Transcript / SSoP Podcast Episode 29 — Afghanistan: Poppies, Tribalism, and the Taliban

Transcript / SSoP Podcast Episode 29 — Afghanistan: Poppies, Tribalism, and the Taliban

Monday, 25 October, 2021

This is a transcription of Episode 29 — Afghanistan.

David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.

David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.

Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.

David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful theme music]

David: Welcome to season three, episode 29 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Afghanistan.

Melissa: So up until now, we’ve pretty much focused our show on destinations that you might want to visit someday.

David: Yeah, sure, someplace nice like Paris or —

Melissa: Cuba.

David: Hollywood.

Melissa: Afghanistan, at least for the foreseeable future, is not going to be one of those places. But when the U.S. started withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan in August of this year, 2021, we thought maybe we should amp up the empathy machine and get curious about Afghanistan.

David: Yes. And wow, that was rough on my empathy. There is so much going on and it’s it’s a little dark.

Melissa: It’s a tough ride.

David: Normally I can reach out my empathy to people that I disagree with even. And in the case of the Taliban, boy, that is a hard stretch when you read about what they’ve been doing and what they continue to do to the people in their own country. It is hard to get to: Why would you want to do that?

Melissa: I felt a lot of anger while I was reading, if I’m being completely honest.

David: It’s a little rough.

Melissa: It’s rough. It’s also fascinating and it is part of our world, which means it’s important to at least be educated about it, even if we can’t fully understand it.

David: Absolutely. So let’s get the understanding on the road.

Melissa: Ok, just for orientation purposes, Afghanistan is found in Central Asia, with Iran to the West and Pakistan to the east. The capital city is Kabul. Very important note: Afghanis are the currency and people are Afghans.

David: It’s a very sensitive point with the Afghan people in the same way that as an American, you wouldn’t want to be called a dollar.

Melissa: The two official languages are Dari, which is a variety of Persian, and Pashto. English is the fourth most spoken language. The total population of Afghanistan is about 39 million, according to a U.N. estimate. That makes it about the same size as Texas geographically, but with the population of California

David: Both good sizes.

Melissa: Yes, and the terrain is super rugged, and in some places it’s really stunningly beautiful. YeI think if you’re used to seeing pictures of kind of like bombing sites in Kabul, it’s really easy to assume the whole thing is tan and dusty.

David: Yeah, that’s sort of the assumption, right, from the media that we’ve gotten. It’s all one big dust bowl and broken down towns and that kind of thing.

Melissa: Yeah, there are deep gorges and river valleys, deserts, snowy mountaintops and irrigated land that’s used for farming. So there are lots of green spots, too. It’s best known for pomegranates. Many people say Afghan pomegranates are the best in the world. And also poppies. Heroin made from opium grown in Afghanistan makes up 95 percent of the market in Europe.

David: That’s a lot of heroin.

Melissa: And in case you’re wondering, most of the heroin in the United States comes from Mexico.

David: I didn’t know that.

Melissa: Let’s talk about history. Buckle up,

David: OK.

Melissa: Because of Afghanistan’s location kind of at the crossroads of Asia and the Middle East, it’s been conquered by invaders from all directions for millennia. You get the big names of ancient history marching through the ones that are fun to say, like Darius I of Babylonia. Alexander the Great.

David: Yes.

Melissa: Mahmoud of Ghazni. Genghis Khan,

David: All of whom are easy to romanticize from the distance of about a thousand years or so.

Melissa: And all of whom are pretty brutal. It wasn’t until about the 1700s that this area of the world started to look like something we would recognize as one country. In the 19th century, Afghanistan caught the wandering eye of the West. Britain — grabby hands — wanted to protect its Indian Empire

David: Super grabby-hands in the 19th century.

Melissa: Yeah. So they wanted to protect their Indian empire, and they also wanted to thwart Russian expansion.

David: Yeah, yeah. They wanted specifically to stop Russia from getting to the Arabian Sea because it was all about the Navy back then. Russia had access to the like the Baltic and the Arctic Sea. But you can’t really build a huge navy off of those. But the other one you can. You go through Afghanistan, you can knock down Pakistan, and there you are,

Melissa: Boom. Waterfront property. So Britain tried to annex Afghanistan.

David: Yes, they did.

Melissa: Bad idea.

David: It was.

Melissa: That led to a series of British Afghan wars in the late 1800s that continued right up to the end of World War One. And then for the next century or so, there were various kings and coups and communist meetings and all manner of infighting and instability, and sometimes no government at all.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: This is a pattern that repeats over and over again in Afghan history. I’m going to do my best to hit the highlights of the last 40ish years so that we have context for the books we’re going to discuss. But I know you have a book you’re going to talk about that’s entirely about the history of Afghanistan.

David: Yeah, absolutely. I have a history book that I highly recommend — not to spoil them by talking about it. But if you’re curious about the history of Afghanistan, I’ve got a book for you.

Melissa: I will also put links in show notes to timelines with details about everything that went down because it is fascinating, but it’s very easy to get bogged down in the details. Generally speaking, the 1970s were the Soviet war years. Two major groups emerged after a coup in the early 1970s. You had your Afghan communists and you had them Mujahideen.

David: Yeah, the Mujahideen were the arch conservative Muslim group.

Melissa: Correct. In 1978, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up the pro Soviet government.

David: veIf you’re of a certain age and American, you might remember that from when we boycotted the Olympics in Moscow.

