Category Archives: Afghan

Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education by Elizabeth Suneby, illustrated by Suana Verelst

Razia's Ray of HopeThe newest title in Canada’s Kids Can Press‘ vital CitizenKid series – “books that inform children about the world and inspire them to be better global citizens” – is also quite possibly the best thus far.

“‘This is where my school once stood … It was destroyed by seventeen years of war,’” Razia’s grandfather gently explains about Afghanistan’s too-recent history. In an empty lot where a lone cornerstone now stands, change is coming: “‘They are building a new school … for girls,’” Baba gi reveals, causing Razia to beg her grandfather to convince the other men in their family to allow her to attend. Already, clever young Razia has taught herself to read just by listening to her younger brothers’ nightly studying – she only needs the chance to learn more.

“‘Some of you are too young to remember, and some of you were not even born,’” Baba gi opens a family meeting, “‘but before the occupation of our country, before the civil wars and before the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were educated. They were doctors, government workers and journalists. It is time to give your daughters and granddaughters … the chance to read and write. Our family will be stronger for it.’” Yet Baba gi’s eloquence is not enough to get Razia enrolled, as her oldest brother ends the discussion with “four simple words [that] made [her] heart sink”: “‘Razia is not going.’”

In spite of his decree, Razia refuses to give up: after finishing her chores the next morning, she walks to the newly-built school and knocks on its red door. A smiling woman who not only shares Razia’s name, but her commitment to education, invites Razia in … and changes her life forever.

Beyond the book’s title, Razia’s Ray of Hope is also the name of a real-life foundation, founded in 2007 by a Afghan-born American woman named Razia Jan, who returned to Afghanistan to run her Zabuli Education Center which thus far has provided “free education to more than 400 Afghan girls who were previously denied educational opportunities.” Meeting Razia Jan in livetime inspired author Elizabeth Suneby to write this uplifting story; artist Suana Verelst manages to capture just the right blend of past and future with her mixed media collages she describes as “‘a quilter combining recycled elements with modern technology.’”

With 69 million school-age children out of school, the numbers are clearly daunting. By providing education to hundreds of girls, one woman is creating better lives for the thousands more who will also benefit: “women who are literate tend to have better incomes, housing and health care. And in turn, they provide these things for their families and communities. Everyone benefits from educating women.” Join Razia and create hope: girl power will make the world a better place.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Afghan, Nonethnic-specific

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles: Based on the true story of Enaiatollah Akbari by Fabio Geda, translated by Howard Curtis

In the Sea There Are CrocodilesAlthough the cover bears the designation, “A Novel,” Enaiatollah Akbari – whose name also appears on said cover (who is not the book’s author, Fabio Geda) – is a real person. A kid, really. In case you need a face to place with the name, the back flap shows Enaiatollah in full color at age 15 …

No child, of course, should live through what Enaiatollah has … although millions must in order to survive the too many evils created by the adults around them. Enaiatollah is just 10 – “I say ten, although I’m not entirely sure when I was born” – when his harrowing odyssey across five countries commences with three promises he makes to his mother.

Enaiatollah and his mother flee their Afghan village, where Enaiatollah witnessed the brutal murder of his teacher by the Taliban. Already he is wise enough to insist, “.. that Afghans and Taliban are different. I want people to know this,” as he explains about the 20 Taliban who forced his school to shut down: “… there may not have been twenty different nationalities, but almost. Some couldn’t even communicate among themselves. Pakistan, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt. A lot of people think the Taliban are all Afghans … but they aren’t. … They’re ignorant … they stop children from studying because they’re afraid those children might come to understand that they don’t do what they do for God, but for themselves.

And what of those three promises? Before Enaiatollah’s mother leaves him in Pakistan to fend for himself – she has younger children waiting at home where Enaiatollah’s only alternative is death – he agrees to “three things [he] must never do in life”: use drugs, use weapons, and cheat or steal. She also reminds him “to always have a wish in front of your eyes … [because] it’s in trying to satisfy our wishes that we find the strength to pick ourselves up …” He will need to break a few promises as he endures deprivation and violence – as well as the surprising kindness of utter strangers – during his journey through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, before he arrives in Italy.

