No more Mulberries is a novel which completely changed my hazy, ignorant view of Afghanistan. Miriam, its narrator, describes life in the 1990s as a “foreign” wife of an Afghan doctor in the small village of Sang-i-Sia. Her frank account of her commitment to the country and determination to make her marriage work, despite cultural differences and the troubles of civil war, make you feel that you are reading a letter from a close friend.
The book gradually reveals that Miriam was originally Margaret, a Scottish midwife, whose meeting with an Afghan student lead her to visiting the country and conversion to Islam. Her story is sad and she struggles with the practicalities of everyday life with few western luxuries, but the central conflict is the role of women in Afghanistan. In her job she tries to improve the lot of women with no education but she also has friends who have achieved a degree of independence within their marriages.
Worried by the way her husband Iqbal has changed since they returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan, she realises that he is deeply concerned about his reputation and that her, “unacceptable behaviour,” will cause him to lose face amongst his peers. As a boy he had suffered from leprosy, causing people to fear him and not give him respect. In his role as a doctor he has earned acceptance but an event, which occurred during his childhood, haunts his dreams.
The details of everyday life in an Afghan home are fascinating, including delightful vocabulary, such as, “Unrolling the dustakhan over the striped gillim on the living room floor,” and, “sitting crossed-legged on the toshak.” The kindness and generosity shown to foreigners such as Miriam and her family are evident in the hospitality and friendship she experiences. And yet this is against a background of murder and conflict.
What I especially like about Mary Smith’s writing is that every word counts. We are given details, when they are needed, to explain the plot or describe the setting but time is not wasted. She moves on to the next event swiftly, highlighting it with portentous remarks such as, “Oh, Jawad, what have I done?” No More Mulberries is a significant contribution to the understanding of another culture but it is also a really enjoyable book to read.