Melissa: Yes, I remember that very vividly. It was a heartbreaker.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: Then in 1983, President Reagan met with Afghan fighters who were opposed to the Soviet Union at the White House. I mention this mostly because there is an amazing photo that I will put in show notes of the Afghan warriors sitting in the White House.

David: It looks like the 17th century just pulled up to the White House.

Melissa: Yeah, it’s so cool. Yeah, but also a little sad because this was Cold War years, so we were just siding with anybody who was fighting against the Soviet Union, which brings me to the CIA was also supplying anti-aircraft missiles to the Mujahideen.

David: Mm hmm.

Melissa: Yummy. Fast forward to the 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew their troops from Afghanistan. And that gave an opening to the Taliban. The Taliban is a group of ultraconservative student warriors who grew out of the Mujahideen and also religious seminaries.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: By 1998, the Taliban controlled about 90 percent of the country. As I think we’ve come to know, their rule was really brutal.There were public executions for murderers and adulterers. There were amputations for people found guilty of theft.

David: Amputations is a nice word of saying they cut people’s hands off.

Melissa: And one of the books I read, one of the characters is running from the Taliban and kind of gets caught up in a crowd of people that merges into an arena. And it’s because they were going to have public chopping off of the hands to teach everyone a lesson.

David: I’ve read about they stoned an adulterer in a Colosseum, so people came to watch. Yikes.

Melissa: This is going to seem tame in comparison, but men were required to grow beards. Yeah. And women were forced to wear the burqa.

David: And stay inside

Melissa: And stay inside. Tv music, movies, all banned and girls over the age of 10 could not go to school any longer.

David: I know all of those things are horrible. There is something about banning music to me that it’s just so like over-the-top evil, like just comic-book-level horrible. They banned photography, you can’t have an image of something and drawing you can’t recreate because you’re not humble in front of God because you’re trying to recreate life.

Melissa: Yes. Moving on. Then we get to 2001 and the September 11th attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. A few weeks later, the U.S. led a military coalition against the Taliban in Afghanistan. That war lasted until this August 2021, when the U.S. withdrew the last of its troops from the country. So during the 20 years in between, the Taliban’s power kind of ebbed and flowed. They were in, they were out, they were in, they were out. They are currently at the helm again, and what happens next remains to be seen. A Taliban spokesman said that the group will respect the rights of women and minorities, ‘as per Afghan norms and Islamic values.’

David: Something that was helpful for me was a quote from one of the books that I read, and the quote was ‘Today the term Taliban casually lumps together all sorts of figures, from drug mafia captains to local religious zealots to foreign jihadist radicals to former honchos of the Mujahideen movement that fought the Soviets’ For me, the important takeaway is that the Taliban isn’t organized like, say, the American military or Microsoft. The Taliban is organized like, say, football fans. That’s been one of the ongoing problems with the U.S…. I want to say occupation… of Afghanistan is, how are you going to fight that kind of loose, ad hoc network? And also, those people look like normal people when they’re doing their day jobs, when they’re going around, you know, how are you going to pick that out?

David: And then further, each of them has their own individual groups. So to push the thing even further, Who speaks for the Packers, right? And you need to somehow reach coalescence of all of those groups to bring peace back to Afghanistan, which is a tall order.

Melissa: The characteristic that unites almost all Afghans is, of course, religion. An estimated 99.7 percent of the population is Muslim, and that faith plays out in everything: dress, diet, regular prayer, language, all social interactions. Family is the most important aspect of life in Afghanistan, and family is patriarchy. The eldest male holds all of the authority and decision-making power in the family and reputation is the most valuable commodity that a family has. This forces both men and women to comply to a web of very strict rules of behavior. We talk a lot about the plight of women in Afghanistan because they are definitely the bottom rung of the ladder, but it’s no great shakes being a man in Afghanistan, either.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: However, having said that, a family’s reputation directly rests on the purity of its women. So if a woman breaks the rules that reflects poorly on her husband, her father, her brother, and their ability to keep her in check. And that brings immense shame to the family, which also gives the men in the family authority to take dramatic steps to control the women in the family. According to conservative custom, a woman is not available to anyone outside her family. She can’t speak to a man outside the family. She can only leave the house if she has a male chaperone, and that’s why the burqa is so important because it’s basically a wearable tent that conceals the body from everyone outside the family.

Melissa: We’ll talk about all of this more when we get into our books, but I want to end my overview with a quote that I tried to keep in mind while I was doing my research because this was some tough going sometimes. ‘Perhaps we need to set aside what we in the West think of as the order of things to even begin to understand Afghanistan.’ This is a place where tribes are more powerful than any government. Where language is poetry and people speak multiple languages, but most of them can’t read or write. Our Western assumptions fail to recognize the complexities of the Afghan culture.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: Open mind, open heart. Deep breaths, I guess.

David: Yeah, sounds right. Are you ready to get into Two Truths and a Lie?

Melissa: I feel like they’re not going to make me laugh this time, but sure.

David: We’ll see what happens. Ok, I’m about to say three statements; two of them are true. one of them is lie. Mel does not know which one is the lie. Here are the three statements. Afghanistan has had more flags than any other country. That’s one. Two: Canada’s largest quick service restaurant chain is Tim Hortons. They are a beloved Canadian institution. They were founded by a hockey player. It does not get much more Canadian than Tim Hortons. They are known for their doughnuts and coffee. The statement is: There was a Tim Hortons in Afghanistan. Statement three: A British man used a pot as a toothbrush holder until he realized it was a 4000-year-old artifact from Afghanistan.