Italy is where Enaiatollah meets Fabio Geda, “an Italian novelist who works with children under duress,” according to Geda’s back flap bio. Enaiatollah approached Geda to “write his story down, so that people who had suffered similar things could know they were not alone, and so that others might understand them better,” Geda explains in his “Author’s Note.” Clearly that book got written, and translated the world over. While the book is “based on a true story … Enaiatollah didn’t remember it all perfectly,” hence the addition of the ‘novel’ appellation, ” … since it is the re-creation of Enaiatollah’s experience – a re-creation that has allowed him to take possession of his own story.”

Geda is a worthy conduit, “retelling the story exactly as [Enaiatollah] told it.” If you go audible, that veracity is further amplified, not so much by the Kabul-born, Orange County-raised actor Mir Weiss Najibi (who sounds more surfer boy than authentic), but because of the somber moderation (uncredited on the CD/audible cover) of the fabulous Mark Bramhall who voices Geda’s questions and comments to Enaiatollah and gently prods his difficult narrative along.

Geda notably channels Enaiatollah’s speech at his asylum hearing (oh, the irony of reading it in translation!) when Enaiatollah chose to not speak through an interpreter: “If you speak directly to people you convey emotions more intensely. Even if you stumble over your words and don’t get the intonation right, the message you get across is closer to what you have in your head, compared with what an interpreter could repeat … because emotions can’t come from the mouth of an interpreter, only words, and words are just a shell.” Translated these words may be, make sure to listen carefully to Enaiatollah’s story … we have so much to learn, out of the mouth of babes …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Translation, Afghan, European

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

WatchBefore you begin The Watch, allow me to offer a few details about Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya‘s writerly preparations you won’t find in the book. Although his ending “Acknowledgements” includes candid gratitude to numerous members of the U.S. military, the interview attached to the press materials sent with his title provides further specifics about the “innumerable heart-to-heart sessions” he spent with his “army mates,” the research he conducted about real-life events used in the book, and learning the logistics of military equipment, superior-subordinate relationships, even the halal slaughter of an animal, and more. Fiction this title may be, but its foundation is clearly built of non-fiction elements.

One more bit of background that will enrich your reading: spend a few minutes remembering the classic Greek myth of Antigone. No spoilers here: passages from Sophocles’ 5th-century B.C. tragedy of the same name open and end The Watch.

Ready? Here’s the seemingly simple story: A young Afghan woman arrives alone at a U.S. combat outpost in Kandahar Province demanding to bury her brother’s body in accordance with her Muslim beliefs, but the soldiers who have just survived a deadly attack are understandably suspicious of her intentions. In the stand-off that ensues, the young woman without legs sitting in a makeshift cart challenges the U.S. military on high alert watching behind a highly guarded fence. Seven distinct voices relay what happens: the dead man’s sister, the newly arrived Afghan Interpreter, and five U.S. soldiers of various ranks. Pieced together Rashomon-like, at the core of the narrative is the true identity of the Afghan woman: sister, survivor, victim, suicide bomber, spy, “diversionary tactic,” … or … ?

As the Americans argue over her fate, one fact is clear: ” … there’s absolutely nothing black and white about this situation: it’s all in grays.” Even on the ‘same side,’ the American reactions are diametrically opposed: from “That girl out there is officially my breaking point. I don’t want to be part of the SitRep that writes her off as collateral damage … It’s time to admit that our own leadership has ring-fenced us with lies,” to “Our job is to fight the enemy, clean up, and clear out. …We don’t do politics, and, beyond a certain point, we don’t get involved in these people’s lives.”

Roy-Bhattacharya uses his American characters to represent the murky spectrum of military viewpoints. His initial approach seems impersonal, titling his chapters with either mythic names or by military rank, from Lieutenant to Medic to Captain; in sharp contrast to that anonymity, each chapter reveals a unique individual, from the disillusioned classics scholar to the older career officer to a third-generation soldier questioning his patriotism. Amidst the careful attention given to multiple voices, the one notably missing story is that of Nizam’s brother; because the military, the damaged, the collaborator are all individually represented, in comparison, the voice of the ‘insurgent’ – the so-called enemy – seems unfairly silenced.

That said, this seven-pronged view of war proves intensely engaging and provokingly haunting. Choosing the audible option with seven distinct narrators offers even greater immediacy and is highly recommended. When that final page turns, regardless of ‘sides,’ all I can say is, “Mamas, don’t let you babies grow up to be soldiers …!”

