An Interview with Nadia Hashimi

  • By Caitlin Jacobs
  • July 29, 2014

Nadia Hashimi’s deeply affecting debut novel follows the thread of destiny that weaves through two generations of Afghan women.

An Interview with Nadia Hashimi

This is not just another novel set in Afghanistan. In The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, Nadia Hashimi breaks the mold for first-time authors. Her story follows two young women separated by generations, yet tied together by a common thread. As both women put on a male mask, the reader is drawn into a deeper understanding of gender roles, identity, family, freedom and captivity, ability and disability, and the echoes of history. The themes are treated with unusual insight, and the multidimensional characters evoke profound empathy. Though it is set far away, this novel will leave you with a better understanding of your own role in society and in history.

Many of your characters suffer under the ancient “tradition” of controlling women with violence. In Rahima’s visits to Kabul, you provide a glimpse of the progress that has been made between Shekiba’s time and more modern times. In what ways do you think this progress could be continued going forward?

Afghanistan has an ongoing epidemic of violence both inside and outside the home. It is part of the struggle that women face, though it does affect both genders. The country has been bathed in bloodshed for decades, and it’s my belief that trauma has perpetuated the epidemic. As the country slowly returns to a peaceful society, things will change. If Afghanistan can establish and maintain national security, civil society will flourish and violence will diminish. Afghans need to see effective laws put in place that protect victims and punish perpetrators. They also need more resources to support victims and prevent them from being wholly dependent on their abusers. Most importantly, children need to be taught that violence is not an acceptable way of life.

Many women in this novel make the choice to stand up for themselves, but they are not always successful. What do you feel drives these characters to persist in the face of setbacks?

There is unmistakable resiliency to the human spirit, and Afghan women are no exception to that rule. Hope is intoxicating and irresistible. I think their drive comes from an instinct that they are worthy of more than society allots them. They believe in themselves and doubt the doubters. I’ve seen this in the accomplishments of young Afghan women around the world and within Afghanistan. After years of oppression, they are pushing themselves to the forefront in Afghan politics and setting their sights high professionally.


The characters in this novel are neither purely heroes nor purely villains. Was this a deliberate choice?

This was a deliberate choice. We don’t live in a black-and-white world. People are complicated, multidimensional creatures. In my mind, a character who is neither a pure hero nor a pure villain is more realistic and relatable. Good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Sometimes, people truly don’t know any better and are simply perpetuating a cycle of mistakes they’ve learned from others (like domestic violence). I think this is why forgiveness is so important in our world, because everyone is capable of making mistakes, sometimes egregious ones.


While it may not be as overt as the attempts [depicted in your novel] to silence Zamarud in the parliament, women in politics in the U.S. and other Western countries are often underrepresented or present but not recognized. What can be done to overcome this?


This touches on a broader point and a connection I’m hoping readers make through the story. The struggles women face in Afghanistan are no different than the struggles women face in the U.S. or abroad. There is a commonality to our experience. For women in the United States to be elected as representatives, they have to overcome a lot of barriers. To change this, we need people (both men and women) to take women seriously. We should not tolerate it when we hear comments that undermine women in leadership. I refuse to put a glass ceiling over my daughter at home, and I’m hoping that will teach her not to tolerate it when she goes into the world.

Whom do you see as the pearl(s) in this novel? As the sea?

The title, taken from a Rumi poem, is a beautiful fit for the story. I see both Rahima and Shekiba as pearls caught in repressive shells. But I also see Rahima and Shekiba as every woman. When I read Rumi’s lines, the sea is Rahima’s inner voice, expansive and powerful, beckoning her to break free and realize her potential. We all need to mind that voice that lives within, that tells us to want better for ourselves, to not throw up our hands in defeat.

The solution adopted by Shekiba and Rahima to the problems presented was to become a man/boy. For both women, this solution was temporary and ultimately led to more problems. How do you think the disguising of an essential part of a person’s identity can affect his or her life?

I think altering an identity in any way can negatively impact an individual’s psyche and cause long-term problems. However, on the flip side, there are many Afghan girls who have lived as a bacha posh [a girl who lives as a boy] who have experienced a positive change. Ultimately, it depends on how the individual is able to cope with the adjustment and whether or not he/she is permitted to persist with the identity that suits him/her best.


The “naseeb,” or destinies, of the characters in this novel seem intertwined. Did Shekiba’s naseeb influence that of Rahima?


Rahima draws strength from the stories of her great-great-grandmother Shekiba. She makes certain decisions because of Shekiba’s path. Though they are separated by a century, the naseeb that Shekiba reached inspired Rahima as she forged her own way. Legacy is an important concept in Afghan culture and one I appreciate. We each carry the history of our ancestors within us in some way but we also stand on our own feet and must create the naseeb we hope to see.

Bibi Gulalai is abusive toward Rahima because she herself was abused. What do you think influences the choice to continue the chain of abuse?

Violence and abuse are perpetuated from one generation to another until an individual has the insight to understand his or her own feelings and express them in a different way. There are many women like Bibi Gulalai who suffered at the hands of others and believe it is within their rights to carry on in the same way, a sort of twisted “golden rule.” Sometimes the chain of abuse dilutes with generations. Maybe Bibi Gulalai is not as horrid as her own mother-in-law was — though I know that may be difficult to imagine!

Then there are the individuals who have the insight to realize they hated being abused and make a conscientious effort to break the cycle. I see Rahima as the type of person who will not inflict upon others what she endured. I see her as an individual with the insight to turn her awful experience into compassion. This is one of the many ways in which I see Rahima as hope for the future.

Caitlin Jacobs loves words and Washington, DC. She holds an MA in applied linguistics from University College Cork, Ireland, and previously served as online editor for a monthly English-language magazine published in Gwangju, South Korea. Jacobs currently edits publications and other communications for an aviation trade association.

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