Melissa: Whoa.

David: Yeah. Go with those in order? Ok, so Afghanistan has had more flags than any other country.

Melissa: I’m going to say that’s the lie.

David: That is the lie!

Melissa: Oh, I did it.

David: You did! So, Afghanistan has had many, many flags. They’ve had 25 different flags since 1709 when the Hotak Empire was established. As I’m sure we’re all aware, the Hotel Empire was the first post-Persian Empire.

Melissa: I did know that.

David: Did you?

Melissa: I mean, I did some research, man.

David: The Empire went simple with their flag. It was a basic black.

Melissa: Oh, I am down with that.

David: During the 20th century alone, Afghanistan flew 19 different national flags. The current Afghanistan flag and this could change any day now, literally, has the national insignia on it. The insignia contains the flag itself. So Afghanistan is one of two countries in the world that has a picture of its own flag on its flag.

Melissa: Very meta.

David: It’s yeah, from a designer’s perspective, what a nightmare. The other country with its own flag on its flag is Haiti.

Melissa: Interesting.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: So is it like one of those magic eye photos where there’s just tinier and tinier and tinier Afghan flags on flags..

David: You have to assume, right, that the tiny flag on the flag also has the tiny flag on it —

Melissa: And the one on that one…

David: Turtles all the way down. The Taliban would like to replace the flag with its own banner.

Melissa: Of course.

David: hat’s a simple white flag with black lettering that reads —


David: It says, ‘There is no God, but God and Muhammad is God’s messenger.’ The flag is a return to the one that the country used from 1994 until 2001, the last time the Taliban was in rule.

Melissa: Yep.

David: The new flag would move them to the group of eight countries that have a full sentence on their flag. One of those countries is also Haiti.

Melissa: Go Haiti.

David: Haiti has got a lot going on with their flag. But Afghanistan is not the country that’s had the most flags. The country that’s had the most flags is the United States.

Melissa: Shut the door.

David: Yeah, the United States has had 27 different flags. The original U.S. flag was designed in 1775. Two years later, they adopted a flag with 13 stars, one for each colony, and then every time they added a state or two, they revised the flag. The current one, with 50 stars, was adopted in nineteen sixty to recognize the statehood of Hawaii.

Melissa: Wait, so that means there was a Tim Hortons in Afghanistan.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: Because I know there’s never been a McDonald’s in Afghanistan,

David: There has never been a McDonald’s,

Melissa: But a Tim Hortons.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: Donuts!

David: Yeah, yeah. There was a Tim Hortons in Afghanistan for five years at the Kandahar Airfield. Tim Hortons opened there on Canada Day in 2006, and they closed in 2011. During that time, they moved a lot of coffee and donuts.

Melissa: I bet they did. Yeah, well, and worth noting that that’s when the Taliban had been defeated for a while.

David: Yeah, they sold four million cups of coffee and three million donuts. All of that locations proceeds went to the military community and family support programs, which just toughens up my prejudice that Canadians are nice people. If you’re looking for your double double internationally, you can still find Tim Hortons in Kuwait, Bahrain, and China.

Melissa: Interesting.

David: Yeah. So finally,

Melissa: The antique relic.

David: Yeah. So a British man used a pot as a toothbrush holder until he realized it was a 4000-year-old artifact from Afghanistan. In 2013, a man by the name of Karl Martin purchased a lovely looking pot at a flea market in England for four pounds, which is about $5. It was about four inches tall with a painting of an antelope on the side. In a later interview, he said he liked it straight away, and so he gave it a place where he would see it every day. He put it in his bathroom and he put his toothbrush in his toothpaste in it.

Melissa: Bless him.

David: And it stayed there for years.

Melissa: Oh my gosh.

David: Carl’s day job is at an auctioneer. He works for an auction house in London called Hansons. He’s a valuer. He looks at things and he tries to come up with what that thing might be worth.

Melissa: This is amazing. I want a movie about this.

David: So one day he’s unpacking some pottery and he finds a set of jars that look a lot like his toothbrush holder. And he goes to one of his colleagues. His colleague has the lovely name and title of James-Seymour Brenchley, Hanson’s Head of Ancient Art, Antiquities and Classical Coins. And, in my imagination, James-Seymour Brenchley puts down his pipe, pops in his monocle, takes a long look at the artifact, and then says, ‘George, that’s a piece of pottery from the Indus Valley.’ The Indus Valley civilization was in Southeast Asia between 1600 and 1900 BC across what’s now India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The speculation is that the pot came back to England in the luggage of some tourists, but we will never know. Martin later sold his toothbrush holder for 80 pounds, or about $110.

Melissa: He sold it. This belongs in a museum!

David: It also seems like a bargain for 4000-year-old artifact.

Melissa: Yes, it does.

David: That’s it. That’s Two Truths and a Lie.

Melissa: I’m just going to go ahead and say that my first book is a little bit of a bummer, but it’s page-turner, and it’s fascinating.

David: Let’s let’s see what we got.

