Monday, 5 September 2011

Wars of Terror: Afghanistan Across the Decades with ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns”

My next destination is, inevitably, much better known than Tajikistan - I am travelling to Afghanistan, courtesy of the novel “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khalad Hosseini.

Anyone whose heart strings were pulled by Khaled Hosseini's first, hugely successful novel, “The Kite Runner”, should be more than satisfied with this follow-up. Hosseini is skilled at telling a certain kind of story, in which events that may seem unbearable - violence, misery and abuse - are made readable. He doesn't gloss over the horrors his characters live through, but something about his direct, explanatory style and the sense that you are moving towards a redemptive ending makes the whole narrative, for all its tragedies, slip down rather easily.

“The Kite Runner” was the tale of two Afghan boys struggling to live decent lives amid the warfare and ethnic rivalries of contemporary Afghanistan, and this is the female counterpart. It is both the tale of two women, and a tale of two cities - Herat and Kabul. At the beginning, we are dropped into the world of Mariam, a young girl living alone with her unmarried mother on the outskirts of Herat. And what a sad world it is. Poor Mariam is bullied by her epileptic mother, and she lives for her weekly visits from her insincere, charming father who runs Herat's cinema, and whose real family she longs to join.

We don't stagnate with Mariam in Herat, however - Hosseini likes to move his narratives along - and before many pages have been turned Mariam's mother has died, and her unfeeling father has married her off to an acquaintance from Kabul. Despite the trauma of going to live with a complete stranger who insists that she must wear the burka and hide upstairs when visitors arrive, a tentative hopefulness begins to grow in Mariam that she may be able to win some affection from her husband, especially when she becomes pregnant.

But Hosseini vividly brings home what life is like for women in a society in which they are valued only for reproduction. Once she has suffered a series of miscarriages, Mariam's marriage becomes a prison: "Mariam was afraid. She lived in fear of his shifting moods, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks, and sometimes try to make amends for with polluted apologies and sometimes not."

Just as the impatient reader might start to wonder what Hosseini is going to do next with his narrative energy, we switch from Mariam's life to that of a neighbour, the young Laila, who is growing up in a liberal family with a father who believes in her education. This means that we suddenly see Mariam from the outside: Laila never speaks to her, but one day she "passed Rasheed, the shoemaker, with his burka-clad wife, Mariam, in tow". In a flash we see, as Hosseini clearly intends us to, how behind every silent burka in Afghanistan is an individual with a hidden history.

As well as an education, ambitions and opinions, Laila even has a respectful and intelligent boyfriend, who goes with her to the cinema and on a trip to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan. By putting Mariam and Laila in contrast like this, Hosseini is, you feel, not just trying to burrow into individual lives, but also trying to explain the complexities of Afghan society to the reader.

That sense that you are listening to a history lesson as much as experiencing a fiction becomes stronger as the narrative moves on. Hosseini is almost too careful to describe for ignorant westerners the political background to these women's lives, from the Soviet occupation that ruled Laila's childhood to the growing strength of the mujahideen that her brothers join, amid "rising rumours that, after eight years of fighting, the Soviets were losing this war". Once the Soviets are ousted, he takes an even more didactic turn, spelling out how the mujahideen turned from idealised freedom fighters to oppressors. "It was dizzying how quickly everything unravelled. The leadership council was formed prematurely. It elected Rabbani president. The other factions cried nepotism ... Hekmatyar, who had been excluded, was incensed ... The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but lacking a common enemy, had found the enemy in each other."

But Hosseini doesn't get bogged down in the ins and outs of Afghan politics. His energetic narrative speeds on through the political and domestic worlds, as we move through the tragedies that fall on Laila's family. Eventually we see her, orphaned and alone, allowing herself to become Rasheed's second wife. You might think this novel is becoming too melodramatic, as one horror succeeds another, with rockets blowing families apart and attempted escapes and even murder, alongside the beatings and whippings and threats that make up the women's daily experiences. But when I started to think this I remembered women I met in Kabul, and how many of them had stories to tell almost as melodramatic as this.

