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.
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.”
It was the treatment of women that angered Seierstad so, and it would be nice to know exactly when and how and why, and if her anger provoked her at all to struggle with herself. But Seierstad cuts off all possibility of introspection, be it cultural or personal, by telling the story in a novelistic omniscient third person, absent Asne altogether. Thus Sultan Khan remains a cipher, a liberal in public and a tyrant at home. Afghan men are vicious or hypocritical or both, and Afghan women merely pitiable. Seierstad’s characters are for the most part not even endowed with sufficient agency to be capable of even anything as human as tragedy. (Compare Siddiq Barmak’s film Osama, opening February 6 at Film Forum— about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to feed her widowed mother under the Taliban—and all of its doomed and terrified heroism.) It is not surprising that, given his guest’s response, Rais is suing her for defamation. Nor that The Bookseller has been a bestseller in Europe—it feeds comfortable notions of Islamic primitiveness and requires nothing of the reader but willing condescension.
But how then do we explain the fact that the most media-worthy uproar in the recent constitutional loya jirga was caused by a woman, Malalai Joya, who was chased from the floor and placed under UN protection after she suggested that the former mujahideen who tore the country apart in the early ’90s should be tried for war crimes rather than rewarded with important delegations? Or that it was another woman, Sima Samar, now head of the beleaguered Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, whose home had to be wrapped with barbed wire by Turkish peacekeeping forces after she too was threatened with death for her outspokenness at the previous loya jirga? If oppression is such a simple equation, and tradition so totalizing, from whence does such astonishing courage arise?
None of this is to suggest that the lives of many Afghan women are not unconscionably cruel. Women are still jailed for leaving brutal husbands, killed for loving the wrong men, traded like chickens, and of course, afraid to stroll outdoors without the full protective cover of the chador—the Taliban’s formal censures now replaced by less official threats. Seierstad does a commendable job of illustrating how oppression runs deeper than the political systems that enforce it, how it is internalized in custom, even by the oppressed. But in her willingness to settle for showing her Afghan subject “how a Western woman really sees” him, as she put it in a CNN interview, without wondering how she in turn is seen, Seierstad plays into the hands of the clash-of-civilizations crowd. (She doesn’t shy away from that phrase herself, even using it in London’s Observer to characterize her legal battle with her former host.)
Without some such introspection, some small injection of historical context, even the sincerest outrage over the lot of Afghan women—be it Seierstad’s or Khadra’s, Laura Bush’s, yours or mine—remains a too-easy dodge of deep complicities, and the ever expanding war seems as fated as it is just, as if the West were simply about values, and not about wealth and the violence that preserves it.
Ben Ehrenreich was in Kabul last August as a reporter for LA Weekly.