Afghanistan is a land of war and poverty in which there are rarely any happy endings. How can you tell its story with honesty, sensitivity and realism without leaving the reader depressed, angry or apathetic? Suzanne Fisher Staples, who worked in the region as a journalist, has found a way.
This exquisitely beautiful book changed me in ways I am having a hard time nailing down. Yes, I learned far more than I knew about this ancient culture, but that is only a part of it. I know what it didn’t do. it didn’t leave me more grateful that I am not living in a war-torn, impoverished nation, and it hasn’t made me re-think my political or religious preferences. The change has been a quickening — an awakening that transcends specifics.
I struggled to find a word that would describe the tone of Staples’ prose. Poetic seems too bland; spiritual too religious. Somehow in the telling of the story, in shedding light upon the daily lives of the Afghan people, which are as rich with tenderness and a connection to the best of community, the land and the stars as they are poor in the eyes of the West, she elevates the reader in ways that are hopefully permanent and leaves me marveling again that the best books for all of us are often marketed to the young.
Structurally, the book is a convergence of two paths, separated by time and culture. Staples preserves this separation through the use of two points of view. Najmah, the young Afghan girl, tells her story in the first person. Nusrat, an American-Muslim who runs the Persimmon Tree School for Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, enters our hearts through the third person account of the world that Najmah seeks to enter.
The girl and the woman are both running away from and through anguish, dependent upon their own resourcefulness and the kindness of strangers. They are also looking to the stars for guidance.
The book opens with Najmah’s account of her daily life in the mountains with her brother, Nur, who torments her with stories about non-existent leopards, her gentle father (Baba-jan), who teaches them about the stars, and her pregnant mother (Mada-jan). Their farm — with its fruit and nut trees, sheep and goats and the garden where her father grows crops for the market and flowers for his wife — meets their needs despite the drought.
With her mother so close to giving birth, young Najmah, whose name means Star, is called upon to step up in ways that both frighten her and make her proud. Wrapping firewood in her shawl and leading the animals into the mountains to find grass allow her to learn to function despite her fears.
But, Afghanistan has been at war since Baba-jan was a boy, and Najmah has heard too much not to be afraid.
“The Taliban have said the only thing people can do to enjoy themselves is to walk in the garden and smell the flowers. But ever since the Taliban came to power five years ago, there has been drought. It’s as if Allah has banished flowers to punish the
Taliban for the evil things they do to people.”
After the Taliban take Baba-jan and Nur, Najmah cares for the farm and her mother. When her mother and baby brother die in the bombing, her skills are put to the test. She is forced to disguise herself as a boy and run for her life.
Nusrat, whose name means Help, grew up as “Elaine” in Watertown, New York. At ten, her beloved younger sister died. The loss sent her life into a tail-spin and caused her to question her faith and look to mathematics and science for answers. She falls in love with a Muslim doctor in New York City and is drawn to the Koran. She feels a special kinship with Islam, the cradle of mathematics and astronomy.
Six months prior to 9/11, when Faiz leaves for Afghanistan to set up a clinic in the north, she has the choice of remaining in New York or living with her husband’s family in a wealthy neighborhood of Peshawar. Instead, she starts the Persimmon Tree School for refugee children. She teaches shepherd children the poetry of numbers and feeds their families while waiting for the return of her husband.
Under the Persimmon Tree is not a quest for the age-old static “Riding off into the sunset” ending with its snapshot beauty. It is a portrayal of the enduring and triumphant nature of goodness, carried aloft down paths that are often uncharted and treacherous by people who have chosen to do what is right because it is right.
It is a call not to smell the roses but to ponder the stars. Najmah’s Baba-jan taught her to make a fist and to point the second knuckle at the star that never moves — al-Qutb (the hub), which we know as Polaris, the North Star, the one constant in the skies. In knowing the stars, we will never be lost, and — whether as guides in the physical world or through the wanderings of our hearts, they will always help us find our way home.
Some House-keeping & New Pages about Readers with Print Disabilities &Breast Cancer Awareness
My bad. I acknowledged the winners of this past summer’s print give-away on Facebook, but not here where it all began. If you’re just learning about this, we were trying to raise awareness about the need for accessible books for students with print disabilities.
Thanks to everyone who read The Heart of Applebutter Hill and wrote customer reviews on Amazon. I appreciate them all, including the less-than-flattering ones — even if I had to work a little harder with those.
We more than met our original goal of twenty-five reviews with an average rating of 4.2, so we decided to give away three print copies. The winners are Marie Brophy (New York), Joe Drenth (Pennsylvania) and Ann Marie Medlar (Florida). The books were sent, and I received acknowledgments that they arrived safe and sound via snail-mail.