Afghanistan, Author, Book review, Ele Pawelski, Fiction, general, Publisher, Quattro Books, Setting

‘The Finest Supermarket in Kabul’ by Ele Pawelski

Fiction – paperback; Quattro Books; 124 pages; 2017.

Given the appalling events that have played out in Afghanistan recently following the United States military withdrawal, this novella was a timely read.

The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, by Ele Pawelski, is set in Afghanistan in 2011, some ten years after the Taliban was ousted by the US invasion. It is based on a real event in which a supermarket, popular with foreigners, was targeted by a suicide bomber, resulting in the deaths of at least eight people.

The book opens with that deadly bomb attack, before telling the stories of three distinct characters caught up in the blast:

  • Merza, a young idealistic Afghan man who has been elected to Parliament and is now receiving death threats;
  • Alec, an American journalist, who has been embedded with a US platoon in Kandahar but is now in Kabul hoping to write some yet-to-be-commissioned pieces about life in the Afghan capital; and
  • Elyssa, a Canadian human rights lawyer, who is helping to train female magistrates but is being sexually harassed by a male justice.

The story, which is told in simple, stripped-back prose, spans a single day, giving us just a brief glimpse into the lives of these well-drawn, if slightly clichéd, characters.

Too much explanation

While the novella moves along at a clip, it doesn’t skimp on detail, but it does feel like there’s a lot of information shoe-horned in to fill the reader in on background detail that most of us are probably pretty familiar with anyway. (For example, that Hamid Karzai was leader, that women’s lives were less restrictive now the Taliban had been banished, that English-speaking Afghans working with foreigners were regarded as “infidels” and putting their own lives at risk.)

In short, everything is explained; the reader doesn’t have to figure a single thing out. Here’s just a random example:

Nearing the city centre, the traffic is busy as I’d anticipated. A decade ago, just after the Americans came, foreigners started to arrive in bulk, so now congestion is the norm. The embassies and offices built for them to work in, and the government offices and courtrooms refurbished for their protégés, are all located in the centre. To protect these so-called important buildings, long concrete barriers, watchtowers and checkpoints have been placed along this main road and its side roads, effectively boxing in the city centre. Policemen are stationed at the checkpoints to check IDs and ask questions. Ring of Steel is the official name of this security setup. Soon, we’ll probably be barred from driving to the centre altogether.

I struggled with the authenticity of the voices, too, particularly Merza’s, which just felt like a Muslim stereotype, and Alec’s, which was full of journalistic clichés. And the dialogue often felt clunky and too formal.

Jakob thrusts his thumb and forefinger into his eyes, pressing hard. “Even though there’s a lot of us here, the expat community is actually rather small. Even smaller when you are in the same profession.”
[…]
“Hard to believe the Finest was targeted,” Jakob says, wiping his brow. “This will affect expats pretty badly. We all shop here because it’s one of the prime places to get stuff from home. Any of us could have been inside.”

Given that The Finest Supermarket in Kabul was written by an expat (the author, who is Canadian, has previously lived in Afghanistan), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the story is told through an expat lens.

And while I know you should never review a book on what you think the book should have been about, I can’t help feeling this was a wasted opportunity to find out more about the Afghan people and life in Kabul outside of the expat bubble.

On the plus side, I did like the way the author draws the three characters together in unexpected ways, but on the whole, this story was far too simplistic for me. Reviewers on GoodReads see things a bit differently: The Finest Supermarket in Kabul has plenty of four- and five-star ratings. Well, it’d be boring if we all liked the same things, right?

Afghanistan, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Terry Hayes, Transworld Digital, Turkey, USA

‘I am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes

I-am-pilgrim

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 625 pages; 2013.

