Interview with Petra Procházková, author of Freshta
Petra Procházková is an award-winning Czech journalist, humanitarian worker and writer. We are delighted to publish her first novel Freshta, translated by Julia Sherwood, in November this year. We talked to Petra about her novel which stole our hearts the moment we read it and her life in Afghanistan.
What inspired you to write Freshta and why did you decide to write a story about an Afghan family?
After being expelled from Russia I undertook a journalistic assignment in Afghanistan. I went there for a few weeks in 2001, right after 9/11, and stayed for nearly six years. I made TV films and reports, wrote for the Czech daily Lidové noviny and made broadcasts for Czech Radio. And over many evenings I had heard thousands of stories, mostly from Afghan women, which I was never able to get into the news and reports. I regretted that very much. I had, and still have, a friend in Kabul, who was originally from Tajikistan. We used to talk to each other in Russian, since she had also studied in Moscow. It was from her that I learned an incredible number of spicy tidbits about the life of ordinary Afghan families. At the same time I witnessed a number of situations in my husband’s family that struck me as much juicier and eloquent than straight news accounts of the situation on the frontlines. However, to protect the identity of individual characters – who, of course, didn’t tell me their stories so that I would shout them from the rooftops all over the world – I chose the medium of literary fiction. Nobody in the book is recognizable (at least I hope that is the case!). Or, to put it differently, the book contains no real people, only characters inspired by real people. Their stories have been deliberately mixed up to allow me to say that I have used them solely and exclusively as an inspiration. I don’t describe events as they happened but rather as they could have happened.
Very few books set in Afghanistan are humorous. Although the novel deals with various problems ordinarily people face in Kabul, Freshta is a refreshingly amusing novel. Did you deliberately choose to write the book in this way and why?
I didn’t set out to write a funny book. What I wanted to do was give a truthful account of what I had seen while living, as I did, not just as a journalist but an ordinary, private person in Kabul. I felt that the stream of negative, bloody, and dramatic media coverage of Afghanistan gives Europeans a sense of it being a place where nothing ever happens apart from shooting, murders and mine explosions and where ordinary people with their everyday worries don’t exist. And meanwhile, I had many comic or tragicomic, or sometimes really amusing, experiences on a daily basis. My female friends and I used to chat about men, shopping, clothes and children. It seemed to me that the media weren‘t capable of capturing all of the Afghan reality, including the sense of humour that is quite characteristic of the people of this harsh country. All I had to do was transfer to paper situations, people’s utterances and reactions that I had observed for six years.
The novel is full of very strong and unforgettable Afghan women. Herra, the narrator of the story, ends up working for a Western humanitarian organisation. What is your experience, as a humanitarian worker, of the situation of women in Afghanistan?
The problem, and I guess not just in Afghanistan, is that the media have this tendency to generalize and trivialize in a big way. They are prone to present an isolated story as a general trend or, alternatively, to leave out facts that don’t fit the established picture. Actually, it’s impossible to answer this question. Of course, the situation of women in Afghanistan is different than in Europe. Yet I know many girls and women there who are more emancipated than many of my Czech or Russian female friends. I am even aware of families with hen-pecked husbands. Except that they can’t appear in public too much.
The Afghans start by building a high wall around their houses to stop anyone seeing what’s happening within the confines of the family. Within the family, however, it is the women’s word that counts. However, the man will go out to do the shopping on his own because that’s what tradition dictates and tradition is still very strong. But that, too, is slowly beginning to change. For example, there are more women in parliament in Afghanistan than in the Czech Republic. Admittedly, it is because of compulsory quotas but most of these women MPs are very active and recently they even got into a physical fight. I was actually quite pleased to hear that, as it showed they are not just puppets who have been installed there by others. On the other hand, 70 per cent of women still give birth at home and have no access to a doctor, even in case of complications. That is why Afghanistan has one the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. It is a country of many contradictions and this also applies to the situation of women. On the one hand you have educated women, strong and determined, on the other hand twelve-year-old girls can be married off to 50-year-old men, who will drive them to suicide. For the time being, it is difficult for Afghan women to exercise their rights but I believe this will change once women are more educated and more women are in key official positions.
