Nadia Hashimi,a pediatrician from Potomac, Md., became a novelist almost as an afterthought. She had already plotted out her life’s plan as a doctor when, in 2009, she and her husband, Amin Amini, a neurosurgeon, took a vacation on the island of Naxos in Greece. Amini liked to spend his time on the beach sitting and talking, but Hashimi had a stack of vacation reading, including novels by Joyce Carol Oates.
Amini suggested that since she read so many books, she might as well start writing them. She had never thought about that, she said, but the couple’s Afghan heritage offered possible material.
Hashimi, 37, was born in the States to Afghan parents; her husband, 42, was born in Afghanistan. He had left when he was 17, just as the Soviet occupation was ending. Their biographies reflect those of many new U.S. citizens whose experiences periodically spark controversy in our national discourse: Do these strangers belong here?
Those asking the question often have no clue about the lives and cultures of the people who find their way here legally or illegally, to end up as, say, housecleaners on one end of the spectrum and brain surgeons on the other.
In Greece, Hashimi looked around her. At the time the country was a destination for refugees from the war in Afghanistan, among others, many destitute. She decided to write about the immigrant experience and began her first novel during her first pregnancy.
She wrote between her shifts in the emergency room at Washington’s Children’s National Medical Center. She wanted to get the story done before she gave birth, which she did.
Writing came naturally, or rather, she felt the story was already in her, waiting to come out.
“And then I Googled ‘How to find a literary agent,’ ” she recalls. “Thank you, Google!”
She sent several agents either synopses or chapters of what would become “When the Moon Is Low.” Helen Heller called her — right as she was in labor.
“I couldn’t pick up the phone,” Hashimi said. “So she called two times, and I told my husband, ‘Can you please call this woman back, because I don’t want her to think I’m ignoring her!’ ”
And so, while her son was being born in 2010, so too was the connection that would produce a future international best-selling author, with two novels now published and a third on the way, all set in Afghanistan — a country Hashimi had visited for only two weeks not long after the fall of the Taliban but had heard about all her life.
“She had everything that I thought was necessary,” Heller said. “She made me care about her characters.”
Hashimi wrote a second book, and that was her first to be published, by William Morrow: “The Pearl That Broke Its Shell.”
An engrossing, “wonderful debut novel,” said The Washington Post. “A lyrical, heartbreaking account of silenced lives,” said Kirkus Reviews. Released last year, it has had more than 18 printings here and overseas.
It tells the story of Rahima, a young girl who, because her parents have no sons, must dress and live as a boy before she reaches puberty. This custom, bacha posh, allows her freedoms she could not have dreamed of as an Afghan girl. The story is intercut with that of her great-great-grandmother, who had dressed as a man a century earlier.
“When the Moon Is Low” was released this summer. It weaves the tale of a woman as she comes of age, marries and starts a family in Afghanistan just as the Taliban is taking over. It follows her and her teenage son, Saleem, as they, in separate journeys, flee across Iran, into Turkey, then across Europe in a desperate bid to forge a life in England.
Hashimi is a cultural translator, says an acquaintance, Afghan American writer Fariba Nawa. “People are ignorant about Afghan women. Nadia’s writing sheds light because she is from the inside.”
The books arrived at a time when Afghanistan’s future remains uncertain after 14 years of war. Hashimi is not particularly optimistic about women retaining rights there, hard won during the Western allies’ occupation. Fundamentalist Taliban forces are fighting fiercely to regain power and would reimpose strictures on women and girls, limiting their ability to work and gain education. The more recent infiltration of Islamic State forces has complicated the already unstable political environment.
Meanwhile, chaos throughout Islamic lands has unleashed the mass migration of refugees seeking safety in Europe. The characters in “When the Moon Is Low” could well be Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan. Any of the millions cast to fate by calamities not of their making.
As hundreds of thousands pour out of Syria and heart-rending images of those who did not survive the journey are shared around the world, the story of the immigrant family in “When the Moon Is Low” is even more poignant and pressing.
So, in a way, the novels reflect the currents of both history and the present — familiar, recurring streams that swept up both Hashimi and her husband — although they were far luckier.
Hashimi’s mother and father met in the early 1970s as students at Kabul University. They lived in an Afghanistan nothing like the country we know today. In the capital, women wore Western clothing, young people went to the movies and listened to music. It was before the Taliban, before imposition of the burqa.
