Janet Recommends: Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan

Sooooo I should have written this post last month but life interfered. The real problem, though, was finding words enough for Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan.

Wanting Mor

“If you can’t be beautiful you should at least be good. People will appreciate that.”

That’s what Jameela’s mother, Mor, always told her.

But being good isn’t always easy, Jameela discovers, especially when the people closest to you suddenly turn against you. [back cover]

Mor, by the way, is “mother” in Pushto, one of the many languages spoken in Afghanistan. The title is both the perfect pun – Mor/mother and Mor/more – and an echo of the deepest cry of the story: Jameela longing for her mother.

The story opens with a tacit description of the relationship between Jameela and the person she loves most in the world: Mor.

I thought that she was sleeping. It was a relief to wake up to silence after all that coughing during the past few days.

I peeked in on her before I started the fire. I swept the floor and grabbed some ash from the fireplace. I washed the dishes without her telling me to, thinking, Won’t she be pleased? Won’t she rub her hand on my hair and smile at me with that look on her face that I love? The one that says she wouldn’t exchange me for all the money in the world.

I scrubbed those pots until my knuckles hurt. I wanted them to gleam so that she could see her face in them.

When Baba comes home she still hasn’t woken up.

Jameela lives in a small village in rural Afghanistan. She speaks Pushto. Not all the words in Pushto (and Arabic and, later, Farsi) are translated in the text, which I appreciated. The general meaning was always clear, and more precise definitions were provided by a glossary at the end of the book. The minimal translation in the narrative allowed Jameela’s voice to resound internally, as though reading the book was experiencing her thoughts to herself, instead of reading her thoughts as told to another person, moreover, to an outsider presumed to have no knowledge of the languages and customs of Afghanistan, and the practices of Muslims in that time and place. Also, it was really nice to have the many languages and dialects of Afghanistan brought to mind – not all Afghans speak Farsi, and Arabic is not necessarily the default, either. Small as the country may be, its people, languages, practices, beliefs, and customs are highly diverse – as Jameela finds out.

The details of Jameela’s day to day experiences and the feel of the world for her emerge through the narrative, and throughout the story: we, like Jameela, never cease to learn. Jameela’s voice truly feels as though wherever she is is the most natural place to be, except when she isn’t happy with her surroundings. The world feels organic; the story feels as though it was written from the inside – from someone who lived Jameela’s story. (And, in fact, it is based on a true story, although not that of the author.)

At one point when I was reading, I put down the book and thought, that is why we tell children fairy tales. So that they can recognize what story they are in. Because although Wanting Mor is in no sense a fairy tale, recast in a post-Taliban Afghanistan, it is also very true – the true story could be taken almost exactly from – Cinderella, and from Hansel and Gretel. And yet – and here is the marvel of Jameela’s character and choices – she continually puts her trust in people, in the right people. Like a fairy tale hero, Jameela strives to be true to her faith as she has been taught by Mor. She puts her trust in her techers, in her friends, and in Allah and the Prophet. Her experiences show the fracture line between good and nice. Goodness, for Jameela (and for fairy tale heroes) is not easy. It is not self-abnegation, or crushing oneself to serve someone who would rule without love. Goodness costs more – and less – and runs far deeper than that. Like the Ash Girl, Jameela loves her Mor and follows her example, even when her mother is not there to teach her.

In a post-Taliban, American-occupied Afghanistan, politics enters the picture – how could it not? – but, as befits the narrative voice and experiences of a twelve-or-so girl, forms a background: given knowledge, not extraordinary or worth remarking on. Political regimes are painted in neither black nor white in this story of the every day and the immensely practical business of living. There is some resentment of Americans – of course! This does not preclude accepting American aid, when necessary. There is no utopian dream of a system that will work, but a wholly believable focus on people – people as people. Soraya, and Masood, and Khalaa Kareema, and Agha Akram, and little Arwa, flesh and blood people with hopes and dreams and unique perspectives and anger and irritating edges of their own – and so much love.

Highly, highly recommended.