This weekend in London, wreaths were laid at the Cenotaph and at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey. On November 11th and during the week surrounding that date we (and other countries) remember those who have fought, died, and shown bravery in war. Most often, we recall the two world wars, perhaps particularly because the date is based on the Armistice that ended WW1. But we should not forget other soldiers, and currently a lot of fighting takes place in Afghanistan. I therefore think we should try to understand where our forces are fighting, and a little about why. To that end, I’ve been interested in books, fact and fiction, dealing with the region.
The first three books are true stories and treat the situation in far greater depth than is possible in magazine articles or television programmes, however well researched.
The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad is written by a western journalist who went to Afghanistan and stayed with a family there. It follows the lives of a Kabul bookseller and his family. They are strict Muslims but in fierce opposition to both the communists and the Taliban. The book helps the reader to understand the different strands of Afghan society and the courage of its people.
My Forbidden Face by Latifa tells roughly the same story but from the point of view of an educated modern young woman whose world fell apart under the Taliban. For many readers it will serve as a better introduction to the issues, because it is written by the woman herself and the reader is encouraged to identify with her rather than looking on as an outsider.
The Broken Circle by Enjeela Ahmadi-Miller follows a family who escaped from soviet-ruled Afghanistan, partly because the mother needed medical treatment that she could only get in India. The author underwent severe hardship on her journey. The family were separated; it was five years before they were reunited. As with Latifa’s book, empathy for the narrator makes this a powerful story though the emphasis is on the deprivations of the journey rather than the politics of the country they left.
The novels I have read cover the same period. They are both by Khaled Hosseini who uses his experiences and knowledge to explore the plight of different people, children in The Kite Runner and women in A Thousand Splendid suns. I am currently looking forward to reading Hosseini’s next novel: And the Mountains Echoed.
Prior to reading any of these my knowledge of the country was limited. Climber friends had journeyed through it before any of the ‘troubles’; they came back with exotic tales and beautiful carpets. We had an Afghan hound (all I can say is, don’t, although we loved him very much) and I had vague notions about shepherds defending their flocks from mountain lions with the aid of these dogs.
Now I know the women (in particular) of Afghanistan were educated and resourceful but suffered badly under the Taliban. I am also aware that the Taliban’s rise to power was inevitable after the botched soviet invasion and rule and the inevitable infighting during the power vacuum that followed.
Afghanistan has always been a difficult place for our armed forces. The Battle of the Khyber Pass in 1842 still resonates in British memory, along with sayings like ‘up the Khyber’ that apply to any doomed activity. Victorian Britain tried to extend the empire into Afghanistan but failed. Present day forces attempt to hold back the tide of extremists, in a bid to provide a normal life for people like Sultan, the bookseller, Latifa, the student, and Enjeela, the journalist.
Often they must fight in the very cities they are trying to save and must be sad to see the buildings crumble around them. Whilst the motives of our governments are mixed, and never totally pure, and whilst our soldiers simply do as they’re told, frequently unaware of the wider issues, the fact remains that they fight and die for freedom and show remarkable courage. We will remember them, and having read the books I’ve listed here, I will also remember the brave people on whose behalf they are fighting.