Come Back to Afghanistan by Said Hyder Akbar

“[T]he people of Afghanistan . . . are tired, poor, and have few opportunities—and they are thus at the mercy of warlords, terrorists, opium, the country’s carnivorous neighbors, you name it. They need long-term help, not the shaky presence of the aid comminity.” (p. 326)

“In spite of everything, there is still a lot of goodwill toward the Americans here. It’s not like it is in Iraq: in Afghanistan the U.S. troops have legitimacy. The Americans did not invade this country: they helped overthrow an occupying force. Since then they’ve decreased the detrimental influence of neighboring countries. And perhaps most important, their continued presence prevents a return to chaos. But even this substantial benefit cannot placate Afghans forever.” (p.289)

These two quotations from Mr. Akbar’s book epitomize his view of Afghanistan’s future, American foreign policy, and what the U.S. owes Afghanistan. I would respond that although the Afghan people need and deserve our help, they don’t need to be “placated” like little children. Americans will do what they can, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the Afghan people themselves to make their own way in the world and to find a way to govern themselves peacefully and reconcile the many tribal tensions and feuds that still make violence a part of daily life in Afghanistan.

Said Hyder Akbar is a college student, or was one when he wrote this book, born to Afghan parents in exile in Pakistan, reared in the U.S., and now the son of the governor of Afghanistan’s Kunar province. He writes mostly about the two (maybe three) summers he spent in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban as the government of Hamid Karzai, with the help of American troops, attempted to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan. The book is quite informative on the state of Afghan politics and infrastructure, but it is notable for what it doesn’t say as much as for what it does.

Two subjects are absent or near-absent from Mr. Akbar’s narrative. He spends a great deal of time and ink telling us about the former mujahadeen and about tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, about politics in Kabul and politics in Kunar Province, about Afghan poverty and American ineptness and Americans who do things well. However, two subjects which seem to me to be central to the Afghan story, Mr. Akbar almost never mentions: women and religion.

Occasionally, there is a brief allusion to daily prayers or Taliban legalities, but if the author and his family are any example, Islam is a background noise in the life of the political elite in Afghanistan. No mosque attendance, no Islamic studies, no citing of the Koran, very little prayer or reference to Islamic law, are to be found in the pages of this book in which many people were just a few years ago supposedly fanatical Islamists. Has all this religious zeal just disappeared or gone underground, or is Mr. Akbar a secular Muslim (like a secular Jew or a nominal Christian) who just doesn’t pay any attention to the role of religion within the culture of Afghanistan?

Women, too, are nearly invisible in Come Back to Afghanistan. Mr. Akbar writes about his mother; he even tells us that she was quite unhappy with him when he returned to the U.S. from Afghanistan after his first summer there. He brought back quite a bit of film of the loya jirga, a large meeting in Kabul of tribal leaders and warlords and other political leaders, including many women. Only Hyder Akbar doesn’t film or tape any of the women, and his mother is quite angry about the omission. Nevertheless, Mr. Akbar doesn’t learn any lessons from this martriarchal scorn because the rest of his book is just as woman-less as his recording of the loya jirga. He writes about his mother again, a brief visit to a girl’s school, and a glimpse he gets of his uncle’s wife. Are women in Afghanistan still just as invisible as they were under the Taliban? Or do they simply fly under Hyder Akbar’s radar screen completely? I would certainly have liked to know a lot more about whether or not women are being educated and given freedom and opportunity in the new Afghanistan, but Mr. Akbar’s a lot more interested in mountain hikes and Kalishnikovs.

Aside from these two glaring omissions, Come Back to Afghanistan is an enthusiastic, impassioned portrait of the rebuilding, and sometimes the tragic re-breaking, of Afghanistan during the years 2003-2005. When Hyder Akbar first goes to Afghanistan to spend the summer with his dad, he is seventeen years old. By the end of the book, two and a half to three years later, it is obvious that he has grown up, mostly as a result of his experiences in Afghanistan. He’s a man with a mission —to participate in the reconstruction and the political and economic of his native country. I wish him and his country well

Behind the Burqa

The full title is Behind the Burqa: Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom by “Sulima” and “Hala” as told to Batya Swift Yasgur. I’ll do a quick review in light of the fact that this book is propaganda, not in a bad sense, but propaganda nevertheless. The purpose of the book is to “anger you, frighten you, and ultimately, inspire you with the compelling and suspenseful stories of these women.” The author wants you and me to care about the plight of Afghan women and about the difficulties of illegal immigrants who are seeking asylum in this country, and she even includes an appendix at the end of the book on “how you can help” with ideas, addresses, and websites for those who want to do something in response to the stories in the book.

