featured image

A Critique of ‘Tears of Golsum’ and ‘Awaiting Ababil’ (Book review)

Through two short story collections, “Tears of Golsum” and “Awaiting Abail,” the prolific novelist Husain Fakhri introduces readers to Afghanistan’s political, social, and cultural reality in the 1960s and 1970s. 

In “Tears of Golsum”, published by Amu Publications in Tehran in 2019, Fakhri delves into the lives of women and girls living with economic and cultural poverty, class disparities, ignorance, and superstitions. They are difficult years.. The protagonist of “The First Snow” is a poor single mom working as a servant in the house of an aristocrat in Kabul. Besides enduring the hardship of labour and the household’s injustices, she worries about her five-year-old son, who cannot comprehend the class divide. 

In this story, both the servant woman and her son endure not just class discrimination and mistreatment from affluent members of society but also racial discrimination. Although the author doesn’t explicitly mention their ethnicity, the text uses hints from the aristocratic household’s dialogue, which mocking their facial features, to suggest the mother and child are Hazara, whose members were historically employed in menial and laborious tasks or served in wealthy households. Their habitation in such luxurious homes intensifies the harsh gap between the classes and made it more challenging to bear the injustices that they suffered as members of the lower class. The story “The Bitter Nut” also portrays a similar situation.

In “Tears of Golsum,” racial discrimination is also evident. The story focuses on a poor woman who supports her family by washing clothes.Her wages are so meagre that she involves her five-year-old daughter, Golsum, in her clothes washing business. Despite her family’s severe financial poverty and having to struggle to fulfill even the basic needs of her daughter, she wants to have a male child, and so goes to a shrine to pray. Her hope for a baby boy makes her the subject of ridicule, which escalates into a confrontation involving racial slurs.

The tradition of favoring male children over females is prevalent in patriarchal societies like Afghanistan. In addition to misogynistic traditions, another reason for this preference for male offspring is poverty, and the need to add another worker to the family as  daughters often leave through marriages while sons contributed to the family’s income for years, even after marriage.

In the story “Looking Ahead,” Fakhri addresses the social repercussions of war, which forces many into poverty and destitution. The piece  involves a man who leaves his wife and young daughter to participate in the war for four years, despite his elderly mother’s assertion that he isn’t of draft age and there’s no conscription. His daughter, inspired by a woman who sought help from a fortune-teller to solve her own problems, gives her earrings to the fortune-teller as payment in the hope of making her father return home from the war so he can alleviate their poverty and misery.

Among the stories in the “Awaiting Ababil” collection, published in 2018 by Tak Publications in Kabul, the only piece in which a woman’s character is prominently featured is “All Sorrow and Coughing.” She is the narrator who is recounting her tumultuous life to her physician. Her husband’s political struggles had resulted in trouble for the family. In addition, she is mourning the lost years of her youth and expresses concern for her children’s uncertain future.

In this story, the woman’s illness becomes a turning point in the narrative as it prevents the family’s migration to Europe. In other stories, women are often absent or their presence is minimal and often presented as stereotypical traditional, passive homemakers.

Ultimately, in both collections, “Tears of Golsum” and “Awaiting Ababil,” Hossein Fakhri echoes his concerns regarding the social and cultural problems of Afghanistan in the 60s and 70s — economic and cultural poverty, class discrimination, racial biases, the effect of war, and political changes. However, he spends no time on the issue of gender discrimination and women’s rights. There’s no mention of the numerous oppressions faced by women due to societal norms and laws that favor men. It’s as if gender discrimination is an accepted and inherent aspect of society.

 Rayhana Bayani is a literary and cultural writer and critic.