I think I share a common conception, or misconception, of Afghanistan, a country that has always seemed distant, alien and mysterious to many of us, which is more likely to do with the climate there than anything else, yet, I find something in Afghanistan that is alluring, making me want to understand more than anything the people who live there. I doubt I’ll ever have the opportunity to travel there, so I’m very thankful that Three Women of Herat, by Veronica Doubleday, has been republished by Eland to intrigue a new generation of readers.
The media’s image of women in Afghanistan is one where women are, essentially, forced to disappear, subjected to some of the worst levels of oppression, but was it always so? For many in the west, Islam is very much an ‘alien’ religion that doesn’t seem to fit with much of the society we’ve created for ourselves, however, in Afghanistan prior to the soviet invasion it would appear that Afghanistan was a much more liberal and open place to be.
Travelling with her musician husband, Veronica Doubleday travelled to Afghanistan from 1973-1977 to study the local music traditions. Making friends with three very different families Three Women of Herat shares not just their story, but the friendships that were created during their time there. Although one of the main aspects of the book is the musical traditions, it was these friendships that engaged me the most, for here were three very different families giving the reader a glimpse of their lives, and how life was in Afghanistan in the 1970s.
Although remaining very traditional, the three women, Mariam, Mother of Nebi and Shirin, all had very different lives, yes I was very surprised at the openness with which they greeted the author and welcomed her and her husband into their families, teaching them their ways and traditions and about their music, their loves and their family life. In the story of their daily lives that is revealed throughout the book, we’re not just given a glimpse in to life in Afghanistan, but a more liberal Islam in Afghanistan of which many people may not have been previously aware.
Three Women of Herat though is not exploitative in any way, the lives of these families are written with the love and respect that is felt on every page of this fascinating book, and serves to educate not just those with academic interests in Religion (such as myself), but also anyone interested in a life outside of their own.
On reading Three Women of Herat, I did become intrigued by what Afghan music actually sounds like, as a sound I hadn’t heard before, and after reading the story of Shirin (renowned Afghan musician Zaineb Harawi) I had to do a little exploring and discovered the below clip, so everyone can feel even more a part of the book.
I wanted to read Three Women of Herat for my own education experience, but I came away with so much more. Written with the warmth and love that is felt within each of the relationships contained within the book, I felt a part of that world, able to visualise somewhat life in Herat during the 1970s, and this is a testament to the warmth of the writing, which embraces the reader and invites us in, not just to bang a drum but drink tea with these wonderful people.
Three Women of Herat is a step into a hidden world, that although lost to us now, remains an image to a unique group of people whose daily lives can remind us of joy of living and the treasure of our traditions.
- Three Women of Herat by Veronica Doubleday is published by Eland Books (£14.99). To order a copy go to www.travelbooks.co.uk
Founder and Editor of Pilgrim House, currently researching folklore and early Welsh Christianity and curator of the archives of the lost village of Pontyddim.