The new school year in Afghanistan comes six years too late for Latifa. Daughter of a Kabul businessman and a gynaecologist, she had just passed university entrance exams and was planning to train as a journalist when the Taliban seized power in September 1996.
When she was 16, her life outside her family's small suburban apartment ended. Between then and last spring, when she escaped to Paris with her parents, Latifa lived the half-life of Afghan women under the Taliban. With her mother, forbidden to practice medicine, and sister Soraya, she saw her world shrink. Her remarkable account outlines the psychological effects of five years of invisibility and constant terror, and the various stages of despair that have to be endured before resistance is possible.
Latifa's family are Muslims who could not reconcile their faith with the Taliban's decrees: "loving and unitedI at once religious and liberal". She counts her blessings many times in her short book: her family are rich enough not to be homeless or starving, they can afford gas cylinders. She recognises that she is lucky to be able to tell her story, with contacts to help get it published.
But being declared a non-person is a great leveller; Latifa and her mother succumb to depression. She forces herself to witness the execution of President Najibullah in the first chapter - "If you want to be a journalist, you have to read everything, know everything, understand everything" - but it is four months before she can face going out under her stifling burka ("a moving prison").
The atmosphere at home, at once tense and soporific, is conveyed in excruciating detail. The quality of the picture of her life we are occasionally offered - in glimpses of her forbidden pop posters and Soraya's collection of flower postcards - recalls The Diary of Anne Frank in its immediacy, although Latifa is relying on memory and retrospect.
It's two years before Latifa's depression lifts. Meanwhile, she contracts pleurisy and her mother diabetes, and eventually they make a perilous journey to Pakistan to see a doctor.
On her return, she recovers enough to organise clandestine schools with Soraya and their friends, under constant threat of betrayal. In the next room, her mother treats women for the aftermath of rape and genital mutilation, and those who have been beaten by the Taliban for crimes such as wearing the wrong colour shoes. She revives her underground newspaper, reporting the Titanic craze and the stories of the barbers who have been punished for giving men the Di Caprio cut. She is an engaging narrator, and older teenage readers will identify with her, although some may find the accounts of violence and physical brutality disturbing.
Last May, the Free Afghanistan Association and Elle magazine secured visas for Latifa and her parents to travel to Paris. They left Kabul as if on another short trip to Pakistan, but spent a month lobbying the European Commission and talking to the French media. After the Taliban had wrecked their home and sentenced them to death, they stayed in France in hiding (even now, Latifa is using a false name).
At the time of publication, Soraya and the girls' brother and sister-in-law were on the road between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Latifa was looking forward to going home later this year. "Ever since I heard the laughter in Kabul, watched the face of a woman on the television screen and saw that the barbers' razors were at work once more, I've known that I must go back and hug my country to myself. I'm only waiting for the kites to replace the bombers in the skies above Kandahar."
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