Tamim Ansary: West of Kabul, East of New York

I finished reading this book the day an article from the New York Times came into my inbox: “Afghanistan Has Become the World’s Largest Humanitarian Crisis.”

A passage from page 59 immediately came to mind: “We just shared the towering profundity of our loss, tasting that resignation to fate that came to us from our Afghan soil, for even as children, we knew that loss would deepen us. That’s what it means to be an Afghan.”

Published after 9/11 when it was Osama bin Laden and the Taliban that put Afghanistan on the map of the majority of Western consciousness, and during a time when the world was angry and calling for the bombing of Afghanistan as retribution, Ansary felt an urgency to let the world know that the Taliban and Bin Laden are not Afghanistan. 

“It’s not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators… Some say, Why don’t the Afghans rise up and overthrow the Taliban? The answer is, They’re starved, exhausted, hurt, incapacitated, suffering… There are millions of widows. And the Taliban has been burying these widows in mass graves. The soil is littered with land mines, the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets.”

“We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that’s been done. The Soviets took care of it already.”

Make the Afghans suffer? They’re already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did that.”

And yet, this memoir gave room to a heart-warming aspect of Ansary’s writing. From his childhood in Kabul and Lashkargah to adulthood in the United States, there was still space for life, love, friendship, and even for travel.

Unfortunately, 20 years after this book’s publication, the dam is breaking in Afghanistan once more.

History is like a river, except people can only live in lakes, so they dam the current and build villages by still waters — but the dam always breaks.”

Qais Akbar Omar: A Fort of Nine Towers

“I know of no other book in which the complex realities of life — and death — in contemporary Afghanistan are so starkly and intimately portrayed,” says Jason Elliot, a favorite travel writer who has written about Iran and Afghanistan, of this autobiography by Qais Akbar Omar.

I wholeheartedly agree. It is the first published memoir about growing up in Afghanistan. So beautifully written, it describes an extraordinary life and country, its marvels, its fascinating ethnic groups, the history of its conflicts, and the horrors of three tempestuous decades.
“Pain was our way of life now,” Omar writes. The book brims with pain and loss, but it is also full of life. To have been written by someone who found solace in literature during the darkest times, and who suffered but endured the cruelty and futility of wars, makes “extraordinary” an understatement.

I read from and about these places of conflict to learn, but I have been asking myself why I have also grown to love and seek out their literature. This book illuminates one of the answers: I am drawn to how their sensitivity to beauty is commensurate with their heightened awareness of the fragility of life.

And if it is this that their lives and words constantly teach me, among a hundred other things, then I will continue to read from this part of the world.

Nadeem Aslam: The Wasted Vigil

August 8, 2021

As soon as my eyes traced the first line, the words held my face in its hands, implored me to keep looking it in the eye, made me reread and reread sentences and paragraphs for the sheer texture and the lushness of its polyphony; even when it became too brutal, even when it felt too much, it would not let me look away.

I have not experienced a novel this heartbreakingly breathtaking since Ondaatje and de Bernières — for its beauty, for its pain, for its music, for its truths.

This is a poetic education on the conflict in Afghanistan with an intricately wrought storyline and a web of characters that could only have been written so painstakingly. 

Set in a time when its people were still in a daze, trying to assess who, what, and how much was left or if there was anything left at all, it was that period after the fall of the Twin Towers in New York, and as retribution, the collapse of the Taliban.

But for many days now, I have been waking up to updates of the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan; and here I am reading a book published in 2008 that carries this ominous line: “The Americans should not exult: the war hasn’t ended. The real war is about to begin.”

It chills me to the core and I cannot look away.

Atiq Rahimi: Three

November 4, 2021

The beautiful preface written by Rahimi for this special edition that holds three of his most well-known novels already made me want to stand up and applaud.

“By writing, I allowed myself to grieve, renouncing revenge; by writing I set sail into history, denouncing terror.”

Atiq Rahimi might be more renowned as a filmmaker, having won awards as a director at Cannes and other film festivals; but he is hands down the best Afghan writer I have read so far. For his literary work, he has been awarded the Prix Goncourt.

Earth and Ashes
“Have the Russians come and taken away everyone’s voice? What do they do with all the voices? Why did you let them take away your voice?”

These lines do not pierce the heart so much until you realize that they are spoken by a young child who was made deaf by the bombings, and he wonders where all the voices have gone.

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear
There is an unbelievable sustained tension from beginning to end, and it is yet another evidence of the unique and gripping way Rahimi unravels a story.

The Patience Stone
I am almost a hundred percent sure that Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun was an inspiration. I have listed the many reasons why in my book journal, but I will spare people the detailed geeking out unless asked. Although it has stark similarities, Rahimi turns his whole piece into something entirely different — a cry about womanhood imprisoned in such a context, and a cry for womanhood in such a culture. In fact, it is written in memory of Nadia Anjuman, an Afghan poet savagely murdered by her husband. It is a work for which Afghans accused Rahimi of treason; but it is a homage to women, the victims of what he describes as a “cult of fear”. 

All three, tragedies. All three, realities. But all three, transmuted into great art. 

This book makes tangible a power that only the interdependence of life and art can yield.