West of Kabul

Ansary, Tamim. West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Reason read: I can’t remember why I chose this book.

Ansary writes with a duality that matches his bicultural heritage. His words are at once graceful and blunt; elegant and funny. He calls his upbringing “straddling a crack in the earth”, but what he doesn’t tell you is that his ability to navigate both the American and Afghan cultures is nothing short of expert mountaineering. His siblings may have chosen a definitive side after September 11th, but Ansary decided to use his bicultural perspective in an effort to find a deeper truth. It all started with an emotional email fired off to friends and family after the fall of the World Trade Towers. The email is included at the end of West of Kabul, in case you were wondering.
The entire time Ansary was traveling around Tangier I was on edge. His experiences with the “guides” were troubling; as was the time he was duped about an upgrade to a sleeping car on a train. (By the way, I would like to see jovial and overly congenial Rick Steves navigate those kinds of harassments.) Even when Ansary traveled to city to city waiting anxiously for a letter from his girlfriend, I was on edge. Would she wait for him? You just have to read his memoir to find out.

Lines I liked, “But I never liked him much personally and neither did someone else, because Uthman was assassinated” (p 48), “Power is a social construct, right down to the kick-ass level” (p 157), “Traveling can erase everything except the present, and turn the present into a hallucination” (p 184).

As an aside, the killing of the sheep was really hard to read. I am such a wuss.

Author fact: Ansary is also an author of books for children. West of Kabul is the only book I am reading for the Challenge.

Book trivia: There are no photographs in Ansary’s memoir.

Playlist: Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Everly Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, Mozart, Ahmad Zahir, “Save the Last Dance for Me”, “Tell Laura I Love Her”,

Nancy said: Pearl said the first chapters of West of Kabul are fascinating. I am not sure what she thinks of the rest of the book.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “The Islamic World” (p 127).

The Photographer

Guibert, Emmanuel, Didier Lefleve, and Frederic Lemercier. The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders. New York: First Second, 2009.

Reason read: Afghanistan gained its independence from British rule in July 1919.

I didn’t know what to expect when I read a review of The Photographer, calling it a “photographic graphic novel.” It is quite unique and simply put, amazing. In three parts, The Photographer tells the story of how the aid workers of Medecins Sans Frontieres, smuggled across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan disguised as women in chadri, provided medical support to small communities during conflict. Didier Lefleve, a French photojournalist, traveled with the group to Zaragandara during the Afghan-Soviet War of 1986. In this district of Yaftali Sufla MSF establishes a field hospital while staffing a second one. The final part is Didier Lefleve’s nearly disastrous solo departure from Afghanistan. As the tagline for MSF reads, “We go where we are needed most,” The photographs and journal of Lefleve tell the entire story in intimate detail. It is a powerful print documentary.
It seems impossible for there to be humor in The Photographer, especially when you read of children with their eyes apparently glued shut and paralyzed by shrapnel, but it exists. One word: peaches. I confess. I giggled. That’s all I can say about that.
Most amazing fact: despite the reality they are fighting the Russians, Afghan doctors are able to obtain x-rays for patients, disguised as English speaking colleagues. they send men who are too old to be conscripted. No one suspects the men of being part of the resistance.

As an aside, I have supported MWF (known by the American subsidiary as Doctors Without Borders), for years. I first learned of the organization when Natalie would invite members to speak about their work during a set break in her concerts. I shared Natalie’s pride when they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. I appreciated learning about Juliette Fournot, the woman who started the US arm of Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Author facts: Emmanuel Guibert is an accomplished graphic novelist. I am only reading one of his works. Didier Lefleve died way too young at only 49 years of age. Frederic Lemercier was the mastermind behind the layout and coloring of The Photographer.

Book trivia: The English translation of The Photographer was publisher in 2009. Lefleve didn’t live long enough to see it. He passed from a heart attack in 2007.

Playlist: Michel Jonasz

Nancy said: Pearl called The Photographer “one of the best books” she read in 2009.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires” (p 3).

