2005; 280 pages (includes Glossary and Author Interview). New Author? : Yes. Genre : Middlebrow Lit; YA; Juvenile Fiction/Children’s Books (wtf?); Afghanistan History; War. Overall Rating : 7*/10.
It’s time for Najmah to leave Golestan. The Taliban came to town and “forcibly recruited” Baba-jan and Nur, her dad and brother, and it's only by luck that she’s still alive. Although it’s very unlikely, she hopes that her father and brother find an opportunity to escape the guerillas at some point in the future.
If they do, they’ll most likely head to Peshawar, a city across the border in nearby Pakistan, where there is a large refugee camp for Afghans fleeing their country's strife. So that is where she must go. Good luck, Najmah. You’re a young girl, all alone in the world, and you’ll almost certainly perish during the perilous, weeks-long trek to Peshawar.
Meanwhile, in Peshawar, a woman named Nusrat also faces a crisis. She’s an American (her "Western" name is Elaine), who converted to Islam, married a doctor named Faiz, and moved with him to Pakistan. Faiz has ventured into Afghanistan and set up a clinic perform much-needed surgeries for its war-ravaged civilians. But it has now been weeks since Nusrat last heard from Faiz, and she fears for his safety.
Despite the great distance currently separating them, Fate has decreed that the paths of Najmah and Nusrat shall cross. Let’s hope it’s all for the best.
What’s To Like...
Under The Persimmon Tree is set in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area soon after the September 11th Twin Towers destruction. There is no stable government in Afghanistan, leaving the Taliban and the Mujahideen to battle for supremacy, while America jets drop bombs all over the place. Afghan civilians are at the mercy of all three sides, undergoing enormous suffering. It was enlightening to see the 9-11 aftermath from their viewpoint. Their options were few.
The book also gives Nusrat’s thoughts about the interplay of Christianity, Islam, and science, all of which have impacted her life. It's refreshing to read a book where every Muslim character is not a militant extremist or enamored by the Western lifestyle.
I also enjoyed being able to glimpse the daily life in this part of the world. Najmah’s family are rural farmers, while Nusrat experiences city life in urban Peshawar. Suzanne Fisher Staples sprinkles many native words (mostly Tajik) into the text, and the vocabulary glossary in the back came in very handy. I know “naan” and “ghee” from doing crossword puzzles, but most of the rest of the native words were unfamiliar to me. I'm also aware that the Red Crescent is the Moslem equivalent of the Red Cross, but learning about the tenets of Islam was new for me. I was not surprised to learn that opium is the main cash crop in the region, and that growing it is very risky.
There are 23 chapters covering 270 pages of text. Besides the glossary, there is a brief interview with the author in the back that is quite skippable. I blame that mostly on the interviewer; the questions were banal. In the front there is a map of the area, which I used for geographic reference a lot. The “Author’s Note” at the front is also worth reading. The book’s title is explained on page 50.
The ending was a letdown for me. The book ends at a pivotal point in both Najmah and Nusrat’s lives, but none of the plot threads are resolved. The storyline screams for a sequel, but ANAICT, Suzanne Fisher Staples hasn’t written one in the 14 years since Under The Persimmon Tree was published, which makes me doubt there will be one.
“This afternoon,” Nusrat begins after they’re settled, “we will talk about time and space. Last week we talked about a star that exploded 160,000 monsoons ago. The star was so far away that we’re just now seeing the explosion. Does anyone have a question?” Farid stands.
“Uncle says this is wrong.” He speaks so quietly Nusrat can barely hear him. “He says this is an un-Islamic idea.”
“It is neither an Islamic idea nor an un-Islamic one,” says Nusrat. “It’s science. But the Koran has great wisdom about the heavens and how they expand, even though it came long ago. People who didn’t know what was in the Koran invented myths to explain what they couldn’t understand.” (pg. 76)
In Faiz’s apartment she felt a sense of having found something familiar and significant – a connection to a history and a way of life that she wanted to know more about and become familiar with, as if it were a part of her own past that she’d almost forgotten.
In the half hour they spent together on that still-rainy Saturday before each of them went their separate ways to work, Elaine discovered that (1) Faiz was Persian – he had grown up in Afghanistan; (2) he was a physician at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital; (3) love at first sight was not the ridiculous romantic notion she’d always thought it to be. (pg. 122)
Kewlest New Word…
Carrel (n.) : a small cubicle with a desk for the use of a reader or student in a library.
Others : Valance (n.).
“Mande nabash.” (“May you never be tired”, and the traditional friendly greeting.) (pg. 15)
Amazon lists Under The Persimmon Tree as being a “Children’s Book”, which I find jaw-dropping due to the horrors-of-war described in the book. I’m guessing they got that from the Library of Congress data in the front of the book, wherein the label “Juvenile Fiction” is included.
It is true that Suzanne Fisher Staples’ writing style is very straightforward and tailored to juvenile readers. But anything involving the Taliban and the atrocities they commit is not suitable for young, impressionable minds.
In fairness, Amazon also recommends the book for a YA audience: Ages 12-18; Grades 7-12, and I think that is appropriate. I think I would’ve enjoyed the writing style back in my junior high school days, but adult readers may find it a bit too simplistic.
7 Stars. Add 1½ stars if you are part of the teenage target audience. Yet even as an adult, I found the even-handed treatment of the Taliban/Mujahideen/American Air Force combatants and the Science/Islam/Christianity teachings to be an enlightening experience.