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, Afghan, Indian, South Asian

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains EchoedBefore this novel, Khaled Hosseini‘s third, even hit shelves on May 21, the world had already made it a bestseller; many months – more likely years – will pass before it fades from the international spotlight. Although I had the galley for months before, I kept it tightly closed, glancing at it occasionally to savor its potential. But when I found the audible version has Hosseini himself narrating (he alternates chapters and characters with Iranian American actors Navid Negahban and Shohreh Aghdashlo), resistance disappeared. Having met Hosseini once before – the emphasis is on before, as in before he became a sensational phenomenon (you can read that story here) – hearing him voice his own words lulled me into finishing all too quickly.

Although more than a few weeks have passed, I delayed writing this post, silently paralyzed by the heavy burden of waiting for his next book. Four years elapsed between The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007; still my favorite of his three), then another six until Mountains appeared. If that progression holds, then we’re looking at eight long years, 2021 (!), for his next. Guess I’ll have to make sure my aging eyeballs and ringing ears are still functioning into the next decade!

Mountains is surely Hosseini’s most expansive story thus far. From a remote village in Afghanistan, his characters disperse around the world, to a comparatively cosmopolitan 1950s Kabul, to the literary lights of Paris, to the Greek island of Tinos, to the contemporary immigrant communities of Northern California. At the center of multiple generations of scattered family and related others are a brother and sister whose father decides that “‘the best’” for both children will be to live separate lives.

Abdullah “believed, the reason God had made him, [was] so he would be there to take care of Pari when He took away their mother.” Over the next half-century and more, he remains tightly bound to the memories of his lost sibling even as he ends up on the other side of the world. Pari, whose original family ties never had the chance to solidify, continues to search her heart for the elusive, unnamed presence that was once Abdullah. Around and between and overlapping these two unjustly separated souls, Hosseini creates an intimate landscape populated by an uncle with a dying wish, village sisters whose love for the same sweetheart traps one and saves the other, neighborhood boys who escape their war-torn homeland and their prodigal return, a talented surgeon who once longed to be a photographer and the single image seared into his heart, and so many more.

Readers and critics alike have lauded, cheered, extolled, and marveled over Mountains. I gladly confess to my own groupie admiration for Hosseini’s work: his writing has matured profoundly through this three novels, surely enriched in no small part by his experiences as a Goodwill Envoy to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) since 2006, which inspired him to establish his The Khaled Hosseini Foundation.

And yet … oh, that yet. From Kite to Suns to Mountains, I can’t seem to let go of a tiny seed of concern over what we might expect when his next title debuts (hopefully not too) far in the future. I wonder if that maturity might have come with an unexpected price. Mountains, for all its epic sweep, glows with a surprising sheen that wasn’t found in either Kite or Suns. The emotions that felt earnest and pure in Hosseini’s first two novels, seem to glow with a calculated (dare I say perfect?) patina in his latest – absent mothers and their replacements, lost lovers and their substitutes, damaged children and their substantial metamophoses. Regardless, I’m committed to whatever will come next bearing his name … until then, I remain devotedly resigned to wait (and wait and wait).

Tidbit: One of my most insightful BookDragon followers messaged me recently with “Has Hosseini become a savvy sentimentalist?” – that ‘savvy’ resonated with my own ‘sheen.’ He continued, “I also wondered if [Hosseini] had become the ‘Amy Tan’ of Afghan Americans.” In order not to bias that observation with any further personal elaboration, I invite (hope, plead, beg?) others to join in and comment.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Afghan, Afghan American

The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam + Author Interview

Blind Man's GardenFrom the opening few pages of reading a Nadeem Aslam novel, I knew his writing was something to treasure and behold. Serendipitously, I used my then-day job to bring the Pakistan-born, British-educated-and-domiciled Aslam over the Pond to be a featured guest at the then-annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF) at the Smithsonian Institution. In SALTAF‘s eight-year history at the Smithsonian, Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers – published stateside just in time for his appearance –is the only book that has ever sold out its sizable inventory before the lunch break. Never before or since has another SALTAF author commanded such exceptional sales.

The Smithsonian reading public’s sophisticated taste resonated far beyond: Maps for Lost Lovers won the Kiriyama Prize, was longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Award, and named a New York Times Notable Book. Maps is a contemplative, intimate look at a Pakistani community in northern England – self-named “Dasht-e-Tanhaii,” meaning “The Wilderness of Solitude” or “The Desert of Loneliness” – where a pair of unmarried lovers go missing. Five months later, the woman’s brothers are charged with their murder, and the man’s older brother must bring not only the families, but their reeling community, back together.

