5 Great Books Set in Afghanistan That Deepened Our Understanding

5 Great Books Set in Afghanistan That Deepened Our Understanding

Tuesday, 3 November, 2020

Afghanistan has been at the crossroads of invaders, religion, and tribalism for centuries — both literally and figuratively. In every century, superpowers have tried to tame its seemingly untameable terrain and population.

But behind the turmoil of the Taliban and the country’s tribal history are real people with the same struggles, desires, family ties, and hope for the future as the rest of us.

Here are six books that took us to Afghanistan on the page and deepened our understanding of its cultural and religious complexities. From reportage to history to a literary crime novel, these books illuminate a vivid picture of this remarkable, challenging country.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Afghanistan: Poppies, Tribalism, and the Taliban.

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The Underground Girls of Kabul - Jenny Nordberg

In Afghan culture, a family is incomplete without a son. Having at least one son is absolutely essential for a good reputation and good standing in the community. In this page-turning nonfiction reportage, Swedish journalist and New York Times reporter Jenny Nordberg delves into the unusual cultural practice that skirts the issue.

It’s called bacha posh, and it means ‘dressed up like a boy’ in Dari. For Afghan families without a son, it’s a workaround that gives them societal leverage. They’ll cut their young daughter’s hair, give her a boy’s name, and dress her in boys’ clothing so she can live as the son of the family.

For the bacha posh, a whole world opens up: ‘Life can include flying a kite, running as fast as you can, laughing hysterically, jumping up and down because it feels good, climbing trees to feel the thrill of hanging on. It is to speak to another boy, to sit with your father and his friends, to ride in the front seat of a car and watch people out on the street. To look them in the eye. To speak up without fear and to be listened to… All unthinkable for an Afghan girl.’

The narrative reads like a novel with a story built around four real people, and their stories are fascinating and heartbreaking. One beleaguering question haunts the narrative: What happens when puberty hits, and it’s time for a bacha posh to become a girl again? {more}

For Azita, the lack of a son stood to impede all she was trying to accomplish as a politician. When she arrived with her family in Kabul in 2005, sneers and suspicion about her lack of a son soon inevitably extended to her abilities as a lawmaker and a public figure. Her visitors would offer their condolences when they learned about her four daughters. She found herself being cast as an incomplete woman. Fellow parliamentarians, constituents, and her own extended family were unsympathetic: How could she be trusted to accomplish anything at all in politics when she could not even give her husband a son? — Jenny Nordberg

Games without Rules - Tamim Ansary

Games Without Rules
> Tamim Ansary

Settle in for 200ish years of Afghan history spun out by a gifted storyteller. The experience of reading this romp through the ages is very much ‘let’s sit here and drink tea, and I will tell you such tales.’

By the time you finish reading, you’ll wish that all history books were written this way. Consider this turn of phrase, ‘We come now to a mysterious event as riveting as any detective novel’ to introduce the story of the 100-year-old cold case of the assassination of a king. Or in the midst of a discussion of a British invasion, ‘So the British chose plan B—the insane one: they decided to abandon Kabul and march out of the country over the Hindu Kush on foot in January.’

The stories themselves are amazing, and Ansay’s fairy-tale-like telling makes them resonate while unveiling not just the events of history but the culture that created them. He vividly describes the Afghan sport of buzkashi — the original game with no rules — in which individual players (significantly, not teams) on horseback fight to move a headless goat carcass across a field with no boundaries, no referee, and no rules. Yes, it is indeed an obvious and painfully apt metaphor for Afghanistan. As fans of football or baseball, we cannot fathom this ‘sport’ — just as foreigners who traipse into Afghanistan do not understand the game they’re playing.

If you’re interested in the history of Afghanistan and trying to understand the ins and outs of the culture, you won’t find a better telling than this one. {more}

By January 1880, the government of India was wringing its hands. It wasn’t that the Afghans were unbeatable. The British were beating them regularly. It was rather that beating them didn’t stop them from continuing to fight. — Tamim Ansary

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana - Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana
> Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The stories of Taliban control and abuses in Afghanistan are undeniable and objectively terrible. But this solidly researched, engagingly written reportage has a happier tale to tell. Meet Kamila Sidiqi, a young Afghan woman who ran a successful sewing business and school in her home — and right under the Taliban’s nose.

In 1996, Kamila was 19 years old and had just received her teaching degree. She was looking forward to working as a teacher and furthering her own education. But on the same day that she graduated, the Taliban took control of Kabul, and everything changed. Suddenly women were confined to the burka and their homes. Education for women was no longer an option. Simply being out on the street was incredibly dangerous.

In secret, Kamila and her sisters crafted dresses by hand and sold them to shops in the market. Then, when demand outpaced their abilities, they quietly recruited neighborhood women and girls to help. And when these jobs became coveted opportunities, they opened a sewing school to share what they knew. Kamila eventually taught and employed more than 100 women.