In the Graveyard of Empires

Jones, Seth G. In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan. Read by William Hughes. New York: Blackstone Audio, 2010

Jones starts In the Graveyard of Empires going back to Alexander the Great’s march into Afghanistan. This is to put Afghanistan’s tumultuous history into perspective. Readers shouldn’t be worried a historical quagmire because Jones moves through the early bloodshed pretty quickly. Around the time of the Soviet invasion he slows the tempo down and goes into more detail. One of the things I appreciated about Jones’s writing is that he manages to stay pretty objective, hardly inserting himself into the analysis, despite his personal ties to the region. He stays true to the subtitle, “America’s War in Afghanistan” of which he had no military part. He served as advisor to the commanding general of the U.S. Special Ops Forces. His work is heavily supplemented by countless interviews and extensive research. You can read more of his profile on the RAND corporation website.
For me, the hardest section to read was not about the attacks on September 11th, 2001, but rather when international aide workers came under attack in 2003 and 2004. Five Medecins Sans Frontieres workers were kidnapped and executed. These are a group of people who dare to deliver aid where few others are willing to go.

Reason read: travel sites list July as the best time to go to Afghanistan. No offense, but is there really a good time to go to Afghanistan in this day and age?

Author fact: As mentioned earlier, Jones has a profile on the RAND site and is listed as the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center.

Book Audio trivia: this is the first audio book I have listened to where the narrator doesn’t have some kind of accent.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires (nonfiction)” (p 5). Sound familiar?

Thousand Splendid Suns

Hosseini, Khaled. A Thousand Splendid Suns. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.

Part One follows the story of Mariam, an Afghan child born out of wedlock to a wealthy businessman and his servant, Nana. It begins with Mariam as a five year old, full of adoration for her father although he keeps his illegitimate family hidden in the country, far away from the prying eyes of his three wives, nine legitimate children and nosy community. For ten years Mariam adores her father despite the fact he only visits her on Thursdays and regales her with stories of riches she will never see. At fifteen Mariam has finally had enough and travels to the city to visit her father, only to be banished once again – this to a prearranged marriage to a merchant thirty years her senior.

Part Two follows the story of another girl, fifteen years younger than Mariam. Laila is nine years old and living with her parents in the same Afghan city as Mariam. She has a much different upbringing than Mariam, though. Laila’s formal education is fully supported by her parents and she is allowed to socialize with children her own age. She has one special attachment, a boy named Tariq. Over the course of five years Laila’s relationship with Tariq blossoms into a teenage romance.

Part Three brings Mariam and Laila together. The same man who marries Mariam marries Laila. It is the abuse they both suffer at the hands of their husband that brings them together as friends. The bond they share takes them to a startling and devastating conclusion.

Thought provoking lines, “But all she ran into was their absence” (p 141) and “She had passed these years in a distant corner of her mind” (p 256).

Reason read: July is supposedly the best time to visit Afghanistan…when it’s deemed safe to do so.

Author fact: Hosseini also wrote The Kite Runner which was made into a movie.

Book trivia: A Thousand Splendid Suns is a best seller.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires” (p 6).

Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

Newby, Eric. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. New York: Penguin, 1986.

I think the most endearing aspect of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is the fact that Eric Newby readily admits he had no idea what he was doing when he and a friend decided to explore the Nuristan mountain range in Afghanistan. With very little training and an unclear vision of what was in store, Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is little more than a witty, humorous journal. Yet, almost by default it offers intelligent, observant insight into Afghan cultures and terrains few Westerners have ever experienced. Newby begins his tale with the idea of exploring the Hindu Kush mountain range. Recruiting his friend Hugh, they “practice” climbing by scrambling up and down a rock face in Wales. There they learn the tools and of trade and suddenly they are experts. From there, with tongue-in-cheek humor, Newby delightfully journals their subsequent adventures in northeastern Afghanistan.

Best funny lines: “He sounded almost shocked, as if for the first time he had detected in me a grave moral defect. It was a historic moment” (p 30) and “I smothered an overwhelming impulse to ask him why we had come this far to find out something he already knew, but it was no place for irony; besides, the view was magnificent” (p 149).

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called, “Armchair Travel” (p 24).