Mary Smith has penned an evocative and pictorial account of the everyday married life of a Scotswoman, Margaret (who renames herself Miriam), in rural Afghanistan and in NGO hospitals, during 1986-87 following the Soviet withdrawal, and again in 1995-96 just prior to the Taliban insurrection; there are also flashbacks to her middle-class existence as a young nurse in Edinburgh. While "No More Mulberries" is a medium size novel (254 pages), it can be read in one sitting and the experience would be like that of having watched an emotionally charged and soul searching movie, which leaves us pondering about the lives and the fate of the unfortunate people in Afghanistan. It will make us wonder what if anything can be done to improve their situation.
The novel opens--just as a Hollywood director would begin his movie--with a little Afghani girl running barefoot across a dusty courtyard, scattering the pecking chickens, and shouting, "Daddy's home!" The camera then swings towards a woman hunkered in the shade of a mulberry tree. From her attire she would seem to be Afghani, but when she looks up--from the pile of rice she is picking over and the pieces of chicken and salad she's preparing for dinner--the close-up reveals her smiling face with distinctive Scottish features. While the girl's father lifts the child up and throws her into the air, to squeals of her mock terror, the camera slowly enlarges to a wide angle view of the adobe type dwellings on the side of the rocky mountain and a panoramic vista of the village. We would see the white jeep with hospital markings parked in a small area below and the steep path the doctor would have walked up. Back in the compound, a little boy emerges from the kitchen carrying a glass of water and hands it without a word to the man. The doctor merely nods an acknowledgement. Herein lies the skill of the author, where the details of the surroundings, characters' introduction and the conflict are artistically blended into the story.
The novel continues on with attention-grabbing scenes, one after another. The developing tensions between Miriam and her husband, Doctor Iqbal, are hinted at when he announces that he has cancelled the two young boys' English lesson classes that Miriam had been holding at home. Iqbal's explanation being: "People will talk ... are young boys in Scotland not thinking about sex?" to which the astonished wife retorts, "Oh, for goodness sake, yes, of course. Think about it, talk about it, fantasise about it - but not about doing it with a woman who's nearly forty, the mother of two children." The husband narrows his eyes and coolly responds, "The subject is closed." The author has captured the characters' dialogues brilliantly, throughout the book.
Later the couple attend an Afghan wedding, and the in-depth narrative enables the readers to literally participate in the event. There, some of the women ask the former Edinburgh resident about her life in "London," (the name commonly used in that part of the world for the whole of UK!). Miriam's reminiscing transports us seamlessly via a flashback to her life in Edinburgh. We learn of her meeting a young student, Jawad from Afghanistan, their falling in love, her visit to his home town and eventually, after a trial separation as desired by Jawad's father, their marriage. Another magnificent scene is portrayed where we see the newlyweds en route to their home, stop at a mountain pass and getting out of the jeep gaze at the valley below towards `... several small hamlets of flat-roofed houses clinging to the hillside. A narrow blue ribbon of river twists along the valley floor ...'. Jawad scans her anxious face and says, "I hope you will be happy here Miriam-jan." Miriam smiles and responds, "As long as we are together, I can put up with anything." This is a defining moment in her life for little did she know that happiness and togetherness were not in their future.
Mary Smith has skilfully interwoven Miriam's story line, using alternating narratives of Miriam's life with her first husband, Jawad, and her subsequent remarriage to Doctor Iqbal, such that it keeps the readers engrossed in the story, wanting to know what happens to her next. A linear structured plot may not have been as effective as the vacillating account. We learn of further deterioration of her regard for Iqbal, when he forbids her to accept a translator's job at a teaching camp, offered to her by a French lady doctor. His rationale being that Miriam would be away for a month working in another town, without her husband, which is not in accordance with Afghan culture and would put him in an `intolerable situation' with others in their village. However, Miriam sees this as an opportunity to further her medical knowledge and accompanies the lady doctor to the camp. There, to make matters worse, she goes on a side trip with an old friend of her former husband, Jawad, to his home town, because she is anxious to learn the details of Jawad's murder. Iqbal comes to know about her visit and is naturally furious. While it would seem that their marriage is falling apart and it would appear that Iqbal might be considering taking on another wife--his recently widowed former sweetheart--he is drawn to slay his own demons that have been haunting him since childhood. On the other hand the political landscape around them is also changing. The Taliban forces are sweeping across the country and Mariam and Iqbal, along with their children flee.
The novel ends in the style of a typical Hollywood movie. While some of the viewers leaving the theatre (or readers closing the book) might be dabbing their eyes, with handkerchiefs, most would have smiles on their faces.
Although this is a disconcerting story, the writing is not all sombre. There are descriptions of the lighter sides of life in that remote region, along with a couple of "Mullah Nasuridin" jokes, which will surely make the readers burst out in laughter. Most of the enjoyment of the reading would be in the finer points of Afghani life that Mary Smith has adroitly captured, no doubt from her first hand experiences while serving in that region as a medical aid worker. A highly recommended novel and a story that many would be wishing to read a sequel to.
Reviewed by Waheed Rabbani. Author of [...] available at Amazon.