A modern Cassandra speaks

A modern Cassandra speaks

Abdul Kareem and Phyllis in the American countryside, before Afghanistan.

It is hard to be Cassandra, but if you are blessed (or cursed, or perhaps blessed and cursed) with her gift, which actually was not for prophesy but for the sort of clear vision that defies filters and foresees tragedies, then you just can’t help yourself.

You say what you see, even as you foresee the consequences.

Phyllis Chesler, a radical feminist, scholar, and author whose understanding of the role of gender in society underpinned some of the social upheaval of the 1970s, had an extremely unusual window into the Islamic world, and her need to warn the West of the danger it faces has made her a pariah in the world that once acclaimed her.

That has neither stopped her, nor modified her belief either in feminism or in the dangers of radical Islam.

“I see totalitarianism and fascist thinking and herd thinking on the left, and I see it on the right,” she said.

As she has just told the world in her new memoir, “An American Bride in Kabul,” her understanding of the Muslim world came from the months she spent in her husband’s family compound in that city.

With one of her granddaughters.

How she found herself there – and how she got herself out – is the story she tells in her book.

Chesler, who was born in 1940, grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in an Orthodox family. “Borough Park wasn’t like it is now,” she said. “There were Jews and Christians, and families that had moved in from the Lower East Side.

“My family wasn’t political. When my parents wanted to put me into Workmen’s Circle, when I was 7, I said that I didn’t want to learn the slave language.” (That, of course, was Yiddish.) “I wanted to learn Hebrew. In 1951, I was packing machine gun parts to go to Israel.”

A very good and enthusiastic student, she won a full scholarship to a private college; as a language and literature major, she spent most of her time in the library. And then she met a man. “I thought he was so dapper, and so worldly,” she said. He was handsome, sensitive, bohemian, and had a bit of the romantic outsider edge that can be so very appealing. He was an Afghan, had been educated in a private high school, and now was in college.

She had always been “lured by the east,” she said. In fact, she can trace her early interest back to the notebooks that she used in Hebrew school – her “machberes,” she called it – the thin blue-covered ones with a line drawing of a young, lithe, bearded, intense, turbaned Rambam staring out at her from the cover.

After a 4 ½ year courtship, in 1961 she married Abdul-Kareem, and the two went to Afghanistan.

“He was as crazy, or as foolish, or as much as a dreamer as I was,” Chesler said.

It was in Afghanistan that her feminism was born. “It was forged in those fires,” she said. “I thought that men who loved you and married you and you loved them – they were there to protect you, not to endanger you.

“He in no way prepared me for the culture shock I found in Kabul.”

There were salient pieces of information about his background that Abdul-Kareem left out. Chesler knew that his family was wealthy and well-connected, and that he had ambitions for developing the arts back home. She knew that he was going to introduce her to his family, but she did not know that he planned for the two of them to stay there. (“What can I tell you? I was young and naïve.”) And she didn’t know “that his father had three wives and 21 children. I, who had fled Borough Park because it was too small.

“The thing that you romanticize sometimes is a nightmare. You think Smalltown USA is dangerous – you try living like that.”

In Kabul, Chesler, like the other wives, like the other women, was confined to the compound. As she describes it, on their rare trips out, they cover their bodies – clad in expensive Paris-bought designer clothes in the compound – to expose as little of them as possible. Often, they wear the burqua, which she describes in her book as an “airless, claustrophobic, moveable prison, or sensory deprivation chamber.” But most of the time they stay in.

Because the women have not much to do beyond abusing their many servants and dwelling on insults, and because the polygamous life, at least according to Chesler’s observations, leads inevitably to resentment, demands for attention, and the feeling of never having enough, life in the compound was not pleasant. The hills beyond its walls beckoned, but in vain.

Another wrinkle – Chesler had to convert to Islam, although the conversion was quick, pro forma, and pretend. It was so pro forma, in fact, that for years she managed to push it out of her mind, but the fact remains that the family did not know what to make of the Jew in their midst.

She became very sick, clearly near death. “My lowest point was when I realized that I very well could die there and be buried in a Muslim cemetery,” she said. “And that would be the death of me and of my dreams.”

Still, there was much beauty there.

“The nomads you see – they look like they are stepping out of the pages of the Torah. It was heart-stopping. And the kind of mountains that surround the city of Kabul are awesome. The city is 6,000 feet above sea level, so it looks like you could almost reach up to the sky and pluck a star out like a grape, they hung so low and thick. There was so much natural beauty.”

But that was not enough.

Eventually, she did get out – her father-in-law, looking at her medical condition, decided that the best thing to do was to rid the place of her. Because the Afghani officials who admitted her to the country confiscated her passport and never returned it, and because she had become an Afghan national through marriage, she had some trouble with United States immigration officials, but eventually she was issued a new passport.

“I feel that I can now speak with some street cred about that world, Afghanistan before the Taliban,” Chesler said. “And that world has now worsened, gotten much more savage and dangerous. This hard-won education says that you don’t negotiate with the Taliban.

“We have a whole spate of very charming novels and movies and nonfiction memoirs about how charming and kind and poetry-citing these cultures are, but often missing from these accounts is the absolute ferocity of the control of women and servants and children.

“So maybe it was bashert” – fated – “that I went there, so I could speak in this voice. It’s not a harsh voice, not a preacher’s voice.