It’s an amazing story, very well told — a story of triumph for Kamila and the other women who picked up needle and thread and found independence and empowerment. {more}

Khair Khana, a northern suburb of Kabul, was home to a large community of Tajiks, Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnic group… Kamila hurriedly made her way down the dusty street, holding her scarf over her mouth to keep from inhaling the city’s gritty soot. She passed the narrow grocery store fronts and wooden vegetable carts where peddlers sold carrots and potatoes. Smiling, flower-laden brides and grooms stared down at her from a series of wedding pictures that hung from the wall of a photo shop. From the bakery came the delicious smell of fresh naan bread, followed by a butcher shop where large hunks of dark red meat dangled from steel hooks. As she walked Kamila overheard two shopkeepers trading stories of the day. — Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The Taliban Shuffle - Kim Barker

The Taliban Shuffle
> Kim Barker

This is a memoir of reporter Kim Barker’s seven years covering the messy post-9/11 war in Afghanistan. Unlike most books that might carry that blurb, this one has humor and bad romance and very awkward social situations. It’s unputdownable.

A war story, yes, but it’s also — perhaps inadvertently — also a coming-of-age story.

Barker was born in Montana and graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago. She was writing for the Chicago Tribune when 9/11 happened. Her story is that she heard her paper was looking for women to send to Asia. So she walked into an editor’s office and said, ‘I’m single, I’m childless, and I’m therefore expendable.’ Her editor laughed and then said, ‘You’re going to Pakistan.’ She ended up being the chief of the Tribune South Asia bureau from 2004 to 2009.

This remarkable book — translated to the screen in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot starring Tina Fey — is mainly about Barker’s experience, but it also presents a pretty good argument for why the US ultimately failed at bringing stability to Afghanistan. The writing is very funny in the dark, somewhat jaded way you might expect from a seasoned reporter. Exhibit A, the book’s first line: ‘I had always wanted to meet a warlord.’

We love the audiobook version narrated by Kirsten Potter for the way she embodies the voice of Kim Barker’s prose. The experience is like having the author telling you the stories in a smoky room, perhaps over a glass of whisky. {more}

I was also trying not to date in Kabul, as Afghanistan resembled Alaska if you were a woman — the odds were good but the goods were odd. Although some foreigners here had found love, I had found dead ends. Most of us were running from something, or running toward adrenaline, adventure junkies who when paired up were as combustible and volcanic as baking soda and vinegar. I was realistic. Most female foreign correspondents I knew were single. Most male correspondents, married or entwined. To do this job right took all my energy. And I was plagued by what-ifs. I was now friends with my awkward fling Jeremy, but what if I dated somebody in this aquarium and it went wrong? What if I traveled too much to sustain any relationship? What if I was a frog in boiling water, as overheated as anyone else who chose this life? — Kim Barker

The Opium Prince - Jasmine Aimaq Lemmon

The Opium Prince
> Jasmine Aimaq

This story is an enticing mash-up of crime novel and political thriller with a whiz-bang opening and steadily rising tension. Dare you to put it down once you’ve started.

Our hero Daniel Sajadi is the son of an American woman and a late (great) Afghan war hero. When he returns to 1970s Kabul from Los Angeles, a series of shocking events plunges him into the dark side of life in Afghanistan.

Daniel is back in his home country to head up a US foreign aid agency dead set on converting opium poppy fields to food crops. But driving on the highway, he strikes and kills a young girl from the Kochi nomadic tribe. He’s not only plunged into a canyon of sorrow and guilt, his life is now intertwined with that of an Afghan opium khan. Before he can catch his breath, he’s caught up in a political coup, the dark world of opium trading, and personal intrigue with other Kabul expats, all while wrestling with his insider-outsider status as an Afghan-American.

The plot is fleet-footed with sharp set pieces that play out like an action film. And that physical action is set against a rich emotional background that explores guilt and betrayal of trust and second chances and redemption and what happens when good intentions prompt bad actions. {more}

The smells of Kabul greeted them when they reached the city. It was the scent of naan baking in fiery holes in the ground, of fried meat in carts sold to hurried passersby for a coin or two. The stench of donkeys, urine, gasoline, and dust, but also the perfume of the acacia trees and roses people grew in walled-off gardens everywhere. Maiwand Boulevard was closed, barricades forcing cars into detours because a Russian envoy had passed through here and would do so again tonight. His visit was scheduled to last three days. The detour wasn’t well marked, but Daniel knew his way through the city. At the last major intersection before home, on Darlaman Road, the traffic light blinked red, broken since February. — Jasmine Aimaq

Top image courtesy of Keyleady/Shutterstock.

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