Welcome to Kabul: one family, countless secrets.
When Herra, a Russian-Tadjik woman, falls in love with Nadir, an Afghan, she has no idea about the life that awaits her in post-Taliban Afghanistan, nor about the family she is about to join. A grandfather who is a feminist, an adopted young boy who astounds with his intellect, and Freshta, who will do anything to run away from her abusive husband.
Like the other women in the family, Herra wears a burka and hides in a closet when guests arrive. She soon starts a new job with an American woman, Heidi, who has little understanding of the way women live in Afghanistan, and still less that not everybody wants to be saved by Westerners.
Freshta is a stunning debut about conceptions of human faith in a war-stricken country. It is a deeply moving story that will make you laugh and cry at the same time, a universal tale of husbands and wives, lovers and friends, who all seek happiness and acceptance against the backdrop of the unexpected events playing around them.
Praise for Freshta
‘Petra Procházková’s assured debut, Freshta, a bitter-sweet hymn to Afghanistan told from an outsider’s perspective.’ Lucy Popescu, Huffington Post
‘In the best Czech tradition, Procházková uses plenty of humour. She does her best to understand without passing judgment…expertly translated by Julia Sherwood…Her [Sherwood’s] rendering of Freshta is similarly flawless: smooth and easy to read. I cannot recommend the book high enough.’ by Zuzana Slobodová, British, Czech and Slovak Review
‘a surprisingly easy read…diverse and hugely entertaining cast of characters…Freshta is not a novel that offers easy answers to questions about war, women or the West, but it is a novel that is moving and funny in the most unexpected ways.’ Judging Covers
‘This was my favourite book of those published by Stork Press…[Herra's] witty observations are the true strength of the novel. It is not because of the ‘family secrets’, ‘tales of husbands and lovers’ you should read this book but because of its cultural perceptiveness which shows a more complex picture of Afghanistan. Also, did I say it was funny?’ Book Snob
‘The characters are vivid and the reader really feels for them all caught up in their family dilemmas and the cultural misunderstandings that arise with well meaning, but culturally unaware foreign aid workers… brilliant, insightful and entertaining.’ Shapeshifting Green
‘Prochazkova is expert at creating scenes of familial chaos with ten things happening at once, and emotions running high.’ Little Words
‘I could not but recommend this novel to anyone wanting either a humane and balanced description of Afghan and traditional Muslim life or simply a highly engaging story with characters whose vividness is matched by their ability to generate empathy.’ Blogbook
‘The plot is gripping, the characters convincing and the story ultimately life-affirming…Highly recommended!…Translator Julia Sherwood has done a great job in introducing many unfamiliar words and concepts without burdening the text with long explanations.’ A Discount Ticket to Everywhere
‘Herra’s voice is a revelation, an unexpected blend of humour and pragmatism…a fantastic novel that reads as warm, intelligent fiction…funny, smart and so carefully written that it lit up a region that has, for me, been almost completely obscured by depressingly sterile documentaries and bombastic war reports until now.’ Alex in Leeds
Ever since I had first heard of Mullah Omar I always thought there was something twisted and romantic about him. He wasn’t a good-looking man, that’s for sure. While he was in charge of the Taliban we had known even less about him than we did now that he was hiding from the Americans in Helmand Province. I have to confess I hadn’t really known much about him before. But now the thought that he had only one arm and one eye, was smelly, sweaty and stubborn in asserting his ideas, gave me a kind of titillating sensation. I was aware of how inappropriate that was, for I agreed with everyone else that his ideas were depraved. Freshta, on the other hand, rather fancied Osama bin Laden. The first time she saw him was on one of the leaflets the Americans had dropped from their helicopters alerting us to the person we should report if we happened to run into him.‘Look at his sensuous lips,’ she said, pointing to the blurred picture.
‘Yes, and the piercing eyes,’ I had to agree.
‘What a proud man he is,’ Freshta declared.
