Read October 2003
I've come to avoid a few kinds of travel writing: (1) Those that pitch a foolhardy, sometimes plain foolish, narrator into a dangerous situation—the result being a series of pointless perils, needless capers and general hijinks. (2) Those that place veiled women in excessively orthodox (invariably Islamic) societies: been there in person, don't need the book. (3) Those rushed to caplitalize on topical events. You can be sure, then, that I wouldn't be caught with a book that was all three, edited poorly and with wretched grammar to boot.
Thank goodness, then, that Kathi bought this on her way back from Italy. I must admit this is one of the most compelling books I've read in a long time. Read it and weep.
Lamb, a long-standing British reporter on Afghanistan, suddenly finds her old friends in the resistance straddling the great divide in Afghan politics: some have turned into the mullahs of the Taliban, others are the modern liberals such as Hamid Karzai himself. Lamb returns to Afghanistan to interview them, provides flashbacks to her past experiences (including hiding in trenches with people who would go on to become Taliban), and weaves a poignant set of letters from an unknown woman through the book. She gains remarkable access to people, including Taliban torturers and leaders. Her book must be unique, melding her “one of the boys” willingness to get in amongst the action with the occasional feminine touch. And to top it all off, she demonstrates an admirable knowledge of Afghan history, especially of their interaction with the British (which, as in so many other parts of the world, set the stage for modern attitudes to foreigners). If only she'd hired an editor... but perhaps there's something to be said for the raw, straight-from-my-word-processor-to-your-hands feel of the book, which seems to fit the rough-and-tumble nature of the subject matter.
To give due credit, despite its rushed production feel, the book does have a useful index. This is all the more valuable when reading about a country whose history doesn't percolate to the top of curricula in most parts of the world. (I was disappointed to see no mention of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his role against the British and in favor of Pushtun unity through Khudai Khidmatgar. Perhaps non-violent solutions never really stood a chance in this bloody land.)
Where to start describing the book's contents? It's filled with nugget upon nugget. Lamb variously describes:
The numerous influences of Pakistan's nefarious Inter-Services Intelligence organization.
The essentially illiterate, degenerate Mullah Omar.
The peculiar, perverse logic of the Taliban, as when they ban kite-flying which, if it was “simply a pleasure it would be alright but unfortunately there can be gambling on kites and it can be harmful because people fly them from the rooftops and may fall off and get hurt.”
The popularity of the madrasas as creators of a kind of social stability—a characteristic the products of the schools, the Taliban, would initially also posess.
The indirect influence of Ataturk in the creation of a liberal state in the middle of the 20th century, but the weaknesses of the resulting effete rulers.
The escapism of Hindi movies being preferred to the brutality of American ones.
The Juma Masjid of Herat, of which Lamb says, “It seemed an odd place to worship where men leave their shoes at the entrance but not their guns.”
A glass-blower in Herat who ascribes the beauty of his work to this principle: “We say a line of poetry for each one so that it would have its own soul.”
The titular sewing circle, a brave underground schooling effort to educate women under the Taliban.
A heart-rending account of a guardian of a museum who saved oil paintings from the Taliban by using watercolors to mask out the parts they would find objectionable—who gleefully washes off the watercolors to show Lamb the art beneath.
A scene out of Macbeth: a man attempting to wash the bloody stain out of a football field (built by UNESCO under Taliban rule) that had been turned into a site for regular executions.
A passion for the cities of Afghanistan, especially Herat, that brings to mind the gruff admiration of another remarkable British traveler, Robert Byron. Indeed, Lamb cites The Road to Oxiana on several instances, sometimes to uplift herself (“Here at last is Asia without an inferiority complex”, Byron writes of Herat in his typical curmudgeonly fashion), sometimes to second her excitement (she recounts Byron's description of Herat as the long-forgotten capital of the Oriental Medicis), and sometimes to reflect on lost glories that Byron had recorded.
And on and on it goes. The entire human drama lives in these pages. There are tales of tragedy, cries of despair (Lamb's closeted distaff correspondent once asks, “Do you play loud music and swim in lakes?”), and the inevitable traces of grace under fire. Overall, though, this book conveys a certain unrelenting, and rarely magnificent, desolation. One can scarcely imagine a country having lived through this much, and still being so far from a well-deserved peace and rest.