Reading the World: Afghanistan

Screen-Shot-2014-01-30-at-4.11.38-PMI got it in my head recently that I wanted to read a book from every country progressing in alphabetical order.

It remains to be seen if this is something on which I actually follow through. In any case, Afghanistan is the first country in the alphabet and I settled upon The Gifts of the State and Other Stories edited by Adam Klein.

It is a short story collection culled from a series of writing workshops Klein gave in Kabul. The stories were written by “young people.” I was not sure whether this meant teenagers or people in their 20s. The first essay in the book defines “young” as under 30. Some of the stories struck me as being the work of teenagers and some of polished adults. For most of the authors English was a second or third language so this may account for some of the variation in the quality and impact of the stories.

The stories provide a fascinating glimpse into a world where history is constantly intervening in life, where nothing is certain and every day life goes in the pauses between crises. The stories that I found most memorable were The Hasher by Abdul Shakoor Jawad, which is a wistful but matter-of-fact tale of the day a village tradition was lost, Ice Cream by Hosai Wardak which describes the reactions elicited by a woman in more Western-style attire, The Sea Floor by Khalid Ahmad Atif, a harrowing story of violence told from the perspective of a translator working for a U.S. military unit, and Exiles in the Land of Faith by Hamid Azizi which describes a university student’s inner conflict and guilt when the community turns against his half-Jewish roommate and then there is Hardboiled by Ali Shah Hasanzada a murder plot hatched by a man who sells illicit Western books and who fancies himself a character out of a Mickey Spillane novel.

In the United States, we tend to compare our current lives to an ideal and to focus on closing the gap between our current situation and our dream of how great life could be. We believe in self-improvement, growth and progress with an almost religious faith.  We expect life to be predictable and that we can, through our own efforts, bend the future to our will.

Klein describes his student writers as living in “a country measuring out what to forget and what must not be forgotten… The students have exile minds— by which I mean that they can’t conceive of a world where destiny won’t encroach.”

If a U.S. writer were to describe some of the tragedies that appear as the background of these stories, there would likely be a different tone, and underlying sense that this is an aberration and not how life is supposed to work. For the most part, the Afghan stories are not looking for someone to blame for misfortune. The various invading forces and factions, the Russians, the Taliban, the Americans, are described almost like natural disasters– storms of history that blow through and interrupt the normal course of life, leaving the people who remain to clean up in their wake and to try to figure out which way the wind is now blowing.

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