“For years, I wanted to write a book that was my little story, interspersed with stories of women travelers to the east whose stories have been forgotten. I wanted to do another version of ‘1001 Nights.’ But I couldn’t, because 9/11 happened, and the persecution of women in the Islamic world became so bad that I thought it would be disloyal and cruel not to factor that in in a very real way.”

Since her return to the United States, Chesler was instrumental in the feminist movement. Many of the movement’s leaders were Jews, and Chesler was one of the founders of the women’s seder.

But as time went on, “what used to be liberal feminism became more and more left-wing fascist feminism, and this breaks my heart,” she said. And it blinds people to the real danger that is coming.

“One the one hand, and with lots of exceptions, the ultra conservatives here in the United States do think that women belong at home, and certainly should not be public authorities. But while we’ve learned to hate and fear the misogynism of the Christian right wing, based on my experience, and from everything I’ve studied and seen since I was in Kabul, there is a far more barbaric and jihadist misogyny coming our way. It can be called Islamic gender apartheid.

“Great crimes are being perpetrated against Muslims by other Muslims, not by infidels.

“People keep forgetting that there are heroic Muslim dissidents and feminist voices, that the governments and the left aren’t listening to. And feminists have been ambivalent about criticizing anything having to do with Islam. They sometimes go as far as to say that it’s a religious right for a women to walk around in a body bag.” (That, of course, is a burqua.)

Another deeply held belief separating Chesler from her erstwhile allies is her strong Zionism. “When they lynched those two reservists in Ramallah in 2000, I knew that the bloody beast was back,” she said. “I knew it before 9/11. For years I had argued for Israel, and worked with feminists in Israel, and worked with Zionists in America on behalf of Israel. I did all these things, but I didn’t find it urgent for me to write about anti-Semitism. Now I felt that it was very urgent.

“I was probably the first out in that time to make the connection between the Islamic view of Jews and the western intelligentsia’s view of Israel,” she continued. “It’s doctrinaire hatred, and that hatred created a perfect storm, which then was furthered by the Internet.

“When 9/11 happened, I said that we are now all Israelis. Because the world did not pay attention to the wave of airplane hijackings, and the massacres of Israeli citizens, which never stopped, it has inherited the whirlwind.

“Now there is a global intelligentsia that has one standard for the barbarians and another, higher one for the Jews. And the Jews must die.”

She feels, she said, a little bit like Nacshshon ben Aminadab, the man who the Midrash says took the initiative and had the faith to jump into the sea to escape the Egyptians as the chariots bore down on the Israelites at the Red Sea. “I really do it with joy and passion – and then I’m surprised, because everyone should agree, because the truth is the truth.

“The academic and humanitarian and international communities have betrayed the Jews, and are making common cause with a fascist monster that is getting bigger and bigger and ultimately will endanger all of us.

“Now Europe, the continent that killed its Jews, has now inherited another Semitic group, and one that is far more hostile, more violent, less literate, and expects to have everything subsidized. It is not a productive group.

“The desire to have special exceptions made for Muslims is problematic for the western enterprise because of the threat to individual rights, tolerance, gay rights, women’s rights, and civil rights.”

“Islam has not always been this way.”

As she deals with the hatred that now is aimed at her from her lost home in the left, she says, “I discovered over this last decade that I misjudged conservatives. I have not changed on the issue of women’s rights, I’m still for abortion rights, for gay marriage. Nothing has changed. But I see that conservatives understand foreign policy the way I do. They stand for Israel the way I do.”

Chesler, who is also an emerita professor of psychology and women’s studies at the City University of New York, often needs security when she speaks at colleges. She describes a talk she gave at Barnard in 2003. She was the keynote speaker on a conference on women’s inhumanity to other women; “they were smiling, laughing, cheering,” she said. And then someone – “an agitator,” Chesler said – said, “‘We need to know where you stand on the issue of the women of Palestine.’ It was the litmus test. I could have ducked it, but I said, ‘Islam is the biggest practitioner of gender and religious apartheid in the world.’

“I started talking about female genital mutilation and honor killing and forced child marriage, and as I ticked off each point the crowd became more and more menacing.” Chesler had to be escorted out of the room.

Despite her strong pro-Israel stand, she is not blind to its failings. “I see Israel as the symbol of the Western enterprise, imperfect though it may be. When people challenge me, asking ‘Why are you standing with that terrible country?’ I would say, ‘Excuse me, sir, I am on record as suing the State of Israel on women’s rights. I understand that Israel is not paradise – but compared to Saudi Arabia, it is.”

Chesler is a charter member of Women of the Wall, and she is not pleased with the way the controversy over women’s access to the Kotel has been handled. She says that Natan Sharansky’s recent attempt to solve the problem by allowing egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch “is a Chelm proposal. It banishes the Torah from the ezrat nashim” – the women’s section – “and the Conservative and Reform movements from the Kotel, and the Waqf” – the Muslim council that oversees its section of the Temple Mount – “won’t allow it in any way, and the archeologists won’t, either.”

Still, she thinks that as important as are the issues of women at the Kotel and the larger question of women in Israel, they pale next to the existential questions posed by Islamists.

So there Phyllis Chesler is, at 73, dressed in brightly colored, intricately sewn flowing clothing, brave, clear-sighted, warm, funny, and still fighting. She is the mother of a son who makes her very proud, and the grandmother of two small granddaughters whom she clearly adores. She also is a serious shul-goer and studies Jewish text in chevruta regularly.

Cassandra never looked this good.

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