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Allah’s Orphans: The Story of an Afghan Girl
Questions with Answers
 for Discussion and Study

Note: This Question and Study Guide appears in the book Allah’s Orphans: The Story of an Afghan Girl.  Both questions and answers are provided here. The guide is appropriate for book clubs, self-study and especially for young people in literature and world cultures and history classes to promote discussion about the Afghan culture.

1. Why was the ancient Ghaznavid Empire important to the Lodi clan?
     The Ghaznavids were Muslim. They followed the Islamic way inspired by the Prophet Mohammed and brought it to the geographic area of Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan. The Lodi family heritage was grounded in the ways and faith of the Muslim Ghaznavids.

2. What characteristics of cooking and healing are common to Old Fatima’s role in the Lodi compound?
     Old Fatima binds the Lodi clan in many ways.  Mohammed Lodi, Amina Gul’s father, introduces Fatima as the Lodi compound’s cook, midwife and storyteller. As the cook she has knowledge of herbs, spices, root crops, nuts and berries.  The first time we see Fatima she is making sweets to celebrate Eid, a Muslim holy day.
     As a midwife, Fatima uses the herbs and grains to keep away evil spirits during the birth of Masud. Later she swaddles the newborn infant in strips of cotton. Old Fatima has knowledge of every family member.  With a keen memory and the desire to share the family history she is a storyteller, accepted and respected by the Lodi family.  Fatima and Warrior Lodi may not know how to read and write but the oral history they share because of a keen memory and story-telling skills enable the Lodi family to track their family heritage and history.

3. The design of the home and courtyard described in Allah’s Orphans is typical of Afghan compounds. How does this arrangement accommodate Afghan life? Why does a courtyard separate the kitchen house and the firepit from the main house?
The compound fits the needs of the rich or the poor Afghan family. The wealthier the family the larger the compound.  Brick, stone and adobe walls keep the desert sand and wind at bay.  Boxari, simple stoves in the main room with toshaks for sleeping allow families to huddle together for warmth in the winter months.  In the balmy weather of spring, summer and fall everyone comfortably uses the courtyard or open space of the compound for cooking, gathering, eating and socializing.  The courtyard separates the main dwelling and the kitchen house because the wood smoke used for cooking in the kitchen house and the firepit would blacken the walls of the main dwelling.  In winter months the cooking hole is used for baking bread, water for tea and boiling rice is in the boxari.  It is practical to use the kitchen house only when the weather warms.

4. Morghub Gul questioned Old Fatima and Warrior Lodi about the practice of family birthright. Discuss the significance of the birthright to the Lodi clan as a whole and to Morghub Gul as a woman.
Martin Ewans in his book Afghanistan: Its People and Politics, says that progenitor rights or property rights of the first born Afghan male are not extremely important in Afghan families. On the other hand, Morghub Gul knew a line of religious thinking where kingship and the rights of the first male are important. Because Mohammed Lodi was her first natural born son, Morghub Gul wanted assurance that Mohammed would have property and his fair share of the family wealth.
     It is important to understand that Afghan fathers, uncles and older brothers choose females from the clan for the younger males.  The practice is important so Muslim customs and family wealth in land and livestock goes to the next generation and still remains in the clan.

5. Is midwifery a common practice to Islam; in Afghanistan; in the Middle East?
King Zahir Shah was a moderating force in Afghan government. He asked Germans, Americans and Russians to share their new ideas for the betterment of Afghan education, health, agriculture and economy. Until his exile in 1973, the practice of nurse midwifery and hospital care was becoming more sanitary with lower infant death rates.  Muslims accept the use of hospitals, good prenatal care and hospital delivery.  Now, 28 years of war and civil unrest have deprived Afghans and other Middle Eastern countries of adequate health care delivery.

6. The Afghan children had very few toys, board games or books yet their lives were full of fun, play, joking and storytelling. The horrors of war took away their homes and happy lives.  Discuss the changes and disruption that war brings to the innocence of children.
This question takes us right to the thesis statement of Allah’s Orphans - the reason for writing this book about an Afghan girl. In the first chapter, Amina Gul says, “ The world knows little about Afghan children and their happy childhood, lost when the wars came. That is my story; that is the story that needs to be told.”
In answering this question think about the conversations, descriptions and activities as Amina Gul, Masud, Sorbut, Sharif, Naseem and Omega share pets, food and travel. Think how their lives are the same as American children as they share inquisitive moments like their experience with kites, cocks, spiders, riding squash, bartering trinkets and healing their scratches and bruises.
     Think further about the happy moments contrasted with experiences portrayed in the orphan camp and the loneliness of losing a family, friends and the comforts of a home and the routine that a child needs to feel good about life.

7. Wali Khan calculated the pros and cons of each marriage contract in the Lodi clan.  Why is the mehr or bride price of timely interest to present-day Afghan culture?
It is difficult for anyone who is not an Afghan to answer this question. As with customs in any culture, the reason for action is not always questioned or understood, “It is done this way because it has always been done this way.” Those Afghans remaining in Afghanistan have the same reasons of faith and family wealth for retaining the bride price.  The liberated status of women in places like the United States, challenge the children or grandchildren who are citizens of the country to which the original Afghan families migrated.  I know of two examples of Afghan family marriages.  Both families are in America and both families honor arranged marriages. However, the young women in these families, about a dozen in number, are college-educated and are not distinguishable by dress from other Americans.

8. The idea that Amina Gul would marry for any reason other than love and the personal choice of a partner seems foreign to Western thinking.  Discuss the feelings you have about arranged marriages and the potential for a lasting marriage or a mismatch.
Two young female authors from India address cross-cultural experiences and marriage. Jhumpa Lahiri, a recent Pulitzer prizewinner for her book Interpreter of Maladies has even more recently written Namesake.  The other author who writes specifically about arranged marriages is Chitra Bonerjee Divakaruni.

9. Through Amina’s and Clovis’ comments we learn about the chadri, an Afghan woman’s body veil.  Discuss the benefits and restrictions of the chadri.  What does the chadri symbolize to you?
     The Quran and the Bible both have references to covering one’s head in the presence of God. At the personal level, head covering has a variety of interpretations.  In Judaism, conservative sects of men and women use head caps and scarves. In Catholicism, even today, some nuns don a habit. In Muslim families, the chadri or burqa has a daily religious and family significance.  Another man does not see the face of a woman if she belongs to the family of the man who has paid her bride price.  In Allah’s Orphans a man discovers how it feels to live under chadri. The rate of airborne diseases was less likely to spread to women who were under the veil. Though not scientifically verified, the reason for less tuberculosis in the women of Afghanistan may be attributed to the veil.

10. Why is the adornment of Afghan and Kuchi women important if they are never seen in public?
The women are not in public but they visit each other’s compounds and/or meet at the hamam, public bathhouse. The women admire jewelry and give gifts to each other. Historically, the Kuchi women were nomads.  “They carried their wealth on their back.”  The silver and lapis pieces of adornment were an indication of tribal wealth.

11. Discuss the hamam, public bathhouse and its significance to Old Fatima. If the hamam was a place for women to socialize, why was the hamam less important to Yahna than to Fatima? Do public bathhouses exist in Afghanistan today?
On visiting a hamam, one can see it serves several purposes.  It was a place for women to socialize and gossip, much as women in the American culture use a beauty salon.  In a desert society, where water and wood for heating water is scarce, it is practical to have a common bathhouse.  The hamam was also a place to broker marriages; Afghan women had a voice in making decisions about unions and a bride price.  I do not know if the custom of the hamam has survived the bombing of Afghanistan.

12. From the information in Allah’s Orphans what disease do you think is most disabling to Afghan children? Unsanitary food and water supplies increase death rates in children and the risk of infection from what types of organisms?
The most widespread disease among Afghan infants and infants of other underdeveloped countries is trachoma, a chlymydial infection spread by flies.  Under abnormal conditions; that is, in countries where there are droves of flies, a child will not blink or brush a fly bothering their face. The flies are so common to the faces and eyelids of the Afghan children that the reflex to blink is lost.  The infection spreads from one child to the next, eroding and inverting the eyelid so it scratches and blinds the eyeball.  Trachoma, still very common in many disadvantaged countries today, decreases with insect eradication, sanitary garbage disposal and availability of antibiotics for treating eye infections.
     Another insidious infection is bacillary and/or amebic dysentery spread through contaminated food and water supplies.  Children die of these diseases because vomiting and diarrhea dehydrate the body very quickly and little children have no resistance or body mass to survive when they can not retain water or food.

13. Habiba died of childbed fever. What simple practice reduces the risk of death to the mother when a child is born?  Are the concepts of cleanliness and germs compatible with the will of Allah and the fate of Allah?
Centuries ago the positive effect of hand-washing to reduce childbed fever was discovered by Inaz Semmelweiss. To believe that handwashing is effective, one must first believe that childbed fever is not willed by evil spirits.  To a Muslim who has not been educated about the germ theory, one might say that the concepts of cleanliness and germs are not compatible with the will of Allah and the fate of Allah.

14. Is the AIDS virus causing widespread health problems in Afghan society?  Why or why not?
One of the admirable traits of the Afghan men was their constancy to the wife that was chosen for them.  The portrayal of Mohammed Lodi’s constancy closely mirrors the way Afghan men delight in the antics of their sons and daughters and celebrate family life.  There were several instances of multiple wives; but the man had to have the means to provide for the wives and children. When traveling to the Turkoman villages, it was rumored that the men had many wives for the purpose of weaving many carpets.  I do not know if this is true.
     Another rumor was that of the dancing boys; these homosexual arrangements may be like the portrayals in the writing of Mary Renault.  In the real world, it appears that Afghan custom mostly supports a heterosexual marriage to one wife. The Muslim religion and tribal customs seem to stem the spread of AIDS.

15. What are the needs that support Amina and Clovis’ relationship?  Are their lives typical of Afghan practices among girls and boys, men and women?
Rahim answered this question in the story when he said, “War changes people,” he begins. “I did not dare to hope for a wife like you, or to speak to you without your father’s permission. War brings us together, now it takes us apart. My prayer to Allah is that you accept my gift and become my bride.”
     Although Rahim was not on the scene when Clovis and Amina Gul escaped confinement, war changed the boundaries of both relationships.  Especially in time of war, women needed the support of men like Clovis.  Even in wartime, women and men marry and raise families.  Family values are tweaked and bent to fulfill needs, yet follow established customs and mores.

16. Afghan families enjoy fruit, nuts and vegetables in season.  The warm climate is excellent for producing apricots, plums and many varieties of grapes, melons, squash, tomatoes and cucumbers. What Afghan products are exported? What imported products do Afghans use?   What has war done to the industry, infrastructure and trade of a war-torn country?
In the past Afghanistan exports were karakul wool, raisins, lapis lazuli, manufactured Afghan silk and cotton, hand-loomed wool carpets and other products of cottage industry. Almonds, pistachio, grapes, melons and a variety of vegetables found their way to the border towns of neighboring countries. Trade is diminished until governmental change and improvement of the infrastructure takes place.  Dams and roads are in need of repair, health care is minimal and foreign efforts are underway to support the education of boys and girls in Afghanistan who are eager to attend school and learn to read.

17. Why did Mohammed give Amina Gul a brass signet ring?
In the time and setting of Allah’s Orphans, Mohammed gave his daughter, Amina Gul, a brass signet ring because she would not be allowed time to attend school or time with the Mullah to learn to read and write. For a signature, Amina Gul uses her ring.  Many Afghan men and boys were illiterate as well. They used the brass ring to sign their name.

18. Compare and contrast the roles of the conscripted Afghan Army infantrymen and the guerrilla fighters of the Mujahedin.
Afghan Army infantryman are comparable to the guerrilla fighters in the following ways.  They 1) are recruited from the ranks of the Afghan males, 2) are loyal to the Afghan way of life, 3) are poorly paid and labor under the worst conditions of military offense and defense and 4) know the stark conditions that the geography of Afghanistan presents.
     The Mujahedin differ from the conscripted Afghan Army infantrymen in the following ways: They are 1) fierce in their personal dedication to keeping Afghanistan sovereign; because of their personal viewpoint, they join the forces of the guerrilla fighters by their own choice,  2) active as long as there is war while the infantrymen are conscripted for two years at a time, 3) are not easily identified; the Mujahedin are not public in their role as warriors.  They live in caves or in the desert if the surprise of unexpected offense is necessary to defeat the enemy. The infantrymen are more noticeable in garrisons and guarding the streets of the villages and cities.  Sometimes the soldiers of the Afghan Army join the Mujahedin and train to sharpen their skills in guerrilla warfare.

19. How does the role of jinds or evil spirits fit with the basic tenets of the Islamic faith and the Muslim worship of Allah?
Jinds or evil spirits did not rise from ideas about Afghan folk medicine. Roy Mottahedeh, in his book The Mantle of the Prophet points out that jinds were present with the fall of the wisdom of King Solomon. This is in reference to the same King Solomon who was the son of King David and Bathsheba and inherited the throne from his father.  A popular passion play depicts the alliance of King Solomon with the Queen of Sheba and the continuing subjugation of Solomon’s rule because the subjects do not know the king is dead.  Muslims believe in Satan and evil spirits; this is analogous to the Christian belief in the evil power of Satan.

20. What is a dervish, what is a whirling dervish; how did the author use Clovis to personalize this aspect of Islam?
The mystical tradition of the Muslims are personified in the Sufi and practiced by the whirling dervish who transcend their emotional pain by dancing or a whirling spin.  Perhaps Clovis had exposure to the Sufi way and the whirling dervish through his family in Darweshan.  In Clovis eyes, at the human level, the greatest fault within a person was to feel no pain when God disapproves of a person’s actions. Clovis felt the pain of God’s disapproval and the whirling dervish representation of seeking reinstatement with God finds expression in the actions and character of Clovis.


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