Melissa: OK. This is The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Norberg. She is a Swedish journalist and New York Times reporter, and this is an amazing book. In Afghan culture, having at least one son is absolutely essential for a good reputation and good standing in the community. A family is considered incomplete without a son.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: So for families that don’t have a son, there’s an Afghan practice of dressing the youngest daughter in the family as a boy. They’ll cut the young daughter’s hair. They will give her a boy’s name. They’ll put her in boys’ clothes, and she will live as a son in the family. And then when she nears puberty, she’s turned back into a girl so she can go through the traditional process of marriage and kids. This practice is called bacha posh. In Dari, it literally means ‘dressed up like a boy.’

David: They’re masquerading as a boy in and out of the house or just when they’re out of the house?

Melissa: For some, both. For some, just when they leave the house, it depends on the family. This kind of makes your head swim a little bit. I get that like you’re trying to wrap your brain around this idea. There are real advantages in this practice for both the family and for the child who is living as a bacha posh.

David: Sure.

Melissa: So as we already discussed, there are very strict rules for women in Afghan culture. They can’t leave the house alone. They can’t earn money. A girl who’s dressed as a boy has the freedoms of a man. So she can act as a chaperone for the other women in the family. So now they can leave the house, they can go to the market, they can go visit relatives, they can get fresh air, they can go for a walk because they have a male escorting them.

David: So the nine-year-old daughter can take the 30-year-old woman out as a chaperone. Go to the market, go to the well, whatever. Come back home

Melissa: And the bacha posh can do these things on her own, so she can run errands. She can get water. She can deliver messages. She can have a job. And that’s important because if you only have women in your family, if something happens to the older brothers or the father or the husband and you are a household of women, you have no way of earning money. So if you can dress the youngest girl in the family as a boy, she can have a job.

David: And the number of households that don’t have a male are probably large because it’s a violent situation.

Melissa: Exactly. The thing that I found really interesting that I kept tripping over was having a boy in the family, even if everyone knows it’s pretend — even if it’s not actually fooling anyone — it just has the right appearance. It makes everybody much more comfortable in the family and outside the family. It just greases the social wheels.

David: So I send my nine-year-old daughter out to the market. The people at the market are like, that’s a daughter, but we’re pretending it’s a son right now. So we’re all good with that.

Melissa: Yes, because as a person who has a stall at the market, I can’t sell food to a little girl, but I can sell food to a little boy. So I’m just going to pretend that’s a boy because I don’t want to get thrown in jail by the Taliban.

Melissa: For the child, that’s a bacha posh. A whole world opens up.

David: Yeah, right.

Melissa: I want to share this quote from the book that describes what it’s like to live as a boy, partially because it so clearly articulates the freedom that they have, but also because I really like Jenny Norberg’s writing style, and this will give you a sense of how she writes: ‘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.’

Melissa: The narrative of this book reads like a novel. And the story is built around four real people that I really came to care about by the time I got to the end. There’s a female member of Parliament named Azita. She has no sons, so she turns her fourth daughter, who’s six years old, into a boy to raise her standing in Kabul and to help her with her job in parliament.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: There’s a tomboy teenager who’s been living as a boy since she was little and has absolutely no desire to go back to being a girl. There’s a woman who lived as a man for 20 years before getting married and having three children.

David: Wow. Mm hmm.

Melissa: And there’s an adult woman who’s an undercover police officer who continues to disguise herself as a man. So we get their full stories. And as you might expect, it’s really, really compelling reading and also completely heartbreaking.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: And trying not to bring my judgment to their situation was an ongoing practice. There were times when I wanted to throw the book across the room because it’s so outrageous. One of the biggest questions I had going in when I knew the premise of the book was, What happens when it’s time to become a girl again? Isn’t that really terrible? And the answer is, yeah, it’s pretty much terrible to give up all of those freedoms. One of the things that was really evocative for me was reading about a now-adolescent girl putting on the burqa for the first time. It’s very voluminous. Like, there are a lot of pleats, there’s a lot of fabric and it covers you from your head to the ground.

David: Yeah, it’s a shell.

Melissa: She talked about how she couldn’t walk the same way she used to walk. She had to shorten her steps. She couldn’t run anymore. She tripped and fell frequently because these long, billowy skirts got under her feet. And it’s very hard to see because the window of mesh across the eyes is only two inches by three inches. So you’re only seeing the world through that little sliver and the idea of going to that after being able to run or ride in the car with your dad or climb a tree just — phew. A lot to think about, a lot to process.

Melissa: There’s this quote from the adult woman who is the undercover cop. No interest in being a woman whatsoever. She said quote, ‘Some women are braver and stronger than men. I am a warrior.’ and that was really moving to me because this is a warrior culture. The Pashtun are known for having open hospitality, but also getting revenge when it’s necessary. So I just found it really moving that she’s embodying this Afghan spirit. But because she was born as a woman, she’s not able to fulfill that openly, but she masquerades as a man so she can fulfill that. And it just kind of brings home, I think, a lot of the gender issues that are also so much in the cultural conversation right now.

Melissa: And the power dynamics of, you know, presenting a particular gender. And the rules that you have to follow, depending where you are in that spectrum. And this book is about a very specific practice, but raises really big questions about how we perceive ourselves and how the world perceives us and what freedoms are afforded to which people. And along the way, she does a really nice job of weaving Afghan history into the story. So I really learned a lot about the different eras of conflict over the last 40 or so years. But it was very elegantly woven into the story in a way that didn’t feel like ‘And now I will learn a history lesson.’ It’s just beautifully presented as context for a particular experience. This was a fascinating read. It was it was tough going sometimes because it’s really difficult to read over and over about how women aren’t allowed to leave the house, for example. Yeah, but Jenny Norberg did a phenomenal job. This is The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Norberg. I want to also quickly mention that there’s a middle-grade novel that addresses this same topic in fiction. It’s called The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis.

