Thursday, February 23, 2006

Afghanistan: Fact and Fiction

This time I write on two books from Afghanistan. Both the authors belong to the land, have been living in the west and have had the quest to rediscover their roots. Both talk about the two phases of crisis that Afghanistan went through - the Russian occupation and later the Taliban rule. Both the books are very engaging, insightful and written in a very friendly manner. The difference is that the first is a documentation of experiences - thus a fact, and the other book is a great work of fiction. The Storyteller's Daughter is appropriately titled - for Saira Shah the author is the daughter of Idries Shah who has written so many fascinating books on the philosophy of the east - particularly rooted in the sufi tradition. I bought this at Crosswords Ahmedabad - a rare feat because Crosswords in Ahmedabad is usually a let down for any genuine book lover, particularly after seeing Premier, Select and Sankars in Bangalore and Strand in Mumbai.

Saira Shah claims that she belongs to two worlds, and naturally there is a constant urge to rediscover the roots, which makes her what she is. That, she is brought up in a tradition and that the country which gave the tradition has drifted in the interpretation of the tradition is captured in the book both through good passages and through some motifs. For instance she talks about the values that brought her up - Bhagawi of Herat's sayings
  1. One hour's teaching is better than a whole night of prayer
  2. Trust in God, but tie your camel first
  3. The ink of the learned is holier that the blood of the martyr
  4. You ask me to curse unbelievers, but I was not sent to curse
  5. I rather you to help any oppressed person, whether they are muslim or not
  6. Women are the twin halves of men
and the above values are put to test when in the country of origin where she says "Now I have entered a world where I am forbidden to show my face, paint my nails or fly a kite... The twenty-first century throws up constant challenges to faith. Television and Video are banned, but casette tape might contain Qur'anic recitations. It should be destroyed if there is music on it..... Cigarattes are permitted, but some cigaratte packets have pictures of women on them. These are banned...."

The motifs that are fascinating is about how her father cooks up the best Shahi Pilau (the pilau fit for kings) - improvising on the recipe - by discovering a artificial food colouring Tartrazine. A tiny teaspoon of that substance could transform a gigantic cauldron of pilau to a virulent shade of yellow.. thereby superimposing the modern food colouring in a western country - effectively replacing saffron, but not giving up the basic and original taste of the Afghani Shahi Pilau.

This book is a narrative of Saira's travels around Afghanisthan in the process of shooting two documentaries. It is not just a professional journey of a journalist, but a deeply moving personal journey of a daughter of the land who passionately wants to see normal life in the war torn country. The mark of Idries Shah is apparent throughout the book, which is interspersed with quotes from the sufi sources, including Jalaluddin Rumi.
A country that is torn by war, where at three in the night suddenly she hears a mechanical roar because they have to work when electricity is sporadically available where she cynically says "No one in Afghanistan wants to rebuild, only to destroy" - but is it not interesting (and sadly so) that "During the second World War, Afghanistan experienced a rare interval of peace. Like the little old lady who was so stubborn she even floated up-river, the country remained strictly neutral as the rest of the world went up in flames.."

The book just shows how Saira lived a dangerous life as a journalist trying to unveil Afghanistan. While her own heroics are underplayed as a matter of fact narration, Saira does bring out some of the moments with a wry humour. She puts in great amounts of cultural specificities to make her point. "I was versed in in the qualities and duties that Pushtinwali demands. Among other things the law of hospitality means that, once you have eaten the salt of a Pustun, you are entitled to protection and respect' badal requires blood in exchange for blood or insult; mamus imposes a duty to protect and respect women; and ghayrat establishes the right to defend one's property and honour by force if necessary". This is what she sees in her brief encounter with Zahir Shah who accompanies her on a brief journey and does absolutely irrational things including throwing money meant for baksheesh into the river because it affect the honour! This is indeed something so peculiar given the circumstances that Saira describes. She gets the Zahir Shah episode to a conclusion in a very poignant manner: Three years later, far far away from Afghanistan at a Swiss radio station in Berne a editor shows her the newswire which says that Zahir Shah had been shot dead in the tribal areas of Pakistan, in a killing with all the hallmarks of an assasination by a rival, radical islamist, group of mujahidin. She has to tell the editor if "this bloke" is important. The answer from the point of view of broadcasting is obviously a "no" because it is a mistaken identity with the former king of Afghanistan - of the same name. But personally, it is indeed an important piece of information for Saira herself.

While travelling with the women of RAWA, with Zahir Shah, travelling within the veil for documenting the life in the times of Taliban Saira has several brushes with danger and death, there are some moments which show dark humour - the unnecessary brushes with death. She has to urgently process some film and comes to know that a Swiss journalist has a dark room. To her surprise, the facility has everything she needs - the journalist Beat has set up a dark room without the foggiest ideas as to how to use it. She starts working, unloading the film from canister, winding it round a spiral and suddenly discovers that she has forgotten to pick up the lid. She gropes around the drawer to feel some strangely shaped objects, which she feels and shakes. When she asks Beat what they are, he matter-of-factly tells her "Oh, that is only my unexploded bomb collection!!"
The book is a tale of a journalist narrated with passion and belongingness. I reproduce some quotes from the book which I thought were very touching or interesting.