After discovering Maps, I instantly declared groupie status: Aslam is one of less-than-a-handful of personal favorite authors whose latest title causes nervous paralysis. For fear of the potentially long wait ahead until the next book (because there must always be a next book!), I agonize for months, even years, before actually daring to open certain authors’ newest titles.

Three years following Maps, in 2008, The Wasted Vigil hit U.S. shelves; I waited almost five years to finally read the novel. In fact, until I had this year’s The Blind Man’s Garden in hand, I couldn’t even peek at Vigil‘s first page. What I eventually discovered was a book of extremes: Aslam wields his language like a weapon, his mellifluous prose in cutting contrast to the horrific acts witnessed in the name of God, patriotism, honor, truth, and even love. Weaving in and out of the turbulent decades of Afghanistan’s modern history, Vigil gathers the interconnected stories of four disparate lost souls – Marcus, a septuagenarian British ex-pat doctor; Lara, a Russian widow searching for her late brother; David, a former CIA operative; and Casa, an injured young fundamentalist Muslim.

Aslam traveled extensively through Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to write Vigil, as well as interviewing some 200 Afghan refugees living in Britain. His international, peripatetic background places Aslam simultaneously on both “sides” of an incomprehensible conflict; that unique dissonance imbues Vigil with its unfathomable opposites – its terror and beauty, its deception and truth, its abhorrent hatred and unconditional love.

With Vigil finished, I might have hoarded the promising potential of Aslam’s Garden for a few more years (as it was, I had the galley for a good six months before its publication date) – had I not been assigned this interview. As a bonus, I also had a copy of Aslam’s 1993 first novel, Season of the Rainbirds, which finally made its stateside debut in March of this year two decades after its British publication, clearly timed to overlap with the May publication of Garden.

Dovetailing the reading of Aslam’s first and latest books reveals unexpected parallels. Rainbirds – spare and atmospheric – proves to be a character study of a remote Pakistani village’s inhabitants after the murder of one of its leading citizens. Garden is another detailed, careful observation of a not-so-dissimilar isolated town in Pakistan, the spotlight shrunken onto a single extended family and what happens when two sons – one by birth, the other by informal adoption – disappear. Garden tunnels deep into the tragic “war on terror” to examine the very lives of the individuals who must live through (or not) the shattering decisions of faraway leaders, governments, and regimes. When one brother secretly decides to go to Afghanistan in hopes of caring for the human collateral damage from the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the other immediately decides to join him. Together (and too soon apart), they embark on a harrowing journey of Odyssean feats in an attempt to return home.

For readers who have experienced Aslam before (and the apt word really is “experience”), you’ll recognize (and be awed by) his mesmerizing prose in Garden. Of course that sense of awe comes at a high price for me: as grateful as I am for the one-to-one opportunity to chat, I remain bereft that preparing for our authorly exchange cost me all lingering comfort of knowing I still had more Aslam to read. Now having finished his entire oeuvre, I wait (and wait and wait). Patience is not my virtue.

Is it true that you write your novels by hand? Is that why I’ll have to wait so long for the next book? And how, if ever, does the computer play a part in your writing process?
I write the first draft longhand. There is a feeling of direct contact with the paper through the nib. And the words seem to be flowing from my mind into my hand, then down the pen, and onto the page – blood becoming ink. But after the first draft, I move everything onto the computer, mainly for editing. (I use an eight-year-old Dell laptop, very heavy and gray.) I print out each chapter in three font sizes: First in 12-point, which is my usual size. Then in eight-point – which is the smallest size available, so there are more words in each line – and therefore the eye reads faster, instinctively. The eye, in its hurry to get to the end of each line, takes in more words – so you think not about individual words but about the overall narrative and the storyline, the pacing. Then I print the chapter in 14-point – which means there are fewer words in each line, so the eye slows down, and you do think about every word – the weight of it, the lightness of it. [... click here for sooooo much more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Nadeem Aslam,”, July 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Afghan, British Asian, Pakistani

The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village by Anna Badkhen

World Is a CarpetWhen you Google journalist Anna Badkhen, the one repeating line you’ll encounter is this: “Anna Badkhen writes about people in extremis.” To do so, she’s “spent [her] adult life in motion of one sort or another in the war-wrecked hinterlands of Central Asia, Arabia, Africa.”

