afghanistan varies greatly by region.  A woman’s life in a rural area is very different from a woman’s life in a major city, like Kabul.  That’s the case in any country, actually.  Life for Afghan women has also changed drastically over the last hundred years.  During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a major progressive movement.  Women of my mother’s generation attended universities and graduate schools alongside their male counterparts.  They were professionals: doctors, engineers, and teachers.  Unfortunately, wartime wreaks havoc on the most vulnerable segments of the population, women and children.  This is what we saw happen during the war with the Soviets and then the subsequent civil unrest and rise of the oppressive Taliban regime.

In the aftermath of the US and western involvement in Afghanistan, Afghan women have made leaps and bounds (progress) in their roles outside the home.  There’s plenty of room for growth but it’s important to note that progress has been made.  Women now make up about 20% of the parliament.  They are again attending schools and pursuing higher education.  They have professional goals and are actively voicing their opinions.  Their potential depends largely on the resources around them, the liberties their families afford them and their individual economic situations.  With time, the progress we’ve seen in the cities will reach the more rural areas but only if security can be maintained.

Women are still faced with major challenges.  Family planning is limited and maternal morbidity and mortality remains tragically high.  Domestic violence against women is an epidemic and some people are still resistant to girls attending school.  Females attending school or vying for public office are sometimes targets of violence.  In my visit to Afghanistan, I saw young girls and adolescents who were so happy to be attending school and each one I spoke with relayed high aspirations beyond university.  I do believe their energies and gritty resolve will enable them to achieve their goals and become active participants in the workforce and in government.  They are the future of the country.

NAW- I was in Malaysia when MH 370 disappeared and people accused Afghans of kidnapping it; it’s ridiculous but ordinary people like to find an easy target. Did you ever encounter any racism? And if yes, then how did you deal with it?

The immediate period after any tragic event is a kind of open season for wild theorizing and opportunistic confabulation. It’s a good time for dormant racism to rear its ugly head.  The only time I ever felt uncomfortable or targeted because of my heritage was in the couple of weeks after September 11th.  When the towers were hit, I was sitting in a medical school lecture in Brooklyn.  Class was dismissed as the city shut down.  I walked back to my apartment with a few olive skinned classmates and we were caught by surprise when a few men began shouting hateful words our way, especially since we felt just as American and just as scared as anyone else in the neighborhood.  My family has a convenience store in a quiet upstate New York town and the windows were shattered one morning about a week after 9/11.  The community came together and several people extended their regret that such an ugly trespass could have been committed in our warm town.  Thankfully the feelings of friendship and warmth outlast the shock of shattered glass.

NAW- You grew up in America and for all practical purposes are an American. Did your parents preserve the Afghan culture at home? How would you describe yourself- Afghan, American, Afghan-American or something else? Where do you see Afghanistan in the future world order and what are your aspirations for your country?

I identify myself as an Afghan-American because both cultures are very much part of who I am.  My parents and extended family kept the Afghan culture alive in our home.  We celebrated our new year on the first day of spring, we had festive gatherings on Eid, our holiday and I was raised to call any adult female “Khala” (Auntie).  Culture is made up of lots of practices, some big and some small.  My parents also very much assimilated into the American culture and were happy to be part of the local community.  We celebrated Thanksgiving, dressed up for Halloween and embraced the individualism that comes with the American culture.  Really, I feel like I experienced the best of both worlds.

Afghanistan has a long recovery ahead.  The country we see now is a result of decades of war and instability and we cannot expect an overnight recovery.  I am impressed, though, with how much progress has been made, particularly by women.  The 2014 presidential election saw female vice president candidates on more than one ticket.  That would be huge news even in a nation as progressive as the United States.  We have to keep in mind women were barely allowed out of the home under the Taliban regime and that was only a decade ago.  Afghanistan is a young country when we look at the demographics of the nation.  The energy and optimism of today’s Afghans gives me much hope that the country will push through and overcome the many challenges (political corruption, poor economy, lack of infrastructure, foreign influence) and make its way from a developing nation to a developed nation.

NAW- How did you get published? Did you face any hurdles?

I was very fortunate and was able to link up with my agent, Helen Heller, who really believed in this story.  Helen did her magic and connected me with Rachel Kahan, my editor at William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins.  Things came together in a matter of weeks, which is admittedly not typical for a first time author.  I’ve been so grateful to have ended up with this team.  The energy and enthusiasm they had for this book really encouraged me and they’ve helped build great buzz to get this story into the hands of readers.

NAW- How difficult is it writing with another regular job? Do you set yourself a target of writing a certain number of words per day? How long did it take for you to finish the book?

If you really want to make something happen, you have to make it a priority and build it into your life schedule.  On my writing days, I set a personal goal of 2000 words per day.  I may not reach this goal, but having a target gives me structure and brings the finish line into view.  When I wrote The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, I was expecting my daughter and began working part time.  All in all, it took about 9-10 months to put the first draft together.  I promised myself I would finish it before my daughter was born because I knew it would be nearly impossible to get anything done with a newborn at home!

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

Like so many people, I juggle several different responsibilities.  I’m a pediatrician and a mom to two incredible young children.  I also work closely with my husband’s surgical practice, a great way for us to come together on an endeavor. My husband and I spend our free time with our children, a breath of fresh air after a long work day.  It’s a busy household but we’re doing our best to take things one day at a time and appreciate all that we have.

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

I’m working on final revisions for my second novel, the story of an Afghan family forced to seek political refuge in Europe.  The story follows their treacherous trek out of Afghanistan and across Europe’s often unwelcome borders. When an adolescent son becomes separated from his mother and two younger siblings, he finds himself in the underground world of refugees in Turkey and Greece, desperate to reunite with his family.  It’s a situation that is happening every day for so many refugees and a huge dilemma for the European nations.  Fiction is an amazing way to start a conversation about contemporary social issues and my hope is that my stories will spark a little interest in the hardships others face.


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