Suraya Sadeed packs a lot into 280 pages. Then again, she’s packed a lot into her life. “Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse” is the story of a crusade, one she began shortly after her husband died early in the 1990s, to help Afghan children. Those forbidden lessons in a Kabul guesthouse were classes in schools banned by the Taliban.
The story also is about the transformation of a woman who was born and reared in Afghanistan, came to America with her husband and daughter early in the 1980s, earned her citizenship and achieved the American Dream, making good money in real estate and striving for more. That all changed after she watched a television report about the desperate situation of children in the country of her birth .
“Forbidden Lessons” is a first-person account of her coming to the decision to do everything in her power to feed, clothe and help educate Afghan children; about learning one step at a time how to do it, and about then risking her life in one adventure after another making it happen. She was on missions in Afghanistan during the chaos that followed the departure of the Soviet Union, during the rise of the Taliban and again during the U.S. invasion after terrorists inspired by Osama bin Laden and trained in Afghanistan launched the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
As an adventure story, it’s superb. As an introduction to Afghanistan’s multiple cultures, it’s fascinating. Sadeed’s story is peopled with memorable characters. One is Sekander, a former Afghan soldier who helps her on missions for years and is beaten by the Taliban while protecting her and her companions. Another was Fatima, a young mother whose husband and parents were killed when a rocket struck their Kabul home and who found herself living in a vast refugee camp that offered little refuge. Still another was Nasreen, a woman who long ago attended school with Sadeed but whose hardships had led her for a time to the “widow camps.” Those were sections of refugee camps where women without men to protect them lived and were preyed upon by men who paid camp officials for the privilege.
Two boys are memorable. One, Naqibullah, was a youthful yet aggressive Afghan militiaman who Sadeed meets when his band stops her small aid caravans. He’s an orphan who’s learned how to survive and who becomes intrigued by Sadeed’s commitment to help starving children. She is reminded that there’s kindness under the intimidating exterior.
The other boy, Yar Mohammad, was an adolescent who boasted to Sadeed that he was “the first in our area to kill an American soldier.” Asked why, he said. “He came to my country. He can come here as a guest, and I’ll give him all we have. But if he comes here as an enemy and an invader, then I’ll kill him.”
When Sadeed told that him that the American soldier came “as a friend, to help drive out the Taliban,” the boy’s bravado yielded to confusion and to the possibility that he had made a terrible mistake. It’s not hard to understand Sadeed’s simultaneous feelings of anger, pity and empathy for him.
Nor is it hard to marvel at her own capacity for survival. She was a passenger in a bullet-ridden helicopter the Soviet Army left behind that was being piloted by a stoned Afghan who insisted that he needed the joints to weave through icy mountain passes. She also managed to avoid being killed during artillery exchanges between warlords and the Taliban over control of Kabul, and dodged bullets on a number of occasions.
Yet most noteworthy, even heroic, is what Sadeed accomplished. She established the nonprofit organization “Help the Afghan Children” shortly after her husband’s death. It’s still going strong (www.HTAC.org) and it welcomes contributions.
She never ceased to be amazed at the donations, especially when, after 9/11, Americans opened their hearts and pocketbooks to her. On her many missions, she encountered tribal chieftains, earthquake victims, Taliban members who say that if she were a man they would have killed her and Taliban members who envision Afghanistan as a peaceful, productive, if structured, land. She also dealt with reporters from Western news agencies whose obsession with their story at times imperiled her humanitarian missions. Her efforts earned news coverage, including stories in USA Today and other national publications and a television program. She was a guest on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and, with representatives of other nongovernmental organizations, participated in a discussion on humanitarian needs with President. George W. Bush.
On occasions, Sadeed endured despair as well as physical privation as she worked her way around or through doubting friends, corrupt refugee camp administrators, armed Afghan tribesmen and even FBI agents to give Afghanistan’s children, particularly its girls, an opportunity to see beyond the death and the destruction that had defined their land for a generation.
“Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse” is as captivating as an adventure novel. That it is nonfiction only ads to its power.
Walt Braun is editorial page editor of The Mercury.