Badkhen professes, “I did not have a home,” although she’s been making prolonged journeys to Afghanistan with regularity. Her fascination with the country – and her sojourns there – began “before American warplanes dropped their first payload on Kabul in 2001.” Her latest extended residency finds her based in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, prompted in 2010 by a visit one afternoon to the tiny neighboring village of Oqa.

Populated by “forty doorless huts” and 240 residents, Oqa does not appear on any map; no roads connect the village to any other. Officials in Mazar-e-Sharif insist that Oqa does not exist. But Badkhen knows otherwise. Oqa is the place where she witnessed the creation of “the most beautiful carpet I have ever seen.” It is that experience – blended with Badkhen’s account of the cultural and political landscape of a people and region in extremis – that forms the basis of her transporting new book, The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village.

Commuting from a working-class neighborhood in Mazar-e-Sharif, Badkhen became a frequent visitor to the home of septuagenarian Oqan patriarch Baba Nazar; his wife, Boston (Turkoman for “garden”); his son; daughter-in-law; and their two young children. The Nazar family are Turkomans – members of the Afghan ethnic group known for their remarkable skills in carpetmaking.

In the case of the Nazar family, their survival hinges on the deft fingers of daughter-in-law Thawra, who spends seven months out of every year “squat[ting] on top of a horizontal loom built with two rusty lengths of iron pipe, cinder blocks, and sticks” to weave a single annual carpet. The necessary wool costs just over $60; the carpet will sell for $200 to a dealer who will send it out in the world where a wealthy consumer (perhaps in the United States, which is “the single largest purchaser of carpets on the world market at the time of this story”), will pay somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000.

“Wherever her carpet ends up, for her work Thawra will be paid less than a dollar a day,” notes Badkhen. That precious payment will need to last the family another year, until Thawra’s overworked body begins the creation process once again. “Of all the Afghan carpets, those woven by the Turkomans are the most valued,” Badkhen explains. In Afghanistan, carpets remain big business. “[A] million Afghans,” writes Badkhen, “one out of thirty – were believed to be weaving, buying, and selling carpets.”

In Oqa, where remoteness offers only illusory reprieve from the latest marauders – government militia, warlords, Taliban – Badkhen cannot safely stay even a single night. Life here is often cruel. In Baba Nazar’s own family, his daughter – mangled as a teenager by a land mine that left her, most important, unable to weave – had no choice but to marry an elderly and nearly toothless sharecropper. Baba Nazar’s son, like most of Oqa’s men, dreams of escape, yet lacks the means to do anything but survive another day. Circumscribed daily by deprivation, men and women use readily available opium as a substitute salve because “[f]ood … could cost five times as much.” It is not uncommon for infants to die of overdoses. Only Baba Nazar seems to know enough to forbid its use in his own family.

And yet even in this harshest of environments, Badkhen is able to capture kinship, laughter, and merriment, especially among the women. She tells their stories with an exacting vocabulary (her prose is dense with evocative words like filamentous cirri, sibilated, alluvial, and eldritch). Beyond her words, Badkhen includes her own ambient sketches that capture the villagers’ daily lives; the active curiosity her drawing initially aroused eventually gives her the opportunity to become an invisible observer. Badkhen was able to watch village women take companionable turns in sharing Thawra’s work (“[i]t took a village to weave a carpet”), giggle over bawdy jokes in the kitchen, and indulge in joyous women-only revelry during wedding festivities.

These are the daily details that each woman works into a carpet: “her future autobiography, her diary of a year, her winter count, with its sorrowful zigzags, its daydreamy curlicues, loops of melancholy, knots of joy.” At the risk of spouting clichés (but don’t they become such because of the universal truths buried within?), Badkhen weaves her own literary magic. For now, the stories of these women (and men and children) will travel to places that none of them could even imagine, to places, ironically, that many of their carpets already call home.

Review: Christian Science Monitor, May 20, 2013 [print edition]; May 30, 2013 [online edition]

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Afghan, British

The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam

Blind Man's GardenWho needs films when writers like Nadeem Aslam can create such eloquent canvases that no celluloid could ever hope to project? Blind Man’s Garden takes you deep into the tragic ‘war on terror’ and shows you the very lives of the individuals who must live through (or not) the shattering decisions of faraway leaders, governments, and regimes.

