One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi (HarperCollins) PBK RRP $16.99
Reviewed by Sharon McGuinness
Nadia Hashimi’s first novel for young readers is an emotional and moving coming –of-age story set in Afghanistan against the backdrop of war, its effects and gender inequality.
Obayda is ten years old and has already witnessed the horror of war – her father lost his leg in a bomb blast and refuses to leave his bed. The family, Obayda, her parents and sisters have moved from Kabul to a village closer to family for support while her father recovers – yet his recovery is slow. Hampered by the loss of his job, he has become depressed, depending on extended family for accommodation and food.
Obayda’s aunt has an idea which is believed to change the family’s luck – change Obayda into a bacha posh – a girl pretending to be a boy. A longstanding tradition in Afghanistan, the belief that by bringing a boy into the home, the family’s luck will change – perhaps Obayda’s father’s depression will lift, maybe her mother will become pregnant with a son. Only when the bacha posh reaches puberty do they resume life as a girl.
The village in which the family lives is a different world to Kabul – girls cannot work and the village is run by a warlord Abdul Kaliq.
Obayda struggles as Obayd – wearing pants, her hair cut short – yet it is liberating, too. Freed from chores, and given more meat to eat, s/he is also encouraged to play and explore. At school, Obayd joins the boys’ class and must participate in more physical games at lunchtime.
Luckily for Obayd, he is befriended by one of the toughest boys – Rahim, who reveals himself as a bacha posh as well. Together a firm friendship is formed and Obayd begins to adapt to his new life.
Time passes and as Rahim approaches puberty his mother indicates to him that it will be time to change again to a girl. Rahim, though wants nothing of it: ‘I only want to be what I am now.’
Rahim has an idea – based on a legend which told of the power of walking under a rainbow – girls are changed to boys and vice versa. Convinced of its truth and with the help of Obayd, Rahim is determined to locate a rainbow. Both girls attempt a long walk to a waterfall, where a rainbow is often to be seen, but their attempt fails and Obayd is in trouble for arriving home in darkness. At school, soon afterward, Rahim does not appear and Obayd begins to wonder what has happened – particularly after hearing that Rahim’s father is mixed up with the warlord.
Obayd’s position as a bacha posh is changed when her mother becomes pregnant: now perhaps her father may also improve.
Yet bad news reaches Obayda that Rahim has been changed back to a girl – Rahima – who has also been married off to the warlord at 13 years of age.
While things improve for Obayda’s family – her father using a crutch that Obayd and Rahim had made some months prior, there is no news of Rahima. School resumes and Obayda returns to her class of girls and begins to form new friendships, just as her mother gives birth to a baby boy.
Perhaps being a bacha posh created some luck after all. We see Obayda’s father recognise her strength and ingenuity, which perhaps being a bocha posh has given her.
The book ends on a positive note – for Obayd and her family -- yet leaves the reader with the unresolved story of Rahima. What is her life like as a 13-year-old wife? How will she cope when she was clearly identifying as a boy? While things have improved for Obayda, the opposite is not so for Rahima.
Hashimi’s first book, ‘The pearl that broke its shell’ is actually the prequel to ‘One half from the east’, yet it is also an adult novel as it explores the life of Rahimi after marriage.
‘One half from the east’ explores the reality of gender inequality in Afghanistan – life as a bocha posh may enable a girl to see her potential and raise her confidence, but what happens when they are required to change again? This would be a valuable book to share with upper primary students – both girls and boys. It is a gripping story, charged with emotion and leaving its mark upon the reader.
I believe it would be suitable for children aged 12 plus years.