Set in rural Afghanistan during the 1990s, we quickly realise that Scottish-born midwife, Miriam loves her work at a health clinic and the warmth and humour of her women friends in the village, but she has personal problems which she can no longer ignore. I am grateful that she has agreed to share some of her feelings with us.
Miriam, when you first settled in Afghanistan in 1986, did you have difficulty coping in a house where there was no running water, a latrine outside and no electricity?
Oh, god, yes. Although I’d tried to prepare myself for it, the reality was difficult. It was ages before I stopped reaching for a light switch when it became dark in the evening. I didn’t try turning on a tap for water – there was no sink. It all had to be brought from a spring. Fine in summer but not much fun in winter. Cooking was a nightmare. We stayed at first with Usma, who became one of my closest friends, and her family. I was amazed at how she could cook several dishes at once in such primitive conditions. The kitchen was always full of smoke which was supposed to go up and out of a hole in the ceiling but didn’t. It just swirled around. It’s no wonder so many village women have eye problems.
The worst was the latrine: the 100-yard -walk to reach it so everyone knew where you were going, no flush and the lack of privacy. At Usma’s there wasn’t even a latrine. People just said they were going ‘outside’ and everyone knew what they meant. Jawad built a latrine at the clinic but I soon discovered while Afghan women may be modest in front of menfolk they have no such modesty amongst other women and think nothing of following you into the latrine to continue a chat. When we came to Sang-i-Sia, I insisted we had a proper door (rather than a bit of sacking) with a bolt on our latrine. I became used to everything except having an audience when I went to the loo.
Why do you feel closer to your friends in Afghanistan then you did to your friends in Scotland?
My mother was incredibly strict when I was growing up, and terribly worried about appearances and what the neighbours might say. When I was a young teenager I wasn’t often allowed to hang out with my friends and missed out on all the giggly, flirty stuff. I was actually quite scared of my mother – she could make like difficult for me and my dad if challenged. Unless you’ve witnessed a Scottish ‘humph’ you’ve no idea. By the time I was older I didn’t seem to fit in. I felt I was being judged – not able to flirt, lack of make-up skills, the wrong clothes and wrong taste in music. In Afghanistan I felt free to be me and it was wonderful.
If you had returned to Scotland after the death of your first husband, wouldn’t you have given your son, Farid more opportunities and a better education?
You ask tough questions! It makes me feel I am a terrible mother to think I was denying my son a better education in Scotland than he’d receive in Afghanistan. At the time, though, I couldn’t think of anything other than the loss of his father, my husband. I was utterly devastated. It seemed – still does – to be so important Farid was not completely cut off from his father’s country and culture and family connections. Besides, it could have been quite tough for him in Scotland dealing with everything, including racism. I’d have hated him to feel he didn’t fit in.
What are your hopes and fears for the women of Afghanistan?
While Taliban controls the country I have only fear for the women of Afghanistan, no hope. Before they came I felt that things were changing for the better, however slowly, for women. Schools were opening for girls, giving them opportunities their mothers never had. Health services, including ante-natal care was becoming more available. There was never peace, always fighting somewhere, but in Sang-i-Sia and Zardgul life went on in its own way. People were poor, work was hard and we all hoped peace would come to Afghanistan. Instead the Taliban came and swept everything good away.
How would you describe your husband, Iqbal, to someone who had not yet met him?
If you mean physically, then I’d say he was quite handsome: tall, broad, a lovely smile. Like most Hazara people he has a small nose and slanting eyes. He is self-conscious about his lack of eyebrows from when he had leprosy. I never notice but I’ve learned how important eyebrows are in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Funny isn’t it, my friend Janet in Scotland has hers waxed almost into oblivion and Iqbal would give anything to have bushy eyebrows.
He’s a good man with a strong sense of fairness and doing what’s right, but he’s also a complex person carrying, as we all do, a certain amount of baggage from his past. I didn’t understand for a long time that he struggles with wanting to change things but not wanting to go against his culture. It almost always comes down to our fear of not belonging, doesn’t it?
You can find No More Mulberries on Amazon UK
My review of the book is here
With thanks to Mary Smith for allowing me to interview Miriam.