Chivalry vs. Complicity

America's compassionate motives aren't enough to save Afghanistan's women

Like a 19th-century matron aquiver with philanthropic zeal, her coach and four set to trot downtown for a tenement tour, Laura Bush has let slip of late that she's thinking about a trip to Afghanistan. It was after all, in part, the first lady's tender sentiments that lent her husband's first war a gauzy veil of humanitarian goodwill. We dropped all those bombs, don't you know, to liberate the burka'd lasses from Kandahar to Kunduz, and that's why we're still so chivalrously dropping them.

Never mind that the odds that the shine of Lady Laura's slippers will actually be dulled by Kabul's dust are about even with those of her husband attending a G.I.'s funeral, the point is that someone still believes, inexplicably to anyone who's picked up a newspaper in the last two years, that the plight of Afghan women might still be a potent PR tool.

It's useless as propaganda for demonstrating the war's first victory—sexual equality in Afghanistan is still more elusive than bin Laden—but it works quite well if you're interested in keeping the clash-of-civilizations model current.

The burka-clad beggar women
photo: Michael Kamber
The burka-clad beggar women

Somehow, just as the uncovered female flesh splayed across our magazines and movie screens symbolizes for many Muslim fundamentalists all the manifold decadence of the West, the invisible face of the Afghan woman, hidden behind a pale blue scrim, has here come to stand in for the all the perceived barbarity of radical Islam, for the very impenetrability of Middle Eastern otherness. A French photographer I met in Kabul last summer confessed to me one evening, without a shred of embarrassment, the deep revulsion that the city's legions of burka-clad beggar women inspired in him. He described the horror he felt at the sight of pinched and leathery palms protruding from beneath those stained blue hems. "I just want to push them away."

And so we push. Even before the war, Afghanistan was more of a dark spot afloat behind the iris of the West than a real place, an abyss of humanistic virtue right there on the map, the very site of all our opposites: backwardness, poverty, warlordism, and, most scandalously, a lack of sexual liberties—and for one sex, of simple liberty—almost impossible to comprehend. Symbolically at least, the clash of East and West (itself more symbolic than anything else, a convenient cover for the complex brutalities of post-Cold War geopolitics) is being fought on the stage of women's bodies.

Two very different but equally strange new books—Yasmina Khadra's The Swallows of Kabul and Asne Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul—both do their part to keep the battle going. The first is a novel, written not, as the author's name suggests, by a woman, but by a man named Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former officer in the Algerian army who years ago took on a pseudonym to evade the military censors. He kept it, and has since moved to France, where he has published a series of popular novels set in Algeria during the bad years of the civil war.

Khadra's latest takes place not in Algiers but in Taliban-era Kabul. To a secularly minded Algerian, perhaps even more than to an American, Afghanistan represents a sort of black hole of religious fanaticism. It was the place where Algerian jihadis went to learn to fight and kill, so it's no surprise that The Swallows of Kabul is not about Afghanistan at all. The city Khadra describes, with its palm trees and humidity, more closely resembles North Africa than Central Asia. But it's more a mythic hell than any locatable human geography. Kabul is not a living city but "a dark antechamber, where the points of reference are obscure; a puritanical ordeal; something latent and unbearable." The soil is "necrotic," the hills "scabrous," the landscape itself a curse on humankind: "It seems that the whole world is beginning to decay, and that its putrefaction has chosen to spread outward from here."

Khadra's Afghans are no less fearsome. The novel begins with the public stoning of a prostitute in which the men of Kabul are eager participants, momentarily united by demonic glee, "their eyes rolled back, their mouths dripping saliva." Again, this is not Kabul, and never was. Today Kabulis remember the Taliban's executions with disgust and sullen horror. But The Swallows of Kabul is not about history. It's more a surreal morality play about, yes, sexuality. If women are absent from the city streets, relegated to the status of "ghosts, voiceless, charmless ghosts that pass practically unnoticed along the streets; flocks of infirm swallows," it is their confinement and invisibility that drive the plot, as repressed eroticism in various forms pushes Khadra's male protagonists to atonement and damnation, to madness and to death.

Asne Seierstad's Kabul is less fanciful than Khadra's but at the same time far less imaginative, if only in the sense that she does not seem particularly curious about what makes people live the way they do, what animates their contradictions. Seierstad entered Kabul as a reporter in late 2001, and returned a few months later to live in the home of Shah Mohammed Rais, the owner of several Kabul bookshops. The Bookseller of Kabul is her account of the months she spent with Rais's family (he appears in the book under the name Sultan Khan), during which time, she writes in a foreword, "I was incredibly well-treated; the family was generous and open . . . but I have rarely been as angry as I was with the Khan family, and I have rarely quarreled as much as I did there. Nor have I had the urge to hit anyone as much as I did there."

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