Proof that my tastes are fairly wide-ranging and eclectic doesn’t come more obvious than this. Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim is one of those hefty tomes you pack in your holiday luggage, not only because it will keep you occupied for the entire length of time you’re away, but also because the story is so thrilling you won’t grow bored. Except… well…

To be honest, I had no intention of ever reading this book. Then two people recommended it to me, just days apart. And then I found out the author was once a broadsheet journalist in Australia and a close associate of film maker George Miller — the pair wrote the screenplay for Mad Max 2 together. So when I went on holiday to the UAE earlier this month (to visit my sister and her family) I took a copy with me, thinking it would keep me entertained if it was too hot to do much outdoors. As it turns out, it was too hot, and yes, I am Pilgrim kept me entertained. However… well…

Let me back track first and tell you a bit about the storyline. It’s essentially a modern-day spy thriller cum crime novel and most of the story is narrated in the first person by Scott Murdoch, codename “Pilgrim”, a secret agent with a covert organisation that has links to US intelligence. He is brought out of semi-retirement to save the world from an impending outbreak of smallpox that is going to be unleashed on the USA by an Arab Muslim (cast in a similar vein to Osama Bin Laden).

Just to make the story more exciting — or more complicated, depending on your point of view — there’s a crime to unravel as well. When the book begins, a woman’s body is found in a hotel room. She’s lying in a bath of acid, which has eaten away all her identifying features, including her face and fingerprints. The odd thing about this murder is that there’s nary a clue to be found — and it follows, almost to the letter, advice that Scott Murdoch wrote in a definitive book on forensic criminal investigation. This begs the question, how much responsibility should he take for the crime?

Octane-fuelled narrative

Intrigued? Well, admittedly I was, right from the start. This is an octane-fuelled narrative that swings across the globe — Manhattan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Nazi Germany — at a dizzying rate of knots, following all kinds of plots and sub-plots, some of which are told in the third-person.

There’s violence, death and mayhem at almost every turn, but the story — or twin stories, as it turns out — is told in such an engaging and, indeed, filmic way, it quickly becomes a rather addictive read. The plots are complicated and some might argue far-fetched, but that’s not a complaint I would make — after what happened on 9/11 I don’t think anything terrorism related is out of the question these days.

It’s also an intelligent read and a fascinating insight into international politics, espionage, terrorism and forensics. It might be a fast-paced thriller but it’s not dumbed down. It’s got the kind of detail in it that suggests it has been very well researched and it feels authentic, almost as if it’s been taken from the front page of a newspaper or the lead news bulletin on TV.

Attention waned 

However, I have to say my attention waned once I’d reached the half-way point and I considered abandoning it. Perhaps it’s because my holiday had ended and I had to go back to my usual routine, but once I was back in London I’d kind of lost interest in the story. I began to pick faults:  the links between the terrorism plot and the murder plot seemed, well, weird; I grew sick of being told on every second page that Murdoch was the best secret agent in the business; and I kept seeing endless references to Australians (I know we travel a lot, but couldn’t the author have included other nationalities every now and then?). Minor annoyances, I know, but little things can grate.

Eventually, I made a decision that I had to finish the book (I’d read 300 pages after all) so I devoted several evenings and an entire afternoon to completing it. It concluded exactly as I expected: with a bang and all the loose ends nicely tied up.

It’s not the kind of book that’s going to win high-brow literary awards, though it did deservedly win the Thriller and Crime Novel of the Year award at the 2014 Specsavers National Book Awards in the UK. But that won’t matter when the film comes out: MGM has bought the rights to produce a Bond-like franchise. It has ker-ching! written all over it.

Afghanistan, Atiq Rahimi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Patience Stone’ by Atiq Rahimi

The Patience Stone
Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 136 pages; 2009. Translated from the French by Polly McLean.

If you want to read an important book about the subjugation of women, then put Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone on the top of your list. This novella, first published in France in 2008, won the Goncourt Prize that same year. It’s a rather shocking and deeply affecting read, and I know it will stay with me for a long time to come.

A bedroom confession

The Patience Stone is set in a single room in a war-torn city in Afghanistan. Outside, gun fire and explosions can be heard, along with the hurried footfalls of men carrying weapons, but inside the room it is largely quiet.

The room is small. Rectangular. Stifling, despite the paleness of the turquoise walls, and the two curtains patterned with migrating birds frozen mid-flight against a yellow and blue sky. Holes in the curtains allow the rays of the sun to reach the faded stripes of a kilim. At the far end of the room is another curtain. Green. Unpatterned. Concealing a disused door. Or an alcove.

In this room there is a man and a woman: the man is in a coma, with a bullet in his neck, and he is lying on his back under a dirty white sheet, his gaze fixed on the ceiling; the woman — his wife — sits beside him, feeding him through a tube, lubricating his eyes with drops and all the while praying for his recovery.

When the unnamed woman is not praying, she fills the time and the silence by talking to her husband — she treats him like a “patience stone” to which you:

“…tell all your problems to, all your struggles, all your pain, all your woes… to which you confess everything in your heart, everything you don’t dare tell anyone. You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces.”

And what a confession this woman makes. Initially her voice is timid and afraid  — “Don’t abandon me, you’re all I have left” — but it grows increasingly angry as she comes to terms with the fact that the pair have been abandoned by her husband’s family. Only her aunt, an outcast herself, has stood by her and helps looks after the couple’s two young daughters.

But as the story progresses, this rage is then turned towards her husband, as she recalls their life together — the first three years of their arranged marriage were spent apart while he fought in the war — and the ways in which he has abused her — sexually, physically and emotionally — ever since their marriage was consummated.

Women as second-class citizens

On the whole, the woman’s tale is largely a sexual confession, where her needs have been wholly subjugated by her husband’s desires. She rails against the way she has been treated as nothing more than an object for her husband’s sexual gratification, then made to feel dirty and whore-like for daring to menstruate.

Her bold revelations might be heart-breaking, painful and courageous — they get increasingly more fevered and explosive as the story progresses, she’s definitely no puritan and there are hints she’s becoming unhinged — but they give voice to millions of women who have suffered at the hands of male brutality and patriarchal tribal customs throughout the centuries.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that what goes on in this room between the silent man and the uncensored woman is a microcosm of society in Afghanistan today, where women are second-class citizens, denied basic rights to education, health care and personal independence. For that reason, reading this novella filled me with a slow-burning fury, not dissimilar to the reaction I had when I read The Bookseller of Kabul in 2005.

A confronting read

There’s no doubt that The Patience Stone  shines a light on some confronting and challenging truths — about war, religion, men, sex and misogyny — but it’s done in a rather understated way.

Its gentle, stripped-back prose is possessed of astonishing power, perhaps because it reads like a play, complete with stage directions — “In the street we hear someone shouting Halt! And then a gunshot. And footsteps, fleeing” — and a dramatic monologue. I kept thinking it would make a terrific film because it felt so visual and emotional — and then I discovered it was made into one last year:


I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to rent it, but it’s definitely gone on to my wish list. If it’s anything like the book, it will be compelling, intimate — and unforgettable.

 

Afghanistan, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yasmina Khadra

‘Swallows of Kabul’ by Yasmina Khadra

Swallows-of-Kabul

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 195 pages; 2005. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

This is the third novel by Yasmina Khadra that I have read: the first, The Attack, was set in war-torn Israel; the second, The Sirens of Baghdad, was set in war-torn Iraq; and this, Swallows of Kabul, was set in war-torn Afghanistan.

All three books explore long-established cultures being torn apart at the seams, usually from within — and while considered and intelligent, all are unbearably bleak with little joy in the narratives.

Life under the Taliban

First published in 2002, Swallows of Kabul examines what it is like for ordinary citizens to live under brutal Taliban rule before the American invasion in the wake of 9/11.

When the book opens we are immediately thrust into the dark reality of a public execution and by the time the narrative comes full circle, just 195 pages later, we are back in the stadium to see another condemned person put to death by the state.

In between, we meet two very different couples whose lives become intertwined in an inexplicably cruel and unusual way. They are: Mohsen Ramat, an educated young man who once wanted to be a diplomat; his beautiful wife, Zunaira, who has had to give up her career as a magistrate because women are no longer allowed to work; Atiq Shaukat, a jailer who guards prisoners who have been sentenced to death; and his wife, Musarrat, who is dying of an unspecified, incurable illness.

Subjugation of women

As a portrait of life under a frightening and oppressive regime, Swallows of Kabul is an illuminating and often distressing read. It is particularly good at highlighting and exploring the Taliban’s subjugation of women.

For example, Zunaira refuses to leave the house, because she doesn’t want to wear the compulsory burqua. “Of all the burdens they’ve placed on us, that’s the most degrading,” she tells her husband, before adding: “It cancels my face and takes away my identity and turns me into an object.”

But even without the Taliban’s harsh rules, women are essentially second-class citizens in this culture, so when Atiq confesses to a friend that he is distraught about his wife’s illness, he gets little sympathy: “Kick her out. Divorce her and get yourself a strong, healthy virgin who knows how to shut up and serve her master without making any noise.”


The impact on men

But the book is equally good at examining the effect of the Taliban’s rule on men. Both Mohsen and Atiq are desperately unhappy and, in a rather ironic way, emasculated because they feel they cannot control their wives.

Mohsen, who has seen his dream of a successful career shattered, is beginning to feel “infected” by the new order. In a telling scene at the beginning of the book, he gets caught up in the collective hysteria of a public execution and throws a stone at the female prisoner, experiencing “unfathomable joy” when he sees “a red stain blossom” where he has struck her. This action later torments him, so much so that when he confesses what he has done to his wife, it almost destroys their marriage.

Meanwhile, Atiq is depressed by his job in which innocent people are put to death, and his home life isn’t much better. He must look after his ill wife alone, because, for one reason and another, the couple have been abandoned by family and friends. It is a lonely existence and there is no solution in sight. He does whatever he can to avoid going home, even if that means wandering the streets in a daze.

A bleak but important read

You may have gathered that I didn’t find Swallows of Kabul a cheery read — though perhaps that’s not surprising given that it is set in Kabul, where “pleasure has been ranked among the deadly sins”.

But as an insight into a foreign culture and way of life it is very good, and it is exceptional at showing how an oppressive regime can infect and poison mindsets by spreading violence and hatred and destroying the very things that make us human.

The bleakness of the book is only bearable for two reasons. The first, is the elegant prose and the exisiqute detail of Khadra’s writing — the descriptions of Kabul are particularly good. And the second, is the narrative tension created by wanting to know how the lives of these two disparate couples will come together. When the connection becomes clear, it is both shocking and disturbing and certainly one of the more memorable endings in a novel I’ve read for quite a while…

Afghanistan, Asne Seierstad, Author, Book review, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Virago

‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ by Asne Seierstad

BooksellerofKabul

Non-fiction – paperback; Virago; 276 pages; 2003.

Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul is a unique insight into the lives, loves and traumas of a family living in Afghanistan coming to terms with life after the Taliban.

Initially, I had thought this book would be about Sultan, the bookseller to which the title refers, and how he managed to build up quite a successful business in such oppressive circumstances. But the bulk of the book is a series of vignettes about the various characters in Sultan’s large, extended family.

Sultan himself is an educated man in a relatively uneducated society. He is also relatively well off in a society that is very poor.  He is also a dominant patriarch who does little to help the women in his family better themselves. This angered me.

For the most part, while reading this eloquent, simply-told book, I was upset by the ways in which the Afghan women were treated as servants and second-class citizens. I was upset that their emancipation was, and continues to be, hindered by generations of men who know of no other way to treat or respect them; their poor treatment is so ingrained in the culture.

But what I did like about The bookseller of Kabul was the way in which Seierstad, a Norwegian war correspondent, has kept herself out of the story, despite the fact she lived with Sultan’s family for several months to get a ‘flavour’ of their life and customs. In keeping her distance, she allows the actions of each individual to tell their own story without fear, favour or judgement.

Anyone wishing to learn more about the Afghan culture, both before and after the Taliban, could do worse than read this intriguing book. I was mesmirised by this inside glimpse of a totally unfamiliar world, and will never take my female equality for granted again.