It struck me that a sense of humour may be the opposite of fanaticism, or at least its antidote. Iyt is difficult to dream of martyrdom if you can see the funny side of life (and Saira keeps seeing the funny side of life, throughout the book)
  • One of the protestors was yelling anti-American slogans. He thrust his face into the camera and a long, pent-up wounded-animal howl came out. It contorted his entire face and sent his fist driving through the air. Droplets of spittle flew from his mouth and landed on the lens. He was saying terrible things: 'We will slaughter our children in defence of Islam! We will ..... ' The force of his hatred was mesmerizing; he was utterly consumed by it. But then he turned it off like a tap, and asked the camers: 'Was that enough?'
  • As we entered.... the noise of artillery got louder.... James said ' I hate the noise.'..... 'That is jawab i hukmat - the Alliance answer' said Usman. I asked: 'What was the question?' - but he didn't get it.
  • Then, as I watched the distance between me and my homeland growing ever wider, the voice of the border official came wafting confidently from the bank I had just left: 'She may look like a feranghee, a foreigner, but her father is from Paghman and her mother is from.... Indonesia. Az khude ma hast. She is one of us. She is an Afghan.
The book is dedicated to James Miller, who was with her in most of her journeys, when she "remembers feeling that she and Miller were now in a position 'to control our own destiny'. But that freedom, for him at least, was snatched away as quickly as it had materialised. Miller was standing two feet away from Shah when he was shot in the neck by an Israeli soldier. 'He was killed pretty well instantaneously,' she recalls, 10 weeks later, in her flat in east London."

With all these detailed facts, one can say that emotionally it is not an easy book to read, and I am sure it has been a difficult one for Saira to write as well.

For an interview of Saira Shah visit here and here.

The second book is a very touching novel The Kite Runner written by Khaled Hosseini. I bought this book in Premier Book Shop in Bangalore on one of my sojurns. It has been on the best seller list for a while, and I guess not without reason. It is an eminently readable book and poignantly written.

One can easily identify with some of the characters of the book - largely I guess because the memories of childhood are similar to most of us in this part of the world. This possibly has something to do with that time in the generation - where school was there, but incidental, every upper class house had a servant and every servant's household had a kid appropriate to the age of one of the kids. The added dimension that seems to give a greater bonding is that both Amir the protogonist and Hassan his friend who is the servants son have been breast fed by the same woman. However Amir is seen by his baba as a weak person "A boy who won't stand up for himself becomes a man who can't stand up for anything".. constantly being propped and protected by Hassan.
We find that there Amir's father is extremely compassionate towards the servants, and shows the natural goodness of a benevolent "lord". Hassan the servant's son has a hair lip which is to be set right through surgery - a birthday gift that Baba gives him. The description here is touching and brings out the essential contradictions in our lives. After the surgery Hosseini describes: "The swelling subsided, and the wound healed with time. Soon it was just a pink jagged line running up from his lip. By the following winter, it was only a faint scar. Which was ironic. Because that was the windter that Hassan stopped smiling."

I remember that while we lived as a joint family in Bangalore, the servant had produced one kid to match the age of each one of my cousins and myself. The bonding with the kids used to be great because that was the age of innocence for us - that we were really not aware of the class differences, but at the same time were getting indoctrinated into it. This was done largely by assigning certain tasks to the friend. Very much the way Hassan is willy nilly assigned the task of the kite runner. I for instance, had inherited a pedal car from some of my elder cousins where the pedal push never worked. The job of the servant's son was to push me around. While we were equals in all other games that we played, he never had the privilege of sitting in the car - not because I as a kid did not want him to sit, but because my grandmother would possibly not like this happen... On reflection I guess this is the process through which the middle class is made aware of their so called "superiority".

The story is set in two turbulent phases of Afghanistan - first the invasion of the Russians when the protogonist and his family flees from the country and then the phase of Taliban when he tries to return looking for his roots. The detail with which the processes are captured are amazine. Hosseini has the art of narration and it is a pleasure to read the book. However there are some parts which do not sound very convincing. He constantly interweaves the lessons in creative writing by putting in some advise on avoiding cliches and so on, but somewhere down the line parts of the book look a bit contrived. For instance, he brings in the element that Hassan was possibly born to his own father and tries to put the image of his father as a "patron-lord" more in perspective. I wonder if this has been done to justify the "goodness" shown by Baba - being too good to believe. I personally thought that it was quite okay for the patron-lord to be kind to his servants without having to justify the kindness with an illicit relationship!!

The ending part when Amir runs the kite for Hassan's son looks like an ending that is contrived - why should all debts be repaid in the same form. It was known from childhood that Amir was not a great kite runner, so was it necessary to repay his "debt" to Hassan by running his son's kite. Also the parts where he describes Hassans son and his interface with Taliban are a bit gruesome, which does not go with the overall goodness of the novel.

The novel was important for me not only as a good narrative, but also to look at the issues around Afghanistan - the fact - interspersed with some fiction set in those times.

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