I already find that I care just as much or more about what is happening to the people, especially the women and children, of Afghanistan as I do about Iraq. I would say that reading The Kite Runner last year was responsible for bringing my interest in Afghanistan to the surface. So after seeing Behind the Burqa in the bookstore, I was interested in reading this account of two sisters’ lives in Soviet and Taliban ruled Afghanistan and of their escape to the United States. My evaluation: the book is good, well-written, and accomplishes the purpose the author set out to accomplish. I did come away from the book wanting to do something to help those who flee to the U.S. to escape persecution only to be trapped inside our immigration system. I’m not sure what that “something” will be yet, but the appendix again suggests several websites to go to for more information about helping both Afghanistan and asylum seekers in the U.S. I don’t know enough about them to recommend all these organizations, but if you are interested, I would suggest you check out the websites for yourself.

Women for Afghan Women
Equality NowEquality Now
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Lawyers Committee for Human Rights
Physicians for Human Rights
Hebrew Immigration and Aid Society

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is set initially in Afghanistan, and it’s a tale of father and son and of betrayal and forgiveness. Amir, the protagonist and narrator, is the son of a wealthy Afghan businessman, while his best friend, Hassan, is a Hazara and a servant. I learned from reading the book that the Hazaras are an ethnic group within Afghanistan and that they are looked down upon because they are Shi’ite Muslims rather than Sunni and because of their ethnicity and poverty. Because Amir and his father do not understand one another and because family secrets poison the atmosphere in their home, Amir escapes into a world of books. He also spends a lot of time playing with his servant/friend Hassan, and it is Hassan who defends Amir when the two encounter bullies or other difficulties. Amir, writing this story from the vantage point of adulthood, is ashamed of the way he used and depended upon Hassan, and he is especially ashamed of one incident that happened when Amir was twelve years old and that, he says, changed his life forever.

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” So Amir begins his story. The rest of the novel is a sort of quest for atonement and forgiveness. Even though others forgive Amir for his weakness and cowardice as a twelve year old boy, Amir canot forgive himself until he is called upon to do something dangerous to atone for his sin. Even when he gets himself almost killed in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Amir cannot remove all the consequences of his misdeeds. He can only live with what he has done and try to see glimpses of hope.

This novel is Dr. Khaled Hosseini’s first, and it was number seven at Amazon when I checked tonight. Pretty good for a first time novelist. His description of growing up in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion and before the Taliban features boys running the streets freely, hurling pebbles at passing goats, and kite-fighting. Kite-fighting was a popular sport in prewar Afghanistan, and Amir and Hassan work together to become the best kite flyers in the city. Hassan has a further talent: he is the best kite runner, hence the title of the novel. A kite runner retrieves the fallen kite of an opponent, and his reward is to hang the kite, or perhaps many kites, on a wall as a trophy, a reminder of his triumph. Hassan runs the kites–and gives them to Amir, and then he is called upon to give much more than just kites. Later, Amir must repay Hassan’s courage and selflessness with matching courage.

Another significant role reversal takes place in the novel, too. In Afghanistan, Amir’s father, Baba, is a strong man, respected, even beloved. Amir feels he can never live up to his father’s reputation nor his expectations. When the two men immigrate to the United States, Amir slowly becomes the strong one. He says of his father that he liked the idea of living in America, but actually living there gave him an ulcer. Amir seems not to realize that his strong, self-sufficient father is now dependent on him. Such changes do happen so slowly that we are surprised by them. Hosseini does a good job of showing this transition from boy to man as it occurs—in fits and starts, almost imperceptibly.

Excellent novel, highly recommended. This one and Acts of Faith are both on my A list for this year. I’ve been blessed to read several good recently published fiction books lately. Are the selections from the publishers improving? This book would make a great movie, but it may be too politically incorrect for Hollywood. The Muslims in the book are a mixed lot, some good, some bad, and the Taliban-types are totally evil.