Between 2001, when I first went to Kabul, and today a huge amount of progress has been made, including in terms of women’s rights. Having said that, I am aware that extremists are attacking girls’ schools and that women still set themselves alight to avoid marriages arranged by their parents. However, a revolution in this matter is not possible, you just can’t skip certain stages of development, no matter how much we Europeans might want it. This is a fight the Afghan women have to win themselves, with our help and support but without too much interference in the traditions of a country that none of us foreigners can really fully understand. What I mean is that if Afghan women organize a rally for their rights, I will keep my fingers crossed for them and will help raise funds for them. But I will never lead a rally like that. I’m sure they wouldn’t want me to.
Friends of my sister-in-law once asked me if people get divorced in the Czech Republic. I told them they do, a lot. Then they asked who gets the children after the divorce and who provides for them. I told them the main burden of raising children, including providing for them financially, usually rests on the woman. They were surprised and wondered how a European woman can manage with ten children and without a husband. I explained that even if she doesn’t have ten children, she has to have a job. And they all answered in a chorus: ‘Well, we wouldn’t want to live in your country.’ They may be used to less freedom but they are also used to being completely provided for by their husbands. I have to confess that sometimes I feel almost sorry for those skinny and worn-out Afghan men.
You founded a humanitarian organisation, Berkat, which concentrates on helping women and children in Chechnya and Afghanistan. Could you tell us about your humanitarian work?
I founded Berkat, a civic association, jointly with my Czech and Chechen female friends, when I was covering the Russian-Chechen wars in the Northern Caucasus. We set up a day care centre for war orphans in the centre of the Chechen capital Grozny. When I went to Afghanistan, Czech women started sending me various suggestions on how to help Afghan women and children. At first I didn’t really want to get involved as I was too busy to focus on anything apart from my journalism. Plus, unlike Chechnya, Afghanistan was brimming with various humanitarian organisations and that put me off. However, eventually I came to realize that this is a way of helping not just the Afghans but also the Czech women who were looking for an alternative to classic humanitarian aid, which consists of dropping a few coins into a collecting tin. Our organisation needs active projects in which Czech and Slovak women, as well as a handful of men, are actively involved. It’s not about money but about ideas. Nowadays our team of volunteers (we have no paid staff and no administration) is the only organisation worldwide capable of carrying out transplants in Afghanistan (we organise cornea transplants, something that is logistically incredibly complex). For me it’s a form of relaxation after my work as a journalist, a great way of spending my free time.
With your journalistic background is Freshta pure fiction or based on real-life events? Is Herra based on a real person?
All the characters are based on specific real stories. But none of them is an exact copy of a real person. I have mixed up their stories like a stack of cards, merging them and chopping them up, to make sure nobody could be identified. I would regard that as an inadmissible breach of the privacy of those who told me their stories. And it’s the same with Herra. Of course, there might be a little bit of my own feelings or experiences in some of the characters, including Herra.
Freshta is partly concerned with the lack of understanding of the local culture by Western humanitarian agencies. Do you think that this has improved, or is it a growing problem in Afghanistan?
I haven’t been to Afghanistan for five years, since my son was born. But I am in touch with my family, and of course, my Afghan husband provides a link to Afghanistan. It seems to me that some degree of understanding of the Afghan soul has been achieved. There are a number of organisations that understand why the Afghans have never been defeated, why they cannot be bought and bribed (they do accept bribes quite a lot but they won’t do anything in return — it’s a peculiarly Afghan variety of corruption), why some things we don’t mind are offensive to them and vice versa, what we find irritating about them. It will take a long time but one day we may learn to understand one another. The main thing is for us Europeans to understand that exporting democracy is not a good idea, that the only thing we can do is to try and befriend them casually, offer them our education and experience, and support them in introducing to their country those ideas they like. And of course, we are also entitled to resist things they are trying to impose on us that we don’t like, by force, if need be, because they are used to using force quite often. Recently a few Afghan generals, who must remain unnamed, came to visit the Czech Republic. My husband acted as their interpreter. They shook their heads, saying: ‘You are teaching us some things we knew before a long time befre you did, while regarding other things, which we know nothing about, as too complex for us.’ So I guess the most important thing is to get to know one another better.
Muhammad, known as Mad for short, a boy adopted by the family, is such a wonderful character – witty, sensitive, and very wise for his young age. What inspired you to create this particular person in the book?
