'Freshta' tells the story of Herra and Freshta. The narrator, Herra, a Russian who married an Afghan, Nazir, whom she met at university in Moscow, lives with her husband's family and suffers from childlessness. However, one day a child is brought to them. Mad, an intelligent and loving child, is deformed and acts as Herra's sidekick and protector throughout the book. Her sister-in-law, Freshta, married for love, but is subject to repeated beatings at the hands of her husband. The household also includes Nazir and Freshta's father, mother and grandfather, as well as Freshta's children. The grandfather tells stories of a time before the Taliban, when women were more educated and liberated, and is a bit of a feminist. Freshta's daughter, Roshangol, feels stifled by her father and fears being forced into an unwanted marriage. The hopes, fears and fates of these characters are interwoven in a compelling tale.
The novel comes from an interesting point of view, as Herra is both an insider, having married an Afghan and lived there for many years when the book starts, and an outsider, as she is Russian, and continuously struggles with this dual identity. She is in between the reader and other Afghans she encounters, having experienced greater freedom and acquired an education in the earlier part of her life, but also having adapted to her local context.
This is the story of the struggle to adapt to a new Afghanistan and of how Western involvement in Afghanistan affects the family. It gives us the Afghan perspective on Americans and Europeans waltzing in to 'save' Afghan women and criticises them for their cultural insensitivity, and their belief that they can understand Afghan culture just by reading a book. The Westerners in the novel make little attempt to adapt to their surroundings and have little understanding for the choices Afghan women have and make. 'Freshta' also offers an explanation for why women in Afghanistan may choose to wear the burka, where in other societies they might not. Indeed, Herra explains that women in Afghanistan are regularly subject to physical and verbal sexual harrassment outside the home, unless they hide under a burka.
Interestingly, the book includes a scene where Nazir brings home a tape of 9/11 for the family to watch, having been asked by Americans for the Afghan family's opinion. The family are non-plussed, having themselves experienced explosions and death. Nazir tells the Americans that they were shocked and very sorry, when in fact the events have little significance to them and hardly excite their sympathy. I found this allusion to the fact that 9/11 is only of importance in Western-centric parts of the world particularly apt. It forces the reader to replace such events in perspective.
Despite broaching serious topics, such as domestic abuse, there are surprisingly humorous moments throughout the book. The lengths the family are willing to go to in order to preserve the women's honour are often dealt with lightheartedly and affectionately and result in rather ridiculous scenes.
The book's weak point is Herra and Nazir's relationship. Though Prochazkova attempts to create a complex relationship of love, jealousy and at times abuse, it comes across as rather flat and unrealistic. As a reader, I found it difficult to understand why Herra would have married him, left her family and friends to move to Afghanistan, and why she continues to love him throughout. Their relationship is relatively predictable and did not offer sufficient insight into power dynamics between men and women in Afghan marriages.
All in all, however, 'Freshta' was an enjoyable read, easily finished in a few days, and I would particularly recommend it to those who have an interest in Afghanistan or women's rights.