Guest Review: Colleen Mondor

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Under the Persimmon Tree
Suzanne Fisher Staples
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005
270 pages

Under the Persimmon Tree has an irresistible premise for readers curious about Afghanis struggling to have a “normal” life under the Taliban. It tells the story of Najmah and her search for her family on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in the months after 9/11. The twist is provided by the dual plotline, that of an American woman, Nusrat, who teaches refugee children in Peshawar while she awaits news of her Afghani husband who has crossed the border to work in a field hospital. A desperate Najmah ultimately ends up in Nusrat’s classroom, “under the persimmon tree” and the two find comfort in each other’s company as they wait for word on their loved ones and cope with the dangers and uncertainties of war.

One of the most striking things about Under the Persimmon Tree is the way in which Najmah’s world is easily and effectively destroyed within only a few pages. Author Suzanne Fisher Staple was a UPI correspondent for ten years and lived in both Afghanistan and Pakistan; clearly the Afghanistan Civil War is a subject she knows about. By approaching this story from the perspective of a young girl she gives readers a chance to view their own childhoods in a completely different way. What would it be like for any of us if we came home one day to see our father and brother dragged away, if we lost our mother in an instant, if we had no one to trust? What would we do if finding our family bordered on the impossible, and ever reclaiming our home again seemed like a dream? If you were Najmah what would you want for the rest of your life and what would you hope for your future?

Because the author is American the answers to Najmah’s questions might seem obvious, but Staple has a lot of surprises in this book. The character of Nusrat in particular is a revelation, an American who has chosen Islam for its beauty and complexity, and explains her choice in a manner that makes it both understandable and compelling. There is no glorification of one religion over another in this book, simply questions of math and science and faith that help one woman decide where her place should be in the world. For the girl Najmah there is the definition of home, and what it means to her even if the people she loves are no longer part of that familiar landscape. In many ways Under the Persimmon Tree is about who you are and where you belong, and what you will do to discover the answers to those questions.

The thing I loved best about this book, though, the part that still resonates with me, is Najmah’s response to Nusrat’s offer to return with her to New York City and pursue a new life there. Nusrat knows that Najmah has better chances to obtain an education in New York; that in many ways her future would be without limits in the U.S. She thinks this would be the best thing for the young girl. Najmah’s immediate response is heartfelt and deeply honest:

For hundreds of years my people have lived a good and simple life in hills that are more beautiful than anywhere on Earth,” I say at last, for this is the truth. “I think always of the wind on my face and the smell of grass, the gentle sounds of the animals. I cannot imagine living anywhere else.

When tomorrow’s casualty numbers blink across my television screen, it is these words, from a fictional Afghani girl, that I will think of. What if she does live in the most beautiful place on earth? Shouldn’t we be doing something to save that beauty? Reading about Afghanistan is the smallest thing we can do, the first thing. Learning about the land that lives under the same sky and stars as America is a beginning, no matter what age of reader; it is a place to begin.

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