When the Moon is Low – Nadia Hashimi. New York: Harper Collins, 2015
Since the Russian invasion of 1978, close to six million people have left their homes in Afghanistan to seek asylum. Currently, the country is the second largest refugee-producing nation in the world behind Syria. Many of these people flee to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, but others follow a trail through Turkey, Greece and Italy in hopes of joining family or gaining asylum in European countries like Germany or England. Some make it to safety and a better life; others die dreadful deaths or simply vanish along the way. All endure hardships.
When the Moon is Low is a story of one family’s journey to escape the ravages of the Taliban. It is not a book about politics and violence; it is rather a book about families and love. It begins with Fereiba, a baby whose birth caused the death of her mother. When her father remarries in order to have someone to care for his children, he chooses KokoGul – a woman who soon has four young daughters of her own and whose love is like “powdered sugar on burnt toast.” Like the wicked step-mother of fairy tales, KokoGul treats Fereiba as a servant – not allowing her to attend school or have any activities outside the home.
Finally when Fereiba is sixteen she persuades her father to allow her to attend school. She is smart; she becomes a teacher; she marries a suitable young man who is kind to her; they have three children. But then the Taliban arrive soon after the departure of the Russians. Her husband is taken, and Fereiba is left with nothing except a young daughter, a younger son and an infant with a heart condition. She finally does what millions of others are doing – she sells everything and begins her journey to England where a younger sister lives. Guiding her like a star is her memory of a man who spoke to her one day as a young girl: “In the darkness, when you cannot see the ground under your feet and when your fingers touch nothing but night, you are not alone. I will stay with you as moonlight stays on water.” She believes this man is her guardian angel.
Village by village, step by step, Hashimi traces the family’s journey. They endure hardships, but they also encounter caring people like Hakan and Hayal Yilmaz who welcome them into their small home in a Turkish farming community. “I nearly sang out with joy when we laid our heads on soft pillows, our full bellies and the kindness of strangers keeping us warm,” says Fereiba. Her son finds work on a farm; his sister helps with housework; they procure medicine for the baby.
They could stay in this Turkish village, but their goal is England and family. They continue their journey. Soon they arrive in the port city of Izmir where they board a freighter to Athens. Here they experience the horror of migrant life. There is no asylum in Greece for refugees; there is no shelter or food or clothing or medicine. Hashimi vividly characterizes the plight of this family through the anguish of Fereiba: “I hold back my tears. I’ve had enough. I’m tired of being trapped. Each morning when I wake and find that nothing has changed, I think I am finished. Were it not for my children, I would be. For them I cannot be finished yet.”
The son, Saleem, a skinny teenager, takes on the mantel of family protector and finds them a room in a dilapidated hotel. “If we hide in a room every time we are nervous, we will never make it to England,” he bravely tells her as he hits the streets to steal food. But soon, their money is gone. They live in squalor, even sleeping at night in a playhouse in a park. Saleem is educated to the life of migrants from others who live on the streets. They warn him to avoid Pagani, the local detention center. “It is a cage,” they say. “Men, women and children go for days without stepping outside. There is no real asylum. You must have work to get asylum. So you need a work permit. And for a work permit, you must apply for asylum. You see the problem?”
Another guardian angel enters their lives in the form of Roksana, a young girl close in age to Saleem who is a volunteer with an aid organization. “The train is the best way to go,” she advises them. “In Europe they do not check for passports.” Fereiba gives her gold bracelets to Saleem to pawn so they can afford four tickets. These bracelets were placed on her mother’s wrists when her parents wed. Her father hid them until it was Fereiba’s time to marry. Without looking back on the life she has lost, she removes her bracelets and sends Saleem to the pawnshop. He never returns.
The last section of the book follows Saleem as he struggles to stay alive and reunite with his family. He lives like an animal relying on instinct. He watches, he waits, he pounces when the opportunity is right. He also learns much about his homeland. “Afghanistan is a land of widows and widowers,” he realizes. “Orphans and the missing. Missing a right leg, a left hand, a child, or a mother. Everyone was missing something, as if a black hole had opened in the center of the country, sucking in bits and pieces of everyone into its hard belly.” He also learns much about Western countries that treat refugees as invisible. “Somewhere in the world, there must be a place where we will be welcomed as a long-lost sister,” prays Fereiba, “Not stoned away like an unwanted snake in the garden.”
Hashimi takes the title of her book from an Afghan poem “Dropping Keys” by Hafiz. “The small man/ Builds cages for everyone/ He/ Knows. / While the sage,/ Who has to duck his head/ When the moon is low,/ Keeps dropping keys all night long/ For the/ Beautiful/ Rowdy/ Prisoners.”
When the Moon is Low not only puts a face to the thousands of migrants who huddle today in camps in Turkey and Greece and Italy and France, it also shows their hearts.
My Wine Recommendation
If the family were to reunite in a Athens trattoria, they should order a bottle of 2012 Biblia Chora Areti Red.With its deep ruby-red color, it delivers a berry flavor with a hint of cocoa and black pepper. It’s a serious table wine that pairs well with the earthy spices of Greek food.($22)