book review

Book review: Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse

Forbidden Lessons tells the story of an extraordinarily brave Afghan-American woman who began raising money and delivering aid during the Afghan Civil War and continued during the Taliban and afterwards. Her first-hand account of her struggles to deliver aid during those times is compelling and enlightening.

A few parts of this book really spoke to me. One was the story of how Suraya was accompanying a load of 10,000 blankets being hauled in three Bedford trucks to Hesar Shahee, an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside of Kabul during the civil war. During their trip they were shaken down by gunmen at five different roadblocks and their supply of blankets was dwindling. At the sixth, Suraya was so incensed that she challenged the armed teenaged leader, telling him that if he were  a “real man” he would escort her to the camp and help give out the blankets. And he did. In the process, he was converted from a gang leader into a person who would spend the rest of his life helping others. (or so he said when they parted.)

There were other confrontations as well through the years of her bringing aid. She stood up to Taliban as well as the stoned helicopter pilot who wanted to bring extra relatives on their aid delivery trip which would have seriously overloaded the aircraft.

It was interesting that had she been a man, she would have been killed in any of these situations. And while the men she argued with grumbled and spat with anger, in the end she won their respect and often friendship.

Her description of what it was like to be in Kabul during the random bombings of the rival warlords gave me a very vivid context for the stories I’d heard during my own interviews of women going to school or just trying to survive during that time.

Her story also illustrates the error of painting the Taliban with a broad brush. Suraya talked about the shock of seeing the trees from which were hanging the severed limbs and hands of those whom the Taliban had punished. On the other hand, she was also helped by the Taliban Foreign Minister in setting up a clinic in Logar province.

After 9/11 the scope of her organization, Help the Afghan Children (HTAC) grew even more as they established more schools around the country. HTAC has also developed a peace curriculum that facilitates the development of attitudes and behaviors to help people live in harmony. The Ministry of Education is incorporating these courses into the government schools.

Sadeed, Suraya with Damien Lewis. Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse: The True Story of a Woman Who Risked Everything to Bring Hope to Afghanistan. NY: Hyperion Books 2011.

For an annotated bibliography of other books on Afghanistan see my website:

And my own book continues along….




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