David: That was made into an animated movie as well. Really lovely animated movie.

Melissa: Yeah, came out in 2017. The movie and the novel are both really great. It’s a very moving story. It’s very well done. I strongly endorse all three of these things. Make sure you have somebody around you can discuss them with after you read them.

David: My first book is Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansari. This book is from 2012. It’s 200 or so years of Afghan history told by a storyteller and a good storyteller. It’s very, ‘Let’s sit here and drink tea, and I will tell you such tales.’

Melissa: Nice.

David: Yeah, I wish every history book was written like this. Ansari uses sentences like, ‘We come now to a mysterious event as riveting as any detective novel.’

Melissa: Whoa.

David: Yeah, and nice. Yeah. And then he goes on to describe the unsolved assassination of a king that happened 100 hundred years ago. Or in the middle of talking about a decision that Britain made during their invasion. He throws in this editorial: ‘So the British chose Plan B, the insane one, they decided to abandon Kabul and march out of country over the Hindu Kush on foot in January.’

Melissa: Ok. I don’t know much about the territory there, but even I know that sounds insane.

David: The stories themselves are really amazing. Some of them sound like fairy tales. He writes of a deposed king and queen. He says. ‘They left Afghanistan with no money and no job skills. Openings for king being few in Europe just then. So Amanullah ended up making furniture for a living and a meager living it was. When he died in 1960, 31 years after losing the throne in exile and in poverty, not a single announcement appeared in Afghanistan.’

David: This book brought me a lot of insight about the country. For instance, early on, Ansari introduces the national sport of Afghanistan. It is the first ‘games without rules’ that he talks about. He writes. ‘There is a game called buzkashi that is played only in Afghanistan and the central Asian steppes. It involves men on horseback competing to snatch a goat carcass off the ground and carry it to each of two designated posts while the other players, riding alongside at full gallop, fight to wrest the goat carcass away. The men play as individuals, each for his own glory. There are no teams. There is no set number of players. The distance between the posts is arbitrary. The field of play has no boundaries or chalk marks. No referee rides alongside to whistle plays dead and none is needed, for there are no fouls. The game is governed and regulated by its own traditions, by the social context and its customs, and by the implicit understandings among the players. If you need the protection of an official rule book, you shouldn’t be playing.’

Melissa: Wow. I will also say that I read primarily books about women, and that game came up in all of the books I read.

David: So then over the next 400 pages or so, he goes on to show how Afghanistan has one buzkashi game after another. Someone picks up the goat carcass of modernization, carries it to the other side of the field, loses the goat. Someone picks it up and carries it back. Foreigners come in and don’t understand the game they’re playing. The city and the country fight. The modernizers and the traditionalists fight. The capital and the village rulers fight. It’s all one big, messy goat carcass of privilege and so many unintended consequences. He describes times when somebody tried to improve education or women’s rights or access to clean water, and then that falls apart because somebody overlooked some relationship or tradition.

David: In the ’60s, the People’s Democratic Party were in charge. They outlawed high interest loans and cancelled all debts. He writes, You can see why this one sounded noble,’ and then he goes on to explain how that wasn’t thought through. The problem was that as soon as that happened, the rich stopped loaning money at all, and the poor borrowed money for two reasons. Young men wanted to finance weddings, and families did it to finance funerals. Suddenly, young men couldn’t get married, and only the rich could bury their dead. And the government had wiped out a social mechanism that tradition had created to meet the needs of the society, and they didn’t provide anything to cover that. And then it was easy for the rich to say, Look at the government and how they attack your life and disrespect you.

Melissa: I feel like that points back to that quote I shared in my 101. Just we cannot bring Western thinking to these challenges. I was going to say problems. Some of them are problems. Some of them are just cultural things that we don’t really understand.

David: That happens over and over and over again through this book. Like the sun Rising.The author was born in Kabul in 1948 to an Afghan father and an American mother. He lived in Afghanistan until he was 16, and then he moved to the U.S. And he grew up. For a while he was part of a counterculture newspaper in Portland, and then he worked in publishing and writing. And then 9/11 happened. The next day, he sent a letter to 20 friends talking about why the U.S. shouldn’t invade Afghanistan. That went viral. We’ll put a link to that email in our show notes. After that, Ansari became an expert on Afghanistan. He’s since written six books, most of them about some aspect of his background as an Afghan-American. His latest is The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection. It’s about how connected we all are and how history bears that out. I’m very much looking forward to reading that some time, but this book — if you’re interested in the history of Afghanistan, I expect you won’t find a better telling it’s Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansari.

Melissa: My next pick is The Dressmaker of Khair Kana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. This is another non-fiction reportage, but I chose it specifically because it has a happier story to tell than The Underground Girls of Kabul. This is an uplifting story.

David: That’s exciting.

