Books

A literary tour of Afghanistan takes in fact and fiction

Pushpinder Khaneka

Books about Afghanistan tell tales of war, kite-flying, the Taliban and patience stones.

Flying kites in Kabul: Mohammad Ihsan, son of Noor Agha — the 'best kite-maker in Afghanistan'. (Reuters)

THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini (Published in 2003)

Khaled Hosseini’s engaging coming-of-age story, set against Afghanistan’s recent history, is an epic tale of love, betrayal, exile and redemption.

Amir’s childhood playmate, Hassan, is both the son of a servant and a friend. The two motherless boys were nursed by the same woman on orders from Amir’s father.

But, in reality, a gulf divides the privileged Amir, a Pashtun and a Sunni, and Hassan, who is from the despised Hazara minority and a Shia.

In Kabul’s annual kite-flying competition, the pair’s victory is soured by Amir’s cowardice and betrayal of Hassan.

Following the Afghan king’s overthrow, war rumbles across the country as it – along with Amir’s childhood certainties – begins to unravel. After the Russians invade, Amir and his father escape to Pakistan and seek asylum in the United States.

Amir’s guilt over Hassan torments him in exile. He sees a chance to redeem himself when a letter arrives from a family friend in Pakistan telling him “there’s a way to be good again”. But he must return to a repressive and dangerous Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

This stunning and wildly successful debut novel vividly captures the colour and complexity of modern Afghanistan.

Following the Russian invasion, Hosseini’s family was granted political asylum in the US, where he qualified as a doctor before becoming a best-selling author.

THE PATIENCE STONE by Atiq Rahimi (Published in 2008)

In a bare room in a war zone, a woman nurses her comatose husband, who has a bullet lodged in his neck. The jihadist fighter was injured in a spat about honour rather than in battle. The nameless woman has been abandoned by her family and left to care for him and two young daughters alone.

While tending to her husband, she begins to reveal grievances and confide long-buried secrets to the unconscious man. Emboldened by his silence, her outpourings become ever more shocking as she rails against men, war, marriage and God.

The fighting taking place outside – gunfire, explosions and screams are heard – intrudes from time to time.

The wounded husband becomes her patience stone of Persian legend. The magic stone – to which “you confess everything you don’t dare tell anyone” – absorbs all your secrets, until one day it explodes and sets the confessor free from torment.

Rahimi’s haunting, beautifully written and extraordinarily powerful novella lifts the veil on the harsh lives of Afghan women. The novelist and filmmaker fled Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and sought asylum in France. For this, his fourth novel, he chose French over his native Dari. It won the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize.

BUTCHER & BOLT by David Loyn (Published in 2008)

In Afghanistan – the land no outsider can conquer – history keeps repeating itself as foreign invaders stubbornly refuse to learn from the past.

Loyn chronicles 200 years of disastrous outside interference, starting in 1809, first by the British, then the Russians and, most recently, the Americans. Whether for politics or profit, all try to pacify the country and meddle in its affairs – and all pay dearly in blood and treasure.

The British, unable to subdue Afghanistan, gain a reputation for vengeful forays into the country to butcher local tribesmen and bolt.

Loyn draws parallels between past adventures and the recent Western entanglement – regime change, calls for jihad – and is scathing about foreigners’ refusal to understand Afghan society and politics. “The US discovered, as Britain and Russia had before, that taking Afghanistan [is] the easy bit,” he says.

After driving out the Taliban in 2001, the new US-backed regime allows massive corruption to set in and fails to deliver justice or fair policing. As a result, within five years, the Taliban re-emerges.

Loyn advocates talks as the only solution to ending the conflict.

His journalist’s eye and writing style, together with an expert marshalling of facts, deliver an exemplary history lesson. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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