Reading around the world: Afghanistan
March 30, 2015 § 1 Comment
I completed Afghanistan in my reading around the world list well over a month ago, but haven’t had a chance to write about them (or anything else, for that matter). I read two books: A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar and A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear by Atiq Rahimi. Two of Rahimi’s other novels, The Patience Stone and Earth and Ashes have been made into films, but it seems impossible to watch them without buying a DVD at an extortionate price. (On this note, why is it so hard to watch films in this brave new webworld? Apart from the DVD, I could not find a single legal way to watch these recent films. iTunes will sell me the French-subtitles version for $20, so why not English?)
Given Rahimi’s titles, you might be forgiven a moment of alarm: books from Afghanistan with words like “dream” and “stone” in their titles might suggest novels like The Kite Runner. But his work is very different. He was granted asylum in France in 1985, and his earlier novels were written in Dari, while The Patience Stone was written in French. A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear is, appropriately enough, a book that questions the boundary between dreams and reality. The book is written in short sections and switches back and forth between the narrator’s dreams, the memories of the previous night as they slowly return to him, his present semi-captivity and the past that led up to the crisis the novel skirts.
It’s 1979 and Farad is a student. Having grown up in a more liberal Afghanistan than the one that has been thrust on him recently, Farad has had some trouble adjusting to the pro-Soviet regime. He got into some trouble the previous night with a friend, that might have involved alcohol and definitely involved a physical struggle with authority, and he’s being sheltered by a mysterious woman—at considerable risk to her own reputation and safety—whose son appears to believe that the narrator is his long-lost father. The short sections are powerful and work towards a cumulative effect of gradual understanding for both the narrator and the reader. The writing is dark and cynical, and the book is, at least to begin with, a demanding read as we must struggle with the narrator through his disorientation.
The Fort of Nine Towers is not a novel but rather memoir. Qais Akbar Omar opens by describing Kabul life before the Taliban and Mujaheedin. In 1991, when Qais was eight, Afghanis wanted the Soviets to be expelled—but they weren’t expecting what they got instead: the Mujaheedin. The memoir details around two decades of the author’s life, as daily life becomes ever harder and increasingly dangerous. This extended upper middle-class family is forced to move en masse to the titular fort, from where they can observe the fighting without being quite as at risk as in their old compound. Each time a family member ventures out—Qais’s father or grandfather leaving to pick up the relatives that couldn’t fit in the car the first time or to try to dig up the gold they buried before they left the compound—they have a terrifying brush with death.
It’s a fascinating memoir because the child in Qais never leaves him. Whatever new situation he and his family are thrust into—leaving the fort at short notice to travel a hugely indirect route to stay with a relative, which descends into an impromptu camping trip with several hair-raising escapades worthy of a Famous Five plot, or travelling the country with the nomadic extended family he’s never met—he is always interested and eager to learn. (This book definitely has shares something with Khaled Hosseini’s writing.) He’s also irrepressibly optimistic: despite all the evidence to the contrary, he still believes in the essential goodness of people. The narrator’s cynicism and bitterness in A Thousand Rooms, by contrast, seems to spring precisely from the betrayal of this trust.
What both books have in common is an examination of the way people adapt to extreme circumstances. Like Anne Frank’s diary, they are a reminder that there is a before for people in war-torn or politically repressive situations; a before when civilisation and the rule of law seemed untouchable. In both books Taliban stop the narrator/author and demand to see whether their testicles are hairless (in neither case are they; this is deemed a very serious offence), reminding us in the West that it’s not just women’s rights that are comprehensively trampled under these regimes, even as we also see the much greater extent to which women’s liberty and self-expression is curtailed.
Just one country in and I’m starting to think that every school curriculum should involve the study of fiction from every country in the world (except, of course, for the sad fact that pedagogy and literature make an astonishingly ugly couple). Next up is Albania. Last year I read Elvira Doñes’ Sworn Virgin (translated by Clarissa Botsford from the original Italian), published by the excellent And Other Stories. Interesting as it was, I’m not sure how representative you can call it, so I’ll be looking for at least two more recent books. Ismail Kadare springs to mind. Any recommendations?