Melissa: Yes. This story centers on a young Afghan girl named Kamila Sidiqi. In 1996, she was 19 years old and she had just received her teaching degree. She was looking forward to working as a teacher and furthering her own education. On the same day that she graduated, the Taliban took control of Kabul, and everything changed immediately. Suddenly, women were confined to the burqa and their homes. Education for women was no longer an option. And just being out on the street was incredibly dangerous. Kabul, in 1996 was full-on war zone basically. And for her family, being at home was no guarantee of safety because her father had been a senior officer in the Afghan army and even though he was no longer active, his previous job put them all in danger. So her mother, father, and oldest brother went north to get out of Kabul. And that left Kamila responsible for her four sisters and her younger brother. So here again, we have a house full of women with no adult male escort. So this book tells the really incredible story of how she started a dressmaking business in her living room to support the family.

David: That’s one way to make money, right? Don’t leave the house at all.

Melissa: Yeah, so in secret, she and her sisters sewed dresses and sold them to shops in the market, and eventually they founded a sewing school that taught and employed more than 100 women.

David: Wow.

Melissa: Yeah, they learned to sew, and they learned the basics of business, and they supported themselves and their families, all under the nose of the Taliban. This is an amazing story, and it’s very well told. There are some really lovely ‘Oh, that’s so nice’ moments —

David: But you don’t expect from an Afghanistan book —

Melissa: Exactly like there’s a woman finishing her first dress and just feeling that flush of accomplishment and the friendships and sisterhood that they found while they’re basically hiding out in the rooms of this house. They eventually converted the whole house. Everyone in the family is gone except for the sisters. So they just let this business take over every room in the house and had all of these other women from the neighborhood in and out, and it created this incredible community. But all done in secret. Of course, those stories are contrasted with really tense moments.

David: What it kind of like an allowed secret? Like girls presenting themselves as boys where everyone’s, like, Well, we know that, but we don’t really know that.

Melissa: Yes, there are a couple of stories in the book that kind of indicate the Taliban may have had some inkling this was going on, but because the women were staying inside the house —

David: Right.

Melissa: And they always wear the burqa when they were outside and they never saw them talking to men outside the family, they just kind of averted their eyes.

David: Compliant enough.

Melissa: Yeah. There’s some really stressful moments because when Kamila is first starting the business, she goes to the market to talk to the men who own the different stalls. They both could have gotten arrested for speaking to each other, and there’s this one day when she’s going to the market and she sees the Taliban in the street and has to sneak around the corner and go the super-secret back way to the market. And like my palms were sweating, I was so stressed out. Because this is a real story and real stories aren’t like novels. Bad things can happen in the middle of all the good stuff going on.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: This might be a little bit of a spoiler. She is fine. I don’t want to ruin the ending of this book because it has a very celebratory ending, so I don’t want to give too much of the detail away because it’s really fun to read it in the context of the book. But I will say that Kamila was and continues to be triumphant. And I did a frantic Google search recently. As all the news of Afghanistan was all over the place. She safely got out of Kabul in mid-August and is with her family in London, and there’s a really cute picture of her husband and her children. So I was very relieved. I found myself very invested in Kamila.

Melissa: So that all of this could happen under the Taliban is an amazing story, and the reporting is very detailed and suspenseful and really inspiring. And a lot of that credit has to go to the author Gayle Lemmon. She was a reporter for ABC News, and she gave up that gig because she wanted to pursue an MBA from Harvard. She was very interested in women entrepreneurs in war-torn countries.

David: Huh.

Melissa: So she’s devoted her career to ferreting out and reporting these stories of extraordinary women in unbelievably tough circumstances. In addition to this book, she wrote The Daughters of Kobani, which tells the story of an all-woman Kurdish militia in Syria that fought ISIS.

David: Wow.

Melissa: Yeah. And she wrote Ashley’s War, which tells the story of First Lieutenant Ashley White, who was part of a pilot program that put women on the battlefield with Army Rangers, Green Berets, and Navy SEALs in Afghanistan.

David: Wow.

Melissa: Yes, she knows badass women, and she tells their stories.

David: That sounds great.

Melissa: And both of those have been optioned for films, and I hope she made a gazillion dollars because reporting these stories cannot have been easy. There’s detail in The Dressmaker about how the situation in Kabul was deteriorating while she was doing her years of research. She talked to everyone. She talked to the women who were in the sewing school. She talked to the men who owned the shops in the markets, and she describes how as the years went on, things got really dicey, and the women that she was interviewing were like, What are you doing here? And she was committed to telling their story.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: So this is The Dressmaker of Khair Kana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, and I want to recommend it for anyone who wants to be inspired to do their best work and to help lift others up while they do it.

David: My second book is The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker. This book was adapted into the 2016 film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; Baker was played by Tina Fey. You can find copies of this book under that name. When the movie came out, they reprinted the book in its entirety with the new name.

Melissa: I am strongly against the movie tie-in version of the book.

David: I agree.

Melissa: I mean, it’s great for the authors. I love when authors books get adapted into films and they can have a little bit of a payday, but just leave the covers and the titles alone.

David: Yeah, they didn’t. And we saw that movie. It didn’t really stick with me. And as usual, the book was better. Also, am I the last person who realized that the title Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the phonetic alphabet for WTF?

Melissa: I just got it, as you were saying that. That’s good.

David: I was writing this up and thinking about how I didn’t much care for that as a title. And then I was suddenly like —

Melissa: Oh!

