I started my travel reading project with the first country on the list – Afghanistan. An initial research online yielded quite a few interesting book suggestions, but only two Afghan authors – Khaled Hosseini and Atiq Rahimi. I had read all of Khaled Hosseini’s books so I decided to add Atiq Rahimi to my shortlist. Additional research yielded books that I would have liked to read but they were all by foreign (i.e. non Afghan) authors and were based on their journey and impressions of this country. This kind of diluted the purpose of what I want to achieve, which is to read more local authors of every country to understand the local customs, mannerisms and lives. I didn’t want to read a foreigners’ observations of this country.
I finally decided to read one of each kind and compiled a short list of 9 books (listed at the end of the post). I then sent the list to my sister who in turn asked an Afghan colleague for recommendations. Her colleague recommended – Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi and The Places In Between by Rory Stewart and I have decided to read both of them!
The first book I decided to read was the “Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi” (translated from Dari by Erdag Goknar). Atiq Rahimi is a French-Afghan filmmaker and writer and has a reputation of writing war stories. He was born in Kabul and then left the country after the Soviet invasion.
This book is a short novella of about 55 pages (on kindle) and is one of the most poignant books I have ever read. Set against a war-torn land of Afghanistan, this book speaks about three generations of a family and the effects that war has on their lives.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a grandfather, Dastaguir and his grandson, Yassin are the only survivors in their family in the bombing of their village. They then undertake a journey to see the boy’s father, Murad, a coal miner in another city and inform him about this tragedy. Yassin has been deafened by the bomb blast but thinks that the tanks have taken everyone’s voice. The major part of the narrative is Dastaguir’s inner turmoil (in second person) of how to break news about the family tragedy to Murad and his personal struggle with his own grief and loss.
Though I am not a huge fan of tragedies, I loved the book and all its vivid characters – Dastaguir, Yassin and the shopkeeper. In just a few pages you feel for the innocent civilians caught in-between a war spanning decades. The entire book is beautifully written and translated; and throughout the book I could imagine the landscape around the mines where Dastaguir is waiting for a vehicle to take him to see his son, to his hallucinations about his dead family and Yassin’s belief that everyone has lost their ability to speak. The author doesn’t venture into elaborate introductions or settings of the plot or the politics surrounding the invasion; instead he effectively focuses on the horrors and experiences of people who survive the war. As the shopkeeper in the book says – “These days the dead are more fortunate than the living”.
There are some soul touching quotes in the book that I am sure they must be even more beautiful in the original language, Dari as with all translations some of the beauty of the original language is lost in English – “You know, father, sorrow can turn to water and spill from your eyes, or it can sharpen your tongue into a sword, or it can become a time bomb, one day, will explode and destroy you… The sorrow of Fateh the guard is like all three. When he comes to see me, his sadness flows out in tears. If he remains alone in his hut, it becomes a bomb… When he steps out of the hut and sees others, his sorrow turns itself into a sword and he wants to…”
There are some references to the Persian epic Shahnama with stories of Rostam and Sohrab, Zohak’s snakes and Baba Kharkash that adds small details about ancient Afghan legends and culture. I also liked the small details and mannerisms mentioned in the book that give a glimpse of everyday Afghan life. And by the end of the book you feel for the local Afghani’s despair and their loss and you sincerely hope that they are able to somehow rebuild their lives and move on.
Though this book would have never been on my book list but with this project I am glad that I read it and I hope I am able to visit this country someday.
I am sharing my short list below for anyone who is interested and hope to read all of these books someday. My Afghan Shortlist is –
1. An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot;
2. Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi;
3. The Taliban by Ahmed Rashid;
4. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon;
5. The Places In Between by Rory Stewart;
6. The Light Garden of the Angel King: Travels in Afghanistan with Bruce Chatwin;
7. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby;
8. Travels into Bokhara by Alexander Burnes and
9. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron