Skip to main content

One Half from the East

Review

One Half from the East

In a poem so old it’s widely thought of as a nursery rhyme, we learn that little girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice,” while “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” constitute little boys. Gender differences are noted and supported nearly from birth in every society. It is one culture’s connotation of these differences which is so poignantly addressed in Nadia Hashimi’s ONE HALF FROM THE EAST.

Life in Kabul is good for Obayda and her sisters; her father is a police officer, the family lives in a balconied apartment and the girls attend a school with new blackboards, desks and a playground. One morning, Obayda’s dad walks her to a pharmacy to fetch medicine. A car bomb explodes, nearly killing her “padar,” who loses a leg and is hospitalized for weeks. Forced to move to the small remote village of Padar’s relatives, Abayda and her sisters find their new life difficult. Unfit to work and severely depressed, Padar cannot provide for the family, and without a “backup father,” i.e., a son, they must rely on handouts from an uncle. There is less room, less food, and much less money. Relatives convince Obayda’s parents that their streak of bad luck would end if they had a son; they believe that the presence of sons in a family is a blessing which wards against bad luck and reverses bad circumstances. Obayda’s parents agree to perform the cultural practice known as “bacha posh,” the outward conversion of a pre-adolescent girl child into a boy, hoping to reverse the poor fortune they have experienced since losing Padar’s livelihood and their home. Obayda’s hair is shorn, her dresses replaced with pants, her food portions increased, and she is given freedom to ride bikes, climb trees, make (male) friends and explore outdoors. Now called Obayd, she has all the privileges she never had as a girl, and which her older sisters continue to be denied. When she meets Rahima, another bacha posh three years her senior, Obayda’s life changes irrevocably, as they both count down the days until they will lose their privileged lives and return to what Obayda calls their “girl-ness.”

"Hashimi’s tale is a heartbreaking treatment of the impact of powerlessness as experienced by those who do not have the freedom to control their own fate. Hashimi has written a pitch-perfect character in Obayda as she accepts the limitations of her life as a girl...then is awakened to what might have been when she experiences life as a boy. "
Hashimi’s tale is a heartbreaking treatment of the impact of powerlessness as experienced by those who do not have the freedom to control their own fate, told through the eyes of a loving, sensitive 10-year-old girl whose entire life is defined by that very condition. The custom of bacha posh, as practiced in Afghani and Pakistani culture, is explained from the perspective of adults who believe in the process and its ability to reduce the social stigma of having no male children. Obayda’s experience as she reinvents herself is voiced impeccably. Hashimi has written a pitch-perfect character in Obayda as she accepts the limitations of her life as a girl, all she has ever known, then is awakened to what might have been when she experiences life as a boy. Her friendship with Rahima rings of genuineness and validity. It is a testament to the quality of Hashimi’s writing that the reader who has no knowledge of Obayda’s culture can understand how she finds herself in her circumstances, and how Obayda is able to resolve herself to what she can and cannot control, all the while holding on to her hope, her optimism and her spirit. 
 
Hashimi’s characters are, quite simply, unforgettable. When a shocking circumstance results in the possible end of Rahima’s period of bacha posh, she tells Abayda that their fates are not their own because “I’m a girl. Because people think they can do what they want to us. They think we should have no say in what happens to us. That’s why I don’t want to be a girl. That’s why I would’ve done anything to make myself a boy forever.” Powerful, honest yet never melodramatic, Rahima’s and Obayda’s observations and experiences in this story are searingly impactful. I highly recommend ONE HALF FROM THE EAST to all readers of every age; it is among the most thought-provoking and affecting children’s fiction I have read.  
 
One may read this story and note the differences between Obayda’s culture and one’s own. For this reader, the most meaningful comparison is the fact that Obayda and Rahima wish, in their deepest hearts, for the same things which all children hope for:  the opportunity to be free to learn and play and grow, to express themselves, and to have, as Rahima relates, a say in what happens to them. Hashimi challenges us all, in a most respectful and intelligent way, to consider the fact that, whether made of sugar and spice or snips and snails, do not all children deserve that same opportunity?      
 
(Note: Hashimi has written three adult novels, including THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL, which tells Rahima’s story into adulthood.)

Reviewed by Donna Rasmussen on September 27, 2016

One Half from the East
by Nadia Hashimi