David: Didn’t make me like the title that much more. But it did turn on a lightbulb. This is a memoir of a reporter’s seven years covering the war in Afghanistan. And unlike most books that I think would come with that blurb, this one has humor and bad romance and very awkward social situations. The book has the casualness that feels like she’s sitting on the edge of the bed telling you this stuff. It’s very familiar. I don’t think that she intended to write a coming-of-age story, but there’s a little bit of that, too. Kim Barker was born in Montana and went to northwestern in Chicago. She was working for the Chicago Tribune when 9/11 happened. Her story is that she heard the paper was looking to send women to Asia. She walked into an editor’s office and said, ‘I’m single, I’m childless and I’m therefore expendable.’

Melissa: Whoa.

David: Yeah. And the editor was like, You’re going to Pakistan.

Melissa: Shades of Nellie Bly there.

David: Yeah. She ended up being the chief of the Tribune’s South Asia Bureau from 2004 to 2009. This book is mostly about her experience, but it also presents a pretty good argument for why the U.S. ultimately failed at bringing stability to the region. She is funny in a way that’s dark, as you might expect from a reporter. For instance, the first line of the book is, ‘I had always wanted to meet a warlord.’ then she describes entering the compound of an Afghan warlord wtih her translator, Farouq. The warlord’s name is Pacha Kahn. A bit later she describes the scene where she’s meeting Pacha Kahn.

Farouq tried to sell my case in the Pashto language. The warlord had certain questions.

‘Where is she from?’ Pacha Khan asked, suspiciously.

‘Turkey,’ Farouq responded.

‘Is she Muslim?’


‘Have her pray for me.’

I smiled dumbly, oblivious to the conversation and Farouq’s lies.

‘She can’t,’ Farouq said, slightly revising his story. ‘She is Turkish American. She only knows the prayers in English, not Arabic.’

‘Hmmm,’ Pacha Khan grunted, glaring at me. ‘She is a very bad Muslim.’

‘She -is- a very bad Muslim,’ Farouq agreed.

I continued to grin wildly, attempting to charm Pacha Kahn.

‘Is she scared of me?’ he asked.

‘What’s going on? What’s he saying?’ I interrupted.

‘He wants to know if you’re scared of him,’ Farouq said.

‘Oh no,’ I said. ‘He seems like a perfectly nice guy. Totally harmless. Very kind.’

Farouq nodded and turned to Pacha Khan.

‘Of course she is scared of you,’ Farouq translated. ‘You are a big and terrifying man. But I told her you were a friend of the Chicago Tribune, and I guaranteed her safety.’

David: So from there, she introduces us to the Afghans, and almost as importantly for this book, the people who report the news from there. She talks about how the work gets done and how they enjoy themselves after. There’s the action of following a story, but there’s also parties that get way out of hand. There’s karaoke bars. There’s drinking and dancing. Sometimes there’s gunplay at the parties, that kind of thing. Throughout the book, there’s a pretty strong parallel between her emotional growth and the mess that the war in Afghanistan became.

David: She gets into it first, and it feels exciting and new and dangerous, and ultimately it becomes muddy and messy and unfun. In the end, she brings up a point that I hadn’t really considered about our involvement in Afghanistan. She tells us that the people who are attracted to that kind of life aren’t necessarily the kind of people who can help. She writes, ‘Some foreigners wanted to make Afghanistan a better place, viewed Afghanistan as a home rather than a party, and even genuinely liked Afghans. But they were in the minority and many left, driven out by the corruption and the inability to accomplish anything. For most, Afghanistan was Kabul High, a way to get your war on an adrenaline rush, a resume line, a money factory. It was a place to escape, to run away from marriages and mistakes. A place to forget your age. Your responsibilities. Your past. A country in which to reinvent yourself. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but the motives of most people were not likely to help a fragile and corrupt country stuck somewhere between the 17th century and Vegas.’

David: Ultimately, she comes back home. Baker is currently an investigative reporter for The New York Times. If you’re looking to follow a funny, smart reporter through post-9/11 Afghanistan, it’s a good read. It’s The Taliban Shuffle, or maybe Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker. I should mention the audio book for The Taliban Shuffle is quite good because of the nature of the writing. It sounds like somebody’s talking to you.

Melissa: My final pick is The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq. This is a mash up of a crime novel and a political thriller set in 1970s Kabul. It is a ride. I really enjoyed it. The conflicted hero of the story is Daniel Sajadi. He’s the son of an American woman and a late Afghan war hero. He’s been living in Los Angeles, but he has returned to Afghanistan with good intentions. He’s going to head up a U.S. foreign aid agency, and his job is to help farmers switch from growing opium poppies to cultivating food. Sounds like a good goal, right?

David: It does.

Melissa: So far, so altruistic.

David: Yes, you can see why this one sounded altruistic.

Melissa: But on the highway, in the car with his wife, distracted, he hits and kills a young girl from the Kochi nomadic tribe. And not only is he wracked with sorrow and guilt, this gives him a run in with a warlord, and soon he is caught up in a political coup and the dark world of opium drug lords.

David: Oh geez.

Melissa: And personal intrigue with the other Kabul expats, it is all happening.

David: That sounds like a fast slide downhill.

Melissa: Yes, a big time thriller. He and his wife are on their way to celebrate their anniversary when the accident happens and then boom, they are just on a fast downward trajectory. Terrible for them. Really good for us as readers. This book has a very strong sense of place. The physical descriptions of the scenery are quite vivid, and it’s packed with period details that are really surprising given what we know of Afghanistan now. So, for example, women are wearing high heels.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: And booze is readily available. There are posters advertising The Godfather II downtown on the walls of Kabul. But all of it. Even the parts that are meant to be fun — like there are these crazy ex-pat parties where everybody’s getting drunk and listening to music — all of it has this cloud of menace kind of floating over it. And the personal drama that Daniel is experiencing, both from accidentally killing this girl and then ending up in cahoots with a drug lord, all of that is unfolding against the backdrop of two really big moments in Afghan history. And I didn’t know anything about them when I started. So it was a great way to fill in the holes of my education, while I was chewing my fingernails to see if Daniel was going to get murdered in a poppy field.