In this case there was actually a very specific model. He might be the only character in the book who was inspired almost solely by one person. Strangely enough, he is someone very close to me in the Czech Republic, who has nothing to do with Afghanistan. But I think the motive of someone who is disabled, distinctive from others, and how he fits into society, is quite cosmopolitan. In Afghanistan you’ll find any number of disabled, wounded and sick people. I wanted to illustrate how people like this can be perceived in a country that has suffered a lot, and at the same time how emotional most Afghans are. Mad and the way he is treated by people around him, is mainly about emotions and the capacity for affection under any circumstances, the capacity to care for those who are weaker and about discovering that they aren’t really weaker at all.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing Freshta?
To be honest, the technical side of writing it was the most difficult. In those days Kabul almost never had continuous electricity, everything ran on generators and computers didn’t take well to this unstable electricity supply. I kept losing bits of text, the computer kept breaking down in the terrible dust… it was quite nerve-wracking. And the other thing that I really struggled with was ensuring the various timelines fitted in with each other. You see, in the daytime I would do my normal work for the papers and the radio, conduct interviews, travel on reporting assignments, and in the evenings I would throw myself into writing the book. Sometimes I would forget who was born when or where a character had studied, who had gone where with whom and who did or didn’t like someone else. This was also partly due to the fact that each character was modelled on several real people and I had to make up stories to cover up the real individuals. Then my friend Lenka Weberová came to the rescue: she had read all the stories back home in the Czech Republic, and entered all the characters into an enormous chart she created, discovering where I made a mistake, where I had made someone two years older than they were a couple of pages earlier, or where I had completely forgotten about someone.
One of the strongest images in the book for a Western reader is a woman in a burka, but women in Freshta feel comfortable wearing it. Could you tell us about that aspect of women’s life in Afghanistan and what is your experience while you lived in Afghanistan? Is the burka a sign of oppression?
I don’t think the burka is the greatest symbol of oppression, even though it features on the title-page of every book or magazine about Afghan women. The situation was slightly different under the Taliban. Women had to wear the burka at home, too, and some found this very hard. Nowadays only a father or husband – basically, close family – can make a woman wear a burka. And sometimes it does happen. However, I think one ought to be very cautious when interfering in these delicate family relations. On the other hand, nowadays there are many women who don’t wear the burka at all, although of course they cover up their hair, as dictated by Islamic law.
I know from my own experience that there are some women who would never take off their burka in public, even if their own husband begged them to. My mother-in-law, for example. If we’re having a family picture taken she will stand in front of the camera in her burka, and even though my father-in-law laughs at her, begging her to take it off, she’s too embarrassed and worried that in the Czech Republic I might show the picture to some men she doesn’t know, who cannot possibly see her face, in spite of her advanced age. Yet in the 1960s, when Afghan society was quite free, she never used to wear the burka. Occasionally I would also slip on a burka – for security reasons. I did find this had a few advantages – the dust doesn’t get in your face, you don’t have to put on make-up or do your hair up (although Afghan women are usually pretty dolled up under it) and no one can see the expression on your face. The great disadvantage for me was that you can’t drive a car wearing one. Or rather, you can. But only straight ahead. Because you have no peripheral vision whatsoever.
Who is your favourite character in the book?
It’s Herra and Grandpa. For me they represent the kind of people who make this world a better place, even though they don’t realize it.
Are you planning to write another novel?
I do have a story in mind, this time from Russia. And another one to do with refugees, newcomers, mostly from Muslim countries, who have settled in the Czech Republic. That’s what I would enjoy doing most right now. I feel this great tension around the Muslims in Europe and I feel I’ve got something to say about it. I’m no naive pacifist who calls for love among nations at any cost. But it seems to me that there is this either-or attitude in Europe. In some countries, one minute it’s all open arms and fanatical multiculturalism, and the next this biased hatred of everything that comes from the East. I currently share my household with three Afghan males – my husband, my son and an Afghan student – and I‘ve had to arrive at a compromise between uncritical love and avowed hatred. Because otherwise we might have strangled each other by now. And since it’s now been going on for nearly ten years and we’re all still alive, I think I’m entitled to say my penny’s worth on cultural coexistence.
Translated by Julia Sherwood
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