The Patience Stone

From The Guardian:

Burqa-clad-Afghan-woman-w-001The freeing of women from Taliban rule became a belated war aim for US‑led troops in Afghanistan; this, despite western bolstering of the Taliban's precursors, the mujahideen, in their resistance to Soviet occupation during the cold war. The latest novel by writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi imagines what such liberation might entail, for both women and men. It also hints at how relations between the sexes in his country of birth have been deformed, not just by residual tradition, but by the political interventions of recent history. Women were off-stage in Earth and Ashes, Rahimi's powerful debut novella set after the Soviet invasion of 1979, which traced an almost mythic cycle of vengeance among generations of men. It was written in Dari (a form of Persian) in 1999, years after the author had fled the Soviet occupation to asylum in France. His film version won a prize at Cannes in 2004. The Patience Stone, awarded the prix Goncourt in 2008, is his first novel written in French. Like his previous novel, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, it adopts the viewpoint of women, for whom war can bring both suffering and a curious freedom.

Set “somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere” in the near-present, the action is confined to a room where a woman tends her comatose husband, shot weeks before in a trivial brawl over honour. War intrudes sporadically, with black-turbaned fighters and the acrid smoke of explosions, as she hides her patient from patrols and looters. Whereas Earth and Ashes revealed a clash between Soviet-trained workers and US-backed mujahideen, here the conflict has descended into meaningless fratricide, the woman's urban neighbourhood marked out as the next frontline between squabbling factions. As she tells her husband, his father “was proud of you when you were fighting for freedom . . . It was after freedom came that he started to hate you – you, and also your brothers, now that you were all fighting for nothing but power.” Though the couple have been married for 10 years – the first three while he was away fighting – only his enforced silence frees her to speak. “Your breath hangs on the telling of my secrets,” she says, savouring a reversal of power. “I can talk to you about anything, without being interrupted, or blamed!” The supine object of her dramatic monologue becomes her sang-e sabur, the patience stone of Persian lore to which “you confess everything in your heart, everything you don't dare tell anyone”. The magic stone “listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes . . . And on that day you are set free from all your pain, all your suffering.”

Her unburdening grows into an outspoken riff on all that is wrong between the sexes, and the codes or prejudices that bar true intimacy. She has never understood “why, for you men, pride is so much linked to blood”, or the myriad hypocrisies of virginity and virility, virtue and honour, pure and impure blood. Singled out for scorn is the new-found religious zealotry, commanded by mullahs she considers cowardly and sanctimonious. The husband she now tends was wont to order her to cover up by shouting, “hide your meat”.

More here.