David: So while the thriller is happening, let’s have a social studies class.

Melissa: Yeah. So first, there’s the opium situation. The thing that I love is that both of these things are woven — they’re necessary to the plot, right? She’s not just blah blah blah history for the sake of history, they are integral to the plot. The plot is happening because of these things. First: opium situation. Daniel is there, as I said, to wipe out the poppy fields and get them growing some food. This is a real thing that happened. In the 1970s, opium was banned in Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, and the Soviet war had decimated the legal agricultural trade in Afghanistan. So rural farmers turned to opium because there is a way to make some money.

David: Yeah, I read about that in the history book that it was a very good crop because you can store it forever. You don’t need as much land to produce a lot of opium.

Melissa: It looks really pretty.

David: Yeah, you can feed the whole family. It’s great.

Melissa: So by the end of the 1970s, opium poppy farming had spread to more than half of the country. And it is true that in the 1970s, U.S. Aid, a U.S. federal agency tried to help farmers change over their land use. Limited success.

Melissa: Ok. The second thing that’s happening on the political scene is the 1973 coup. So for 40 years from 1933 until 1973, the king of Afghanistan was Mohammad Zahir Shah. He is the longest serving ruler in Afghan history. He did a lot of really good things. He modernized the country. He instituted a constitutional monarchy.

David: Well, and there are pictures of like late ’60s Afghanistan that will probably rock your mental image about Afghanistan.

Melissa: It’s like when we covered Iran and we showed pictures of women in Iran in the ’60s, like they’re wearing short skirts and high heels, and everything looks normal in the way we understand normal.

David: And even up to date with a fashion. Yeah, right?

Melissa: But in 1973, the King of Afghanistan left the country for medical treatment, and while he was gone, his cousin, who was an army commander, Lieutenant General Muhammad Daoud Khan, led a military coup and declared himself the president.

David: Yeah, as you do.

Melissa: As you do. That marked the end of this relatively peaceful, prosperous time. And as we already discussed, since then it’s been unstable governments coup, civil war, etc., etc. So all of that is going on in Kabul and in Daniel’s life while he is caught up in a very personal, dangerous drama. So lots of things happening. But the author, Jasmine Aimaq, is a fantastic writer, and it’s never confusing. I felt like I was being driven through this story that was rich with detail, and I knew what was going on the whole time. I should also mention that her mother is Swedish and her father is Afghan. She lived in Kabul with her family until 1976. So when she writes about Daniel’s situation of both being an insider and an outsider, she knows what she’s talking about.

Melissa: The other thing she does really brilliantly is make this story about more than the physical action, and there is a lot of physical action. This is like a big-time action-adventure thriller. I was super-stressed out all the time. And in that mode of reading where you’re like just one more chapter, just one more chapter and we’re going to go to sleep. Ok, just one more chapter. It’s like that. But there’s a lot of emotional movement going on here, too. It kind of roots around in father-son relationships and trust issues. It examines the baggage that we haul around the world with us, no matter how far we run, to try to get away from it. He goes from Los Angeles to Kabul. Not far enough. It explores guilt. And betrayal of trust. There are so many betrayals in this book. It takes a look at second chances and what happens when good intentions prompt bad actions and vice versa.

David: Right.

Melissa: So there’s some redemption. It just operates on all the levels,

David: Emotionally complex work.

Melissa: Every level. It’s firing on all cylinders and I loved it. And it’s a good antidote to the nonfiction books, which I think are essential for understanding or trying to understand context. But then this takes that and makes it a rip roaring ride through a thriller.

David: Awesome.

Melissa: That is The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq.

David: That sounds great.

David: Those are five books we love set in Afghanistan. Visit our show notes at for links and details.

Melissa: The show notes for this show are going to be very robust because there’s all of the things we found in doing our research. But I’ve also been compiling recent news stories to provide a little bit more context for what’s happening right now. So definitely set aside some time to visit the show notes, because there’s going to be a lot of good stuff in there.

David: We are turning the corner into 2022, which seems hard to believe, but there we go. And we’re thinking about season four Strong Sense of Place. Where we’re going to go, what we’re going to talk about and the kinds of projects we’d like to start up. If you would like to support us while we do these things, let me direct you to our Patreon. You can find it at There you will join the bright, good looking people who are already helping us out and you’ll get to help direct what we’re doing in 2020, too.

Melissa: We’ve also been sharing the yummy nuggets of research that we can’t wedge into the podcast. So our patrons are getting—

David: bonus material.

Melissa: we’re having a holiday party.

David: Oh yeah. Yes.

Melissa: Yeah, you could still get in on that.

David: For our top tier contributors, we’re having a little online get together in early December.

Melissa: There will definitely be cookies involved.

David: Mel, where are we headed for our next episode?

Melissa: We are heading off to the Land of the Sphinx and the Pharaohs. We’re going to Egypt.

David: We’re going to walk like an Egyptian. And we will talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of Aditya Chinchure/Unsplash.

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