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Fowzia Karimi: Above Us the Milky Way

Fowzia Karimi was born in Afghanistan but she (still a child) and her family left after the Soviet invasion in 1980 and moved to the United States, specifically California. This book, published forty years after the move, is a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book (Karimi is a book illustrator). The illustrations include family photos but also various illustrations, presumably designed and painted by Karimi herself.

The story is one we have seen many times in literature as well as real life. A happy family with a good life suddenly has their life completely disrupted by a war (in this case the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) and is forced to leave their own country, possibly never to return, and live in exile.

Karimi’s approach is somewhat different from the norm. Firstly, as mentioned, she illustrates her story. Secondly, the story is not told in chronological order. The basic structure is alphabetic. The book is divided into twenty-six sections and, for each letter, one or more themes are discussed. For example, for the letter A, she writes A, the land where I was born. A, the shore upon which I landed. Note that neither here nor elsewhere does she name either her home country or her exile country or, indeed her own name or the names of her family members. However, in this case, it is clear that the two countries referred to are Afghanistan and America. A is also for airplane, which is how they got out of Afghanistan.

Conveniently, with B being the second letter of the alphabet, the next section is Before, i.e. before the war and gives her the opportunity to discuss their life in Afghanistan. The life I was born into was vibrant with story and legend, and warm with family and communion. We learn of a happy family – father, mother, five daughters – and a happy life – visiting, food, gossip, talk, stories and legends, soothsaying, all broken up by the Soviet invasion.

However, while the structure may well be, in part, alphabetic, it is also kaleidoscopic. Kaleidoscope
And this book is one. See the little movable pieces, watch the bright colours arrange and rearrange to tell ever new, ever different tales.
She gives gives us an illustration of a kaleidoscope.

This kaleidoscopic approach takes varying forms. Firstly, she jumps around chronologically. We get the story of their life in Afghanistan before the war and their life in the new country (she always calls the US the new country and Afghanistan the first country). The story from the new country is both regarding current events but, inevitably a considerable amount of looking back, of memories of how life in Afghanistan used to be. But we also get stories from Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion. Karimi spares us no details of the horrors of those times, with graphic accounts of arrests, torture and summary and often brutal executions. Many sections within the alphabetical chapters have short titles Kaleidoscope mentioned above is an example – which allows her to go off on tangents, either with side stories or just poetic or philosophical ramblings.

Is this story hers? In other words is it entirely autobiographical? Her answer is The stories in this book are not autobiographical in the true sense; they relate my history as well as ice, coating a telephone line, might relate the conversations that have passed through that line.

Nevertheless, the novel tells the story of the family and their joys and travails in Afghanistan and in the United States and it is clearly partially autobiographical. We learn of their joyful life in Afghanistan. Then the Saur Revolution takes place, followed by the Soviet invasion.

One day, a relative informs her father that he is on the list to be arrested. He plans to leave but his family is determined that they should accompany him. However, it seems difficult if not impossible to get exit visas. The mother speaks to the soothsayer who ensures her that they will leave the next week – all seven of them. By dint of persistence, cajolery and cleverness, the mother does manage to get the exit visas and off they go.

Life is not easy in the United States, Though the father speaks English, he struggles to get a job but eventually manages, though not in his area of expertise. Eventually, the mother learns English, learns to drive and gets a job as a driver. Initially, housing is difficult so they rent a house where they are only allowed three children. Every time the landlord visits, two of the girls have to hide but it is a different pair every time. The landlord does not seem to notice.

It is clear that the mother rules the roost in the family and it is she that sets the tone. It is also she that maintains contact with Afghanistan. Unlike Father, she, the storyteller, speaks to others of the horror she herself has escaped, though neither of them suffers openly in the new land.

They are in a new country and have to adapt and do, but the importance of the country they left behind is never forgotten. So the family continued to practice the old life in the new land—scouring the rice for stones, plucking the feathers from dead chickens, draining the curd to form cheese, growing the grains to make porridge, stirring the porridge for twenty-four hours while praying to the dead saints. Mother keeps in contact with other Afghanis and they hear many sad tales.

There are five sisters and the sisterly relationships are as important as their relationships with their parents. As mentioned above no-one is named in this book so we do not know the names of the sisters but they are often described by their individual characteristics. But while we do see them as individuals with their own peculiarities, we also see them as one group. The sisters are five. They are one. They are ten if you count their shadows and And it seemed that all of the sisters folded one into another so that there was but the single one.

We even get contradictory information about them. The sisters were tidy and worked diligently to keep themselves and the house in order. They were neat in appearance, soft in manner, lithe in their gestures. They completed their many daily and weekly chores on time and without complaint but The sisters were not fastidious by nature, but by upbringing. They were neither tidy nor demure, though they played the part well and fooled all who saw them.

In other words, there is no hard and fast truth but ambiguity, fluidity and variation. One of the key images Karimi uses – and she uses many – is that of the river. There are two key rivers. One is the more visible river, that represents the course of their (joint) life but the other, as important, is a subterranean river which represents their ancestral roots, their cultural heritage. This image will appear more than once in the book along with references to real rivers. For Karimi the key feature of rivers is the change they bring. It scours and wears a winding and an ever deepening groove into the earth, though it stays nowhere long.

Afghanistan is an Islamic country and you might have thought that the role of Islam would play a major role. It does not. Indeed, religion is barely mentioned and if our family are practising Muslims we do not see this. No-one seems to go to the mosque, for example. There is one very telling example, however. An old woman, wearing the appropriate costume and accompanied by a male (her grandson) is off to the market. However, she is wearing white shoes, possibly the only outdoor shoes she has. She is set upon by the roving men of god who viciously beat her up for this heinous crime. Whether this is Karimi’s criticism of religious extremism or her criticism of Islam in general, you will have to decide for yourself.

What makes this story so interesting are all these features skilfully combined: beautiful illustrations, side stories, the grim situation in Afghanistan, the problems of exile, adaption to a new life, maintaining cultural heritage in a new and very different country, the relationships between the sisters and between the sisters and their parents and so on.

Karimi is, by profession, an artist and this is very much an artist’s book. She is eager to tell her tale of the horrors of war, the loss of one’s culture and the adaptation to exile but she chooses to do it as an artist not as a polemicist (though polemics certainly comes into it) and not as a victim (though her family and many others in this book are very much victims). It is Fowzia Karimi the artist we shall remember after reading the book as much as Fowzia Karimi and her family, the exiles and victims of war. This is a wonderful book and of course it ends with Z, Z for Zenith: The highest point reached in the sky by a celestial body. The point where nightly the sisters’ forms, drawn crudely with the light of passing stars, linger momentarily.

Publishing history

First published by Deep Vellum in 2020