‘But he’s a real bastard, too,’ I added, frightened by my own feelings. How could I feel attracted, even in purely physical terms, to a guy who murders other people just because they don’t pray five times a day? My husband didn’t pray five times a day and Father even less. Nevertheless, I suspected that in spite of their fierce hatred of the Taliban, they, too, had some respect for a man who stood by his principles so fiercely and consistently, however misconceived they might be. In Afghanistan people respect everyone who stands up for their beliefs, with a grenade launcher if need be, regardless of how stupid they are.
‘He’s got a face like a bird,’ said Freshta, revelling in Osama’s picture.
‘But he’s the reason the Americans are here now.’ I poked her in the ribs, even though personally I was quite happy about the soldiers’ presence.
‘Oh well, having the Americans here isn’t all bad,’ she replied. ‘If it’s all his fault, I won’t hold it against him.’
‘You’ll blub when they catch him and execute him, won’t you?’ I frowned.
‘C’mon, don’t be silly,’ Freshta countered, pouting in that inimitable way of hers that would have driven bin Laden to the heights of ecstasy.
‘You know he’s quite a ladies’ man, don’t you?’ I giggled as Freshta seemed to be buying it.
‘Yes, and he’s into boys as well, at least that’s what people say.’
‘Oh well, who wouldn’t fancy boys,’ I burst out laughing and Freshta finally had a good laugh with me.
A few days later, when Mullah Omar and bin Laden were no longer on our minds, my husband brought home a videocassette. With an important air he announced we’d be watching a film tonight. Since he included us women in the invitation, we knew it was going to be a fairy tale, a Bollywood movie from which all the naughty scenes had been excised, or a documentary featuring dolphins.
‘I got it on loan for one night only,’ he emphasised and invited Uncle Amin to the show as well. The crafty Uncle turned up just before dinner and was rather disappointed to find neither meat nor rice on the menu, only bread, salad and aubergine with sheep’s cheese and tomato sauce.
While Mad and the boys were putting the dishes away we waited impatiently for the boring Afghan TV news to end. A scrawny young announcer with meticulously coiffed hair abundantly covered in grease informed us that: ‘the US ground forces jointly with the Afghan armed forces and with the support of coalition air forces have searched three areas – near Kandahar in the south, in Helmand Province and near the border with Pakistan in the east – for Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, all in vain.’
‘Surprise, surprise…’ Uncle Amin offered his commentary on the news, as he liked to do, to the infinite irritation of everyone present.
‘If the local population in these areas can’t be persuaded to cooperate, the two men will remain in hiding in Afghanistan forever,’ the young man announced dramatically, making Uncle Amin squeal in triumph: ‘That’s just what I was going to say. The silly Pashtuns cook chicken and roll hashish joints for them every night. And then they complain that the Americans drop bombs on them. Well, if they’re playing host to Osama they just have to expect the odd shell.’
Mad had taken up a position right in front of the TV set, crossing his tiny legs and folding his little arms in his lap. Kamal and Rustam were sprawled next to him, while Mother, Freshta and I leaned against the wall between the windows. The men had lined up on a mattress next to the longest wall.
‘Uncle,’ my husband said, ‘when I start the film, there’ll be no talking until it’s finished.’
‘Why pick on me?’ Amin snapped, taking offence and sinking his rear in the mattress. ‘All I was going to say is that I went to see the Russians yesterday. They’ve built a kind of field hospital in Wazir Akbar Khan. Everything is free of charge.’
I had a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t even know why. Right at that moment my husband looked at me, as if he could see right through me. There was a mixture of concern and anger in his eyes.
‘We don’t need anything for free, least of all from the Russians,’ he snapped back.
‘And we now have four-and-a-half-thousand peacekeepers from seventeen countries,’ Amin hollered, proud to have caught our attention. ‘Today a couple of delegations came to the ministry and we told them to be kind enough not to parade around half naked, not to booze and ogle our women.’