It was a time of relative calm, but work was scarce, so her father set out for a better life in America. In New York, he shared an apartment with other immigrants, who took turns sleeping in a single bed. Her mother traveled to Europe to study engineering before joining her future husband. They married at City Hall and went out for Chinese food afterward.
Nadia’s mother held a master’s degree but was never able to use it because of visa and work permit complications; her father left his aviation engineering studies to find work. They worked in restaurants; eventually her father saved enough to buy a chicken restaurant franchise. He would own several such establishments.
Nadia was born in 1977. She and her younger brother had a typical suburban upbringing in New Jersey and Upstate New York, she says, including ballet lessons, swimming classes and carpools. They spoke English at home, a choice of convenience — both parents worked, and English was the language of the babysitter. They drilled their children on the importance of education.
While attending SUNY Downstate College of Medicine, Hashimi met Amini at a conference. He had emigrated from Afghanistan through Europe. His father, an Afghan army general during the Soviet rule, had managed through his connections to get his family out of Kabul.
After finishing their residencies, they married on the Fourth of July in 2008 in a traditional Afghan wedding. “It was a medium-size wedding by Afghan standards,” Hashimi said, laughing and recalling the reception with a mere 200 guests.
Today they live in a grand house in an upscale neighborhood in Potomac with their two young sons and a daughter. Hashimi eventually learned Farsi, the language of her parents, which she speaks occasionally with her husband when they don’t want the children to overhear what they are saying.
On a recent morning, Hashimi sat in her elegant living room decorated in beige and gold. She wore a flowing maxi dress that made her look somehow carefree despite being heavily pregnant with her fourth child. Her dark hair loose around her shoulders, she smiled freely, an African gray parrot named Nickel squawking persistently from another room. The bird knows how to say the names of her three children.
She spends most of her time at home now, concentrating on her writing, with the publication of her third book tentatively scheduled for next year. She still picks up the occasional shift at the emergency room.
A large calligraphy scroll hung above the sofa, a poem called “Children of Adam” by the 13th-century Persian poet Sa’adi. Amini did the calligraphy. “The poem says we are all part of one humanity, interconnected, and that what affects one of us, affects all of us,” Hashimi says. “It is something I believe in — something that I hope is expressed through my writing as well.”
Her perfectly arched eyebrows raise when she recalls how her parents’ home was a meeting point for many of their Afghan friends and relatives. There were always people around, sleeping all over their New Jersey house on weekends rather than trekking back into New York after a day of picnicking and fun with the family.
But what was life in Afghanistan like? In 2002 it was possible, with the Taliban routed, for her to find out, so she went with her parents.
“I didn’t go there to write a book. I went because I wanted to set foot in this land,” she says.
Hashimi describes her voyage as one of discovery, not of homecoming. She and her mother didn’t even know what type of headscarves to wear to blend in. When relatives picked them up from the airport, they were baffled by their visitors’ expansive hijabs, wholly unlike the simple, loose scarves worn by local women.
Hashimi had always thought of her parents as immigrants, as Afghans and Kabulis, so she was surprised to find as they walked the rutted streets, searching for remnants of the houses they once knew, that people took one look at their clothes, their demeanor and said, “The foreigners are here.”
In the years since their exodus, the family had become strangers in their own land. “There was definitely this sort of separation: people from abroad and people who lived there during the war and never left,” Hashimi says. “They had survived so much, and our experience was so different. That kind of left me thinking of my parents, ‘Where is their home?’ ”
They went to visit her father’s family home. Two of his brothers still lived there, each having taken a floor to live with their wives and children.
But the once-familiar landscape of their childhood had changed to an almost surreal degree in the 30 years they had spent in America: Her mother was able to locate her family’s former home when she spied part of a bannister left from a stairway. The ghostly, solitary structure was all that was left on the entire street. The rest had been reduced to dust.
A second family home had found new life when one of the cousins moved in. Hashimi described an “eerie” moment when she and her mother went down to the basement of the house where her mother’s parents had lived and began to look through the trunks stored there.
Inside, she found her younger self staring back at her. It was her second-grade school portrait. Her parents had sent many pictures and letters back home. “It was like this time capsule from all the way over there,” she said.
The young medical student had gone looking in a dusty basement 7,000 miles away for glimpses into the past of others and instead had found a bit of herself. Her parents’ choice to emigrate meant Hashimi would know an utterly different life. But Afghanistan would stay with her, waiting to emerge.
Michele Langevine Leiby is a freelance writer in Washington.
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