One Country, One Book — Afghanistan

Three by Atiq Rahimi: Earth and Ashes, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, The Patience Stone (2013)

Picking the book wasn’t easy. Khaled Hosseini seemed obvious, but he went to high school and college in California. Being an immigrant several times over is its own experience, but he was not an adult or an author while in Afghanistan. This is in no way a comment on authenticity or qualifications. It’s simply been my own intention to read as many books as possible where the author considers himself either wholly or primarily a member of his native country’s culture.

For Afghanistan, the choice appeared to be between ex-pats and poets. The literature of Afghanistan, the works that are still revered, are epic poems. Many contemporary writers are also poets; there doesn’t seem to be a strong tradition of novel writing. Additionally, it is hard to find English translations of any writings originating from within the country. The anthology The Gifts of the State and Other Stories may be of interest — the writers are recent students at The American University of Afghanistan and wrote in English.

I compromised and delayed. For Afghanistan, I picked three stories by Atiq Rahimi and resolved to read Haft Peykar (Seven Beauties) for Azerbaijan. Rahimi was born and went to high school in Kabul, but received political asylum in France after the Soviet occupation. He returned part-time to Kabul in 2002, where he works in media production. I worried that these might be French writings about Afghanistan instead of Afghan stories, but concluded that I wouldn’t ever be satisfied if I insisted on an internal standard of arbitrary perfection for 195 books.

The first story, Earth and Ashes, is about an old man bringing his grandson to the mines where his son, the grandson’s father, works. He needs to tell his son that their family has been killed by Soviets, but he doesn’t know how to. He and his grandson have to wait for transportation, and he needs to take care of his grandson’s needs while they wait.

In A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, a man is caught out after curfew and beaten by the Communists. He’s rescued by a woman even though it’s dangerous for her to have him in her house, but he’s confused and disoriented. Others have to try to save him, making plans for him to escape to Pakistan. I was expecting a more linear, objectively descriptive narrative, but the story remains within the head of the narrator-protagonist. After being nearly beaten to death, he’s confused and indecisive and his dreams, day-dreams and memories are treated with the same weight as actual events that are happening around him. It was my favorite story of the three.

The Patience Stone was also made into a movie directed by the author. A woman tells her secrets to a seemingly comatose husband, revealing the ways she’s “failed” to be the invisible and submissive wife. Haft Peykar is mentioned in passing as a book that might be on an Afghan shelf, just as an American might own Huck Finn or Leaves of Grass. Rahimi also makes references from The Book of Kings and The Book of the Dead. Looking for information about these was how I decided that Haft Peykar would be a good book to read later on the list, one that would be representative of the epic poetry known in many Persian-speaking countries.

Despite or maybe because of the amount that the country is in the news and in articles, it seems like we know a lot about some aspects of the history and of current events and nothing about others — particularly, what life looks like when the subject is not fighting for a warlord or growing poppies or interacting with Western journalists. Ultimately, reading one book from Afghanistan feels like it falls short for good reasons — not because the book was lacking but because it’s not sufficient to read just one thing from Afghanistan.