The Afghan Eve

Article excerpt

Byline: Tracy McNicoll

Atiq Rahimi's 'The Patience Stone' comes to the big screen.

Credit the alchemy of exile--that nerve, candor, and wisdom that flare brightest with coerced distance--for The Patience Stone. In 2008, Atiq Rahimi's remarkable novel won the Prix Goncourt, France's most renowned literary award.

No small feat for the Afghan-born, Paris-based Rahimi's first novel in French. The tale of an Afghan woman who flourishes when her comatose husband becomes an unexpected repository for her secrets is at once remote and familiar, timeless and urgent. Published in 33 languages, it is now a powerful film in Farsi, directed by Rahimi himself. A virtual one-woman show, the movie features a riveting performance by Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani--she, too, an exile in Paris. Premiering in French cinemas on February 20, The Patience Stone hits screens in New York and Los Angeles in June.

Somewhere in Afghanistan, in a concrete neighborhood on the front line of a war never named, one young woman (Farahani) keeps vigil for her gray-bearded spouse, 16 days unresponsive, a bullet lodged in his neck. She tends to his serum drip, strung from a nail in a turquoise wall, cement chipped white like a false sky. She catches herself asking his permission, absurdly, to run errands, slips into the street under a mustard burqa with two small daughters. The brutish, aging war hero hasn't fallen in battle, we learn, but in a brawl over an unforgivable insult. A comrade-in-arms dared declare, "I spit in your mother's p---y."A paradox, curiously selective, this showy defense of a woman's honor.

First despite herself and then with reckless elan, the warrior's wife unburdens herself upon his still body. Revealing jarring secrets, she comes into her own, spiritually, even sexually (she initiates a stuttering virgin militant steps from her comatose oppressor). Her husband becomes her patience stone, or syngue sabour in Persian lore, absorbing one's suffering and secrets until finally it shatters. Only then does one find deliverance, foreshadowing a dramatic climax.

"I was tired of always seeing the same discourse on Afghan women, as submissive, as victims," Rahimi, 50, says over espresso and macarons in the winter garden of a Paris hotel, his startlingly pale blue eyes lively behind black-rimmed glasses. "When I go to Afghanistan, I meet women of extraordinary might. They have a presence, socially, politically, culturally speaking," he says. "Even in Parliament, it is the women who call out all the war criminals."

Rahimi wrote The Patience Stone in memory of Nadia Anjuman, a 25-year-old Afghan poet killed by her husband in 2005. The writer knew her only through her "formidable, very daring poems," but traveled to Afghanistan to understand. He found her husband hospitalized--suicidal, he had injected his veins with gasoline in prison--in a coma.

And yet The Patience Stone's path to into existence was as sinuous as Rahimi's own. He was born in Afghanistan in 1962; his mother founded a girls' school in the storied Panjshir Valley, and his father governed the province. A coup d'etat in 1973 saw his monarchist father imprisoned for three years while Rahimi attended Kabul's Franco-Afghan lycee. Even after his parents fled to India, and the U.S.S.R. invaded in 1979, Rahimi stayed on in war-torn Afghanistan. But with the Soviets poised to close the borders in December 1984, Rahimi, his future wife, and 22 other young Afghans struck out for Pakistan, walking nine days and nights, trudging over mountains in deep snow, tiptoeing through minefields in the dicey safety of hoof prints. In Islamabad, he requested asylum at the French Embassy. Rahimi wouldn't return to Afghanistan until 2002, a month after the Taliban fell. In Paris, he earned a doctorate at the Sorbonne, made documentaries, wrote novels. His daughter, 16, and son, 11, were born in France.

"Exile, despite everything, gives us a certain liberty, a certain distance with regard to our culture. …