I am beginning my literary journey with Afghanistan. Let’s start by having a brief look at the geographical and cultural aspects of the country itself. Set in Southern Asia, the country is completely landlocked, surrounded by India, China, Pakistan, Iran and other Eurasian neighbors. The hilly terrain dotted with its many historically significant passes and affected by extreme weather conditions, has supported a vast nomadic population who mostly follow Islam.
The country has a rich tradition of oral storytelling. There have been many great poets from the region like Rumi and Firdawsi and an overwhelming number of contemporary poets like Khalillulah Khalili and Mahmud Tarzi. However a large amount of the poetry is only available in Dari or Pashto.
There is a huge rise in the number of books set in Afghanistan post 9/11. The first name that comes to mind when we think about Afghan fiction in English is Khalid Hossaini with works like The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, depicting the oppression faced in today’s worn-torn and religiously fanatical Afghanistan.
However for my reading and review I have chosen The Widow’s Husband by Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-American author, columnist and public speaker. What interests me is that the novel is set in the 19th century, during the British invasion of Afghanistan. It might help to understand a significant portion of history which nudged the region towards its modern political chaos. A historical fiction, inspired by some real life characters of the time, The Widow’s Husband stands unique among the plethora of Afghanistan books available in English today.
It all begins in a remote Afghan village in a valley of river Sorkhab mostly cut off from the external world due to its geography. This part of the story which takes place solely in the village Char Bagh is a charming insight into the domestic life of an Afghan village. It describes the simple farming lifestyle, the lives of the women within their compounds, their daily trials and triumphs. The religion-centric lifestyle teaches respect for the elderly and gentle love between generations. Hierarchy is the cornerstone of the culture and is strictly adhered to. The village chief Ibrahim is a decent human being, gentle of heart, cool headed and shrewd in diplomacy. He tries to maintain the delicate peace between his village and the neighboring one and is constantly looking to “complete a connection…to Allah….“. Although he is married to and has affection towards Soraya, his true love is Khadija, his brothers’ widow. Once the queen of the household, Khadija is reduced to second fiddle after her husband’s death in the very household she ruled. She looks towards Ibrahim to take her as his second wife, thereby uplifting her status as well as fulfilling their unspoken love. Soraya suspects as much. This leads to some witty exchanges which surprised me coming in the context of a traditional patriarchal society.
Then one day, a”malang“, equivalent of a Hindu “Sadhu” comes to the village and there is magic in the air! For an urbaner like me, the thrill the village kids have on seeing a total stranger is quite inconceivable! Ibrahim sees in the malang a possible spiritual guide to accomplish his ultimate goal. Here, we see the respect poets have in Afghan culture. Just to quote the poets of the yore is a sign of intelligence.
A change in regime in Kabul is the last thing that matters to this lifestyle. Even news reaches late here. In time, however, the British moving-in does affect the village. The malang is arrested and kidnapped by the British for beating up disrespectful “Engrayzee” officers. The quest to free their spiritual guide sets Ibrahim and company on an epic journey to Kabul, where they intend to meet and plead with the king, having no idea that he is a puppet in the hands of the very same British people who wreaked havoc on the village’s peace.
The rest of the story describes the trials faced during the journey. The search for the malang sets a chain of events leading to the British eventually trying to escape the country. I found this part of the novel theatrical, scripted, artificial and quite predictable. I could not detect the honesty that was abundant in the writing while describing the village life.
Ansary’s women are cunning and coy but ultimately empowered and free. “Men are weak. It’s up to us women to avoid offering temptation“- this about sums up the attitude towards women. What is also apparent is the high premium attached to martyrdom in the culture. Ansary shines when it comes to character building. He provides background or context for each significant character in the story. That leaves us wondering if Ibrahim did everything he did, including his mission to save the malang simply out of his love for Khadija. I am satisfied with my choice of this book for an insight into Afghan lifestyle, religion, politics and history.
Other Options from Afghanistan
The Patience Stone – Atiq Rahimi
An oppressed wife opens up to her husband only after he is brain-dead,
revealing the secrets of her life in the contemporary Afghan society under Taliban influence.
The Wasted Vigil – Nadeem Aslam
The story of five different people, an English expat, an American former spy, a girl looking for her brother, a special forces soldier and a young Afghani, whose paths are connected by the years of oppression and civil war.