Review: The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi
There were a couple times that I thought I wouldn't be able to finish The Secret Sky, not because it is a bad or poorly-written book, but because it landed gut-punches with its gritty realism. It's a love story, yes, but one of forbidden love in a country where simply being seen in the presence of the opposite sex can result in public beatings, bodily mutilation, or even death. Fatima is a Hazara, a Shia, and a peasant farmer's daughter. Samiullah (Sami for short) is a a Pashtun, a Sunni, and the son of a landowner. It is tough enough to fight against the differences in ethnic cultures, religions, lifestyle, and social class, but when you mix in two sets of parents who believe in the strict order of things and that they know what's best for you, you are literally in for the fight of your life. The Secret Sky is told from three points-of-view, which was surprising. Not only do we see the world through Fatima and Sami's eyes, but we also see the world in darker tones, through the eyes of Sami's cousin, Rashid, who has been away atmadrasa, an Islamic religious school. Unlike Sami, who also was away at the madrasa but returned home early, Rashid relished in learning the ways of the Taliban, and has returned home full of misplaced ego and burning hate. When he spies Fatima and Sami talking alone in the woods, he entreats the sadistic Mullah Latif to seek public punishment for the sin of - of what? For those of us blessed to be born into free societies, it's mind-boggling that what Fatima and Sami did (um, talk) could be considered a sin. Little does Rashid know, however, that Mullah Latif doesn't just stop at public "punishment." No, he's out for blood. When Sami and Fatima get wind of the danger they're in, they spirit away together in the middle of the night, with Mullah Latif and his murderous goonies hot on their heels. Now, of course, there's a lot more than happens during and after the short paragraph above, but I won't want to give away the whole story. The Secret Sky is filled with heart-breaking scenes and graphic descriptions of the many heartaches that the many of the people of Afghanistan endure on a daily basis. (This is where I must say that some scenes are not for the faint of heart.) Not only are you prohibited from doing normal, everyday things Americans take for granted, like being able to speak to a friend of the opposite sex out in the open, or walk down the street as a single woman, but for the Afghani teenager, even your life is not your own. Sami's father drives this home when he tells Sami:
"Zoya, this is not a world where you can do whatever you want [...] You cannot dream of something and think you can have that in reality. [...] You can't just change everything in your life and lineage because you want something."
This statement stuck out to me because my parents taught me just the opposite: With hard work and focus, and by doing the right thing, I could achieve and have just about anything I want. They also taught me to be happy with what I do have, and this ideal is certainly found throughout the book as well. The characters in The Secret Sky are well-written, and I found myself thinking about Fatima, Sami, Afifa (Fatima's adorable baby sister), and Rashid in between readings and even long after I closed the book. I like that the characters were all written ashumans and not some either/or version of a human. Rashid was not wholly evil, Fatima's mother did some shocking things, and even one of Mullah Latif's goonies wasn't a total goon. The romance between Sami and Fatima was, at first, a little too sudden, as there wasn't enough back-story of their time together as children, but as the story went on, I fell in love with their love. I also believe that what they went through is a true representation of what a lot of couples in that part of the world have to go through just to be together. And there's no guarantee that either of them will make it out alive. The Secret Sky did not necessarily end on a happily-ever-after note. And, really, after everything that happens in the book, how can it? It does however, end with hope, and that is one thing that the Afghani people hold onto and believe in, despite the horrors outside their doors. Atia Abawi, drawing from her personal experiences in Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent, was true to her characters and true to the people of Afghanistan, and there's not much more you can ask for than that. I highly recommend The Secret Sky for its authenticity, its boldness, and its complexity. It may be difficult to read at times, but I urge you to look your fear and disgust in the eye and not flinch away - just like the people of Afghanistan do every single day. "This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet." - Jala ad-Din Rumi