Where Hosseini's novel begins to sing is in depicting the slowly growing friendship of the two wives in the face of the horrific abuse from their shared husband. Laila looks at Mariam, and "For the first time, it was not an adversary's face Laila saw but a face of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, a destiny submitted to and endured. If she stayed, would this be her own face, Laila wondered?" The women's only hope of affection or solidarity is with one another, and they survive not just physically but also emotionally by putting their faith in each other and in their love for Laila's children.

Hosseini does not challenge the usual western view of Afghanistan, but he does enrich it - he adds greater knowledge and understanding to it, and makes the Afghans come alive as loving, feeling individuals. There is something marvellously hopeful in this process, and if there is a problem with the novel, it is not with the plot or the intentions behind it, but with the neatness of its narrative style. Hosseini's prose is stolidly direct, and he tends to explain away not only the political but also the personal, presenting each experience in a wrapper on which the emotion is carefully labelled. Whether it is love - "She had fallen for Tariq. Hopelessly and desperately" - or hate - "What harmful thing had she wilfully done to this man to warrant his malice?" - each distinct emotion is spelled out a touch too clearly.

His desire to believe in the eventual redemption of Afghanistan means that the ending verges on the schmaltzy. Undoubtedly the removal of the Taliban was positive for Afghan women, and we shouldn't be surprised if his characters draw strength from it. But in the last chapter, as the rains return, the cinemas open, the children play and the orphanages are rebuilt, the reader cannot help but feel that Hosseini's understandable longing for a beautiful return to life for the oppressed people of Afghanistan has made for an ending that is just a little flimsy.

(Review in italics by Natasha Walter. The Guardian, Saturday 19 May 2007)

For me, this novel was a little too pat, i.e. sympathetic characters overcome terrible adversity and finally triumph to reach a happy ending. As Natasha states above, Hosseini’s “desire to believe in the eventual redemption of Afghanistan means that the ending verges on the schmaltzy.”

I can’t blame him for that on a personal level, but I can’t help feeling that this adds a gloss that isn’t there, to the current straits of many Afghans in the country today. That said, there can be no disputing that Hosseini, with his two novels, has brought a sense of the lives of ordinary Afghans to a vast Western readership which might otherwise have been indifferent or downright hostile to their fate.

I now move on to Afghanistan’s rather less well-known neighbour, Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan was once the world's most feared territory. Since the time of the Mongols, the nomadic tribes of its vast desert wastes were deemed ungovernable. Russians and Persians were captured as slaves and carried off by the fierce Turkmen. Even now, as an independent country located between the hot spots of Afghanistan and Iran, with one of the planet's largest natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan remains virtually unknown to the outside world.

Therefore it is with some trepidation that I set out from Kabul to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. There are no direct flights from Kabul to Ashgabat, and in selecting flights you should be careful on two counts – safety and price!

The British FCO warns against the use of a number of Afghan airlines due to safety concerns so it is worth paying a bit extra, even it if means an inconvenient connection. There is a difference between adventurous and reckless! That said, you should beware of ridiculously inflated air prices. Having been quoted over £3000 to fly via Delhi (with Air India) to Ashgabat; I find a more direct and less pricey flight with Turkish Airlines that leaves Kabul at midday and arrives in Istanbul at 16.15. After a rather lengthy wait I then leave on a connecting flight for Ashgabat at 23.35, arriving 05.10 the next day – for a less pricey £653 one-way!

My trip in Turkmenistan is courtesy of “Unknown Sands” by John W. Kropf. A lawyer with the U.S. State Department, Kropf, his wife and their two-year-old daughter travelled to the far corners of a country still reeling from Soviet occupation and, later, the impact of the 9/11 attacks (which occurred whilst he was there).

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