Mikal and Jeo grow up as brothers in a small town in Pakistan – Jeo is the son of former schoolmaster Rohan who takes in Mikal and his older brother Basie when they lose their own parents. When Jeo, training to be a doctor, secretly decides to go to Afghanistan in hopes of caring for the human collateral damage from the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Mikal immediately decides to join him.

Both young men leave behind their shared family, including the same beloved, Naheed – she who loved Mikal first, but married Jeo at last. The brothers embark on a Odyssean journey to nowhere fueled by a fierce hope to return home. With all their fates unknown, Naheed mourns and waits, her mother Tara desperately fights what she believes is inevitable, and Rohan attempts to save another man’s young boy as he was unable to save his late wife from eternal damnation. The family, splintered by ideologies and violence gone awry, will never be the same again … and yet somehow, a much-transformed new family will inevitably survive …

In spite of needing to finish Aslam’s fourth and latest novel because of a looming interview deadline (I know, lucky me!), I lost all my usual reading alacrity as I approached book’s end, so as to avoid actually reaching that final page. Now as I ready myself for the authorly exchange, I’m bereft that that preparation cost me any lingering comfort of knowing I still had more Aslam to read. Alas, I must settle into waiting mode for his next novel; and patience was never, ever my virtue.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Afghan, British Asian, Pakistani

The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam

Wasted VigilIn both content and form, The Wasted Vigil is a book of extremes. For readers who have experienced Nadeem Aslam before (and the apt word really is ‘experience’), you’ll recognize (and be awed by) his mesmerizing prose … allow me a moment to share this early quote about books and reading (of course): “Each beloved book has more than one copy – some small with the text crowded into perhaps too few pages, others where the print and the page are both generously proportioned. … Sometimes there is a need to take pleasure in a favourite book for its story line alone, and the smaller editions facilitate this because the eye moves fast along a closely printed page. At other times one wishes to savour language – the rhythm of sentences, the precision with which a given word has been studded into a phrase – and on such occasions the larger size helps to slow one down, pause at each comma. Dawdling within a landscape.”

Here in his landscape of extremes, Aslam wields his language like a weapon, his mellifluous prose in cutting contrast to the horrific acts witnessed in the name of god, patriotism, honor, truth, and even love. Each of Aslam’s main characters experiences that all-encompassing sort of love, even as that love is destroyed – or, at the very least, fatally shattered – by the most inhumane atrocities.

Vigil weaves in and out of the neverending turbulent decades of Afghanistan’s modern history, its citizens brutalized by the British, Soviets, Taliban, and the Americans. Outside Jalalabad, by a lake believed to be haunted by angry djinn, in a remote house filled with the spirit of missing loved ones, four lost souls gather – their lives criss-crossed and overlapping with tragedy. The home belongs to Marcus, a British ex-pat doctor now 70, who lost his Afghan wife and his hand to the Taliban. He welcomes a Russian woman Lara, recently widowed, who searches for answers to her soldier brother’s disappearance during the Soviet invasion.

While Marcus is out on yet another possible search for a grandson he has never met, he unexpectedly runs into David, a former CIA operative whose life once evolved around Marcus’ only daughter Zameen, now dead. The trio grows into a temporary foursome when an injured young fundamentalist Muslim, Casa, is saved by the very westerners he has been taught to abhor, and trained to destroy.

Basil Sands’ excellent narration breathes life into four disparate characters – and others, as well – as they attempt to find, if not the truth, then a sense of peace with what has happened to family, friends, an entire country. But the house and its occupants are caught between two vicious warlords – one sanctioned by the U.S. government – and they cannot prevent imminent destruction from reaching their doors …

In various interviews, Aslam, who is Pakistani-born, UK-domiciled and educated since his teen years, has spoken about traveling extensively through Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to write Vigil, as well as interviewing some 200 Afghan refugees living in Britain. His international, peripatetic background places Aslam simultaneously on both ‘sides’ of incomprehensible conflict; surely, that unique dissonance imbues Vigil with its unfathomable opposites – its terror and beauty, its deception and truth, its abhorrent hatred and unconditional love.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Afghan, British Asian

The Sky of Afghanistan by Ana A. de Eulate, illustrated by Sonja Wimmer, translated by Jon Brokenbrow

“I look at the sky, I close my eyes, / and my imagination begins to soar …,” so begins this beautiful, but bittersweet picture book – bittersweet because for now, the little girl can only imagine, dream, wish for peace in her war-torn country of Afghanistan. For decades, her country has been decimated by violence, which means this little girl (and her entire generation and more) can only know peace in her sky-high dreams.

That said, buying this book is an immediately doable easy step towards peace because author Ana A. de Eulate and illustrator Sonja Wimmer are donating all proceeds to Fundacíon Cometa, a Spain-based organization that promotes educational projects, especially as a means “to empower women to be the vehicles that convey those egalitarian values of respect and human rights to their children.” Women and girls will be the ones to break the cycle of violence and war.

To move from dreams to making a new reality, never underestimate the power of a determined little girl. She dreams of a time when “the sound of war has truly gone forever.” Surely that must be a birthright for all children? Her unwavering convictions are testimony that she “can make this dream come true, / a wonderful  dream in which we all hold hands, / and we are all given a new opportunity / to leave our footprints for all eternity.” How impossible not to be touched by the book’s final thought, the longing for “A place – please forgive me if my eyes fill with / tears – that leads us towards PEACE.”

But before you close the book, go back and linger over the pictures. Beyond de Eulate’s inspiring words, Wimmer’s illustrations – from the smallest details to swirling, sweeping scenes — surely add volumes: a caged dove flying to freedom; the children’s various smiles, from the uncertain to the bursting; the women’s heavy blue burqas drawn over grid paper as if to show them to be the cages they are, and the daring few who momentary lift their veils to witness the little girl being lifted up (and away) by her high-flying kite before she, too, is caged; the (vibrantly colorful) intricate toys as the little girl plays on top of (dingy monotone) garbage and rubble, the bright lily bursting forth larger than life from a shrinking tank’s gun, the young girls at their desks with books and pencils in hand, various pieces of Afghan maps as if waiting to be reassembled back together, the cancelled Afghan stamps as reminders of the need for communication near and far.

Go ahead, enter this dreamy world … then help make it reality.

Readers: Children

Published: 2012 (United States)


Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Translation, Afghan, European

My Name is Parvana by Deborah Ellis

What delighted anticipation I felt when I heard that Deborah Ellis‘ multi-award-winning Breadwinner Trilogy (The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, and Mud City), after almost a decade since its completion, was becoming a tetralogy! I adamantly hoped for such at the end of my Mud City post: “Although the trilogy is seemingly finished, adding a final fourth which captures Shauzia and Parvana’s reunion would surely be welcome … “

I swear, I didn’t know a thing back then … but if the book gods are feeling ‘ask-and-you-shall-receive’-sort of generous right about now, might I put forth a request that an octology might be in order for the future? If I’m gonna ask, I might as well ask big!

Parvana is 15, and a prisoner who refuses to speak to the American soldiers who question, frighten, even threaten her. Found alone in the bombed-out rubble of a village school, Parvana’s interrogators insist she’s a terrorist and harass her day and night about her involvement. In spite of her fearful silence, for the first time, Parvana has a clean room to herself; someone with a conscience recognizes she’s still a child and doesn’t throw her in with adults, while someone else has a heart and slips her food against orders. And even though her captors insist on piping in Donny Osmond’s cloying “Puppy Love” at ridiculous decibels at all hours, Parvana is still able to slip into her past, and remember her mother’s dedication to educating girls regardless of the growing threats, her fights and quibbles with her older sister Nooria and adopted brother Asif, her decision not to reveal the gatekeeper Mr. Fahir’s secret, the villagers’ chilling reactions to the opening of Leila’s Academy of Hope … and how she ended up an American prisoner.

Reading – and recalling the books she once read – helps Parvana stay sane, from the packaged food wrappers to the Robert Frost poem she remembers with longing. “Who would want to shoot somebody after reading ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’ or ‘Casey at the Bat’?,” she muses, envisioning how soldiers might stop their fighting to read each other “a great poem,” or swap chapters printed on ration wrappers with one another until whole books were pieced together. While she dreams she could be hired to choose such books, she tries hard not to think about the women who torture prisoners: “Women in the West could do anything they wanted. So why would they choose to do that?”

With still widespread social problems like child marriage and other brutality against women and girls, unpunished deaths, and references to Abu Ghraib, Parvana is a sobering read. Ellis depicts post-Taliban Afghanistan with eyes wide open, sugar-coating nothing. As foreign countries plan withdrawal from an unstable country still mired in poverty and violence, Ellis notes, “the war continues, and it is not clