AN illiterate young woman from a village in southern Afghanistan has travelled to a vast city decorated with brightly lit evergreen trees and giant pictures of men and women in tightly fitted clothing.
Bibi Aisha, 20, who was mutilated last year and abandoned on a mountainside in the Oruzgan province, and who then became one of the most famous Afghan women in the world, was visiting Manhattan last month.
She had been to see a show off Broadway, part of a trilogy entitled The Great Game, about Western involvement in Afghanistan since 1842. When the actors arrived on stage she was asked to be quiet.
“She didn’t know she couldn’t speak in a loud voice while the theatre was on,” said Esther Hyneman, a trustee of Women For Afghan Women, the organisation that helped to bring her to the US.
Hyneman, a retired English literature academic, drove Aisha to a party in the city. “She has never seen anything like Manhattan before, but she has sort of absorbed it,” she said.
“She started reciting the English words she knows, as if she was saying to herself, I’m in this place, I had better start speaking English. She grew up in a tiny village, there was no electricity, no running water. She never went to school.” Not only could she not write, “she didn’t even know that she could not write”.
Aisha, who was given to her husband’s family to settle a blood debt and was married to an absent Taliban combatant when she reached puberty, fled the home of her in-laws after suffering beatings.
She was caught and held down while a man cut off her nose and ears. Her father-in-law has since been arrested and charged with taking part in the mutilation.
After being treated on a US base, Women For Afghan Women brought her to Kabul. A clinic in California offered to fly her to Los Angeles for reconstructive surgery. Before the surgery she was pictured on the cover of Time magazine.
Within days the face, dented with a fleshy hole where her nose should have been, was known around the world. The photograph seemed a grotesque update of the 1985 National Geographic portrait of a girl in an Afghan refugee camp that once stood for all the troubles of that country.
She was in Los Angeles until November when the clinic, the Grossman Burn Foundation, concluded that she was “in good spirits but needed more psychological help” before she could undergo surgery.
She moved to the east coast to live with a host family. “She had very little information about the world,” said Hyneman. “If you show her a map she doesn’t really know where she is.”
Aisha has been given a prosthetic nose but she does not like wearing it, partly because it must be glued to her face.
“She is a beautiful woman, even without her nose,” Hyneman said. “She wears make-up, she likes to go and have her hair coloured and styled.” Her clothes are a mixture of Afghan and American, though her style is now “slightly preppy”, according to Hyneman. “She wears Uggs, skinny pants, a pea jacket.”
Although she cannot read she has become adept at using the internet to find Pashto music.