Tag Archives: Book review

The Last Thousand chooses education a thousand times over

The Last Thousand - bookSeptember 11, 2001 was a turning point for Americans and Afghans alike. America started the global war on terror and gave Afghanistan regime change, which was a boon for many Afghans, particularly the ethnic Hazaras whose long history of persecution is documented in English literature by Khaled Hosseini and Lillias Hamilton.

Jeffrey E. Stern’s upcoming non-fiction book, The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War, picks up the story of the Hazaras from where The Kite Runner left off: a people rising from the smoldering ravages of the Taliban, eagerly flocking in their thousands to schools with a sense of making up for the opportunity cost of their underdog’s history.

 

The book tells the story of one such school, Marefat, built by a former holy warrior who teaches his students, especially girls, to be outspoken, independent thinkers. Marefat embodies what’s possible in the civic space that emerged in the wake of American bombs and the Taliban.

This book is about the building of a school, but it’s not another stones-into-schools narrative; it is about sustaining the school’s social mission in the face of, among other things, an angry mob hurling rocks at the school where girls learn to take a stand against misogyny. (“Marefat” is Dari for knowledge, wisdom, awareness.)

Stern has lived a portion of the school’s journey, so he tells the story with intimate familiarity and subtlety. Stern’s years-long association with Marefat and its tenacious founder-principal, Aziz Royesh, enables him to write with human empathy even as he appears at times to grapple with his sympathies for the school: Stern is so close to Marefat and Teacher Aziz that he readily finds a unique place for them in contemporary history. Marefat’s art, music and civic education program and the school’s success – compared to what? by what metrics? – emerge as evidence. But the smart, articulate students appearing throughout the book offer enough endorsement to help the narrative withstand inquiry.

The book is paced appropriately as Stern tells the story of the months leading up to the end of American combat mission in Afghanistan. In this sense, the book is also about what happens to a historically oppressed minority after the protective foreign power with which it has sided is gone. This is where Afghan and American histories begin to diverge as neatly as they converged on 9/11: On December 31, 2014, America’s war officially ended in Afghanistan, but the battle was only beginning for Teacher Aziz, Marefat and Afghanistan.

The Last Thousand is a timely exploration of the question “what happens when the Americans leave?” and its corollary, “how will the Afghans manage to wean themselves off foreign support?”

And sure enough, as the Americans leave, the Taliban creep back and regressive forces become more assertive. To push back, the Teacher becomes involved in politics – and radically modifies his civic teaching.

“When the pressure is coming from different sides, you feel yourself unsafe or unprotected, you feel it more with your subconscious,” he decides. “Now we have to take ourselves two or three feet back. Just to remain alive….For the time being we should shut our voice.”

This lesson is not received quietly by Marefat students who have learned to think for themselves and question authority.

The book’s other contribution – documenting America’s earliest missteps in Afghanistan – is easily overlooked in the broader narrative.  In the absence of an overall policy, the military gained primacy over diplomacy, which undercut America’s natural allies in Afghan society and eroded support for the mission – a process that started before the oft-cited 2003 divergence to Iraq.

And so Stern offers a more nuanced narrative of American involvement in Afghanistan and how it changed the Afghans who lived through it. He writes with honesty and manages to craft an uplifting narrative without making the story saccharine.

The book is recommended for those interested in the Afghan experience of what Americans call their longest war.

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The Last Thousand comes out on January 26 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Book review: A Fort of Nine Towers and a tale of two books

This is the first book review on this blog, and it is admittedly too late for a book that was published last year. But I have long wanted to write something about English-language books written by Afghan authors; this is my opportunity.

A Fort of Nine Towers

A Fort of Nine Towers is an autobiographical novel about Qais Akbar Omar’s life from age 11 until adulthood, or roughly the time when his aunt started finding matches for him.

The narrative arc spans the breadth of Afghanistan’s contemporary history, beginning with the jihad against the Soviet-backed regime and ending with the ouster of the Taliban. Within this vignette, the family’s fortunes change dramatically as they experience loss, dehumanizing cruelty and heartwarming acts of kindness from perfect strangers. The plot revolves around the family’s coming to terms with the necessity of fleeing the country they love and their ironclad resolve and disappointing setbacks towards this goal.

The prose initially is very simple and becomes increasingly sophisticated as the protagonist grows up. But even as a child, the prose is omniscient and the author demonstrates an understanding of events and their context beyond his age, partly perhaps due to the benefit of writing in hindsight.

The book is a rare and invaluable contribution in the English language from an Afghan who grew up in the country and experienced the history firsthand.  This is the book Khaled Hosseini may have written if he had grown up in Afghanistan.

But Omar’s book shares a lot more in common with Hosseini’s than is first apparent. For one, there seems to be a narrative theme in English-language Afghan literature that is a nostalgia for bygone privilege. If we take the analogy of Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, it is the privileged Amir who tells the story, even the parts about the lowly Hassan. In A Fort of Nine Towers, Omar’s narrative is also exactly this: a young child whose grandfather is a well-to-do banker and respected elder, whose father is a well-known boxer and respected teacher, and whose family friends are rich carpet sellers. Granted, Omar and his family go through a period of profound loss when the Taliban take over, just as Amir’s family does when the Soviets invade Afghanistan,  but privilege and nostalgia for the loss of this privilege are strong elements of the narratives.

Qais Akbar Omar

Qais Akbar Omar, author

Omar’s general narrative approach also overlaps Hosseini’s in other aspects. In Omar, almost every side of the Afghan war of the last three decades has its good and bad guys, even the Taliban. Many are redeemed to some degree before the novel ends, and it ends well if not exactly in a beautiful ever-after.

This humanizing approach to literature is important, but it is also politically correct. By the mere act of putting pen to paper, Omar and Hosseini are inevitably doing more than just telling stories — they’re penning a national narrative of the last three decades and helping make sense of a complex and controversial history that has been expunged from Afghan textbooks. Observing such history is not a neutral act, surviving to write about it less so. It is OK for some bad characters to remain bad without redemption, and for some of the survivors’ visceral emotions to remain raw and unsanitized instead of studiously journalistic.

Omar’s story is his recounting of a childhood that retains its capacity to be imaginative and magical even in the throes of war and destitution. For example, he makes the friendship of a Buddhist monk in the caves surrounding the Buddha statues of Bamiyan and absorbs his wisdom. He also meets a Turkman woman who is part master carpet weaver and part mystic revered for her personal sanctity — qualities rarely associated with women in popular literature about Afghanistan. Omar learns more than the art of carpet weaving from his teacher; he also learns the guiding principle of life.

Omar struggles to incorporate the Afghan lyrical aesthetic in the phraseology of the story, so his characters appear to be English-speaking. For example, he uses “north” and “south” to describe the dimensions of his house, terminology that Afghans rarely use. He also uses shalwar kamiz instead of peran tunban, Aaron and Solomon instead of Haroon and Sulaiman, and maulvi instead of mawlawi. This is perhaps why one is hard pressed to find in Omar the equivalent of Hosseini’s memorable “for you, a thousand times.”

Nonetheless, the strength and grace found in the characters of Omar’s book is simply amazing. Any shortcomings of the book are more than compensated by the euphoric crescendo of the last chapter describing music as the first act of defiance that brought life back to the streets of Kabul as the Taliban were going out. And like the last remaining tower of their fort that survived the jihad, the civil war and the Taliban, the Omar family remained standing, spirit unbroken.

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Bonus: select quotes from A Fort of Nine Towers:

“Now we began the time of pretending. The signs of war were all around us, but we pretended that we did not see them.”

“We finished the rituals and and put the body in the grave…we left him with strangers in a small, old cemetery called Nawabad that was protected from the snipers by the spur of a low, steep hill.”

“For whole days and weeks we sat at the corner of the room, murmuring our prayers and waiting for a rocket to kill us all together. One night when the noise of the exploding rockets was too loud to let me sleep, I climbed up on the roof of the old fort and sat near the one remaining tower. I watched one rocket after another fall on the flat-land neighborhoods in front of me. Each time when a rocket whistled overhead, I was momentarily surprised that it had not killed me. But a part of me no longer cared.”

“We entered a time of waiting. The fighting would end, we said, if we waited. Our lives would come back to us, if we waited. Or we would find a way out, if we waited.”

“The bombing had been going on for more than a month by then. As we sat down near the one last remaining tower, we started hearing music. Real music, not the Taliban’s tuneless singing. It was coming from the house of our neighbor…we looked at one another with puzzled smiles. [Our neighbor] had been brutalized by the Taliban several times because he was rich. Now his sons had placed very large speakers in their windows and music was pouring into the street. ‘Have the Taliban finally gone?’ my uncle asked, his voice and eyes full of expectation. We could not answer.”

“I was nineteen years old and had never danced; I had always wanted to, even thought I worried that I would look like a sheep if I tried. Another part of me, though, was like my father: I could not celebrate until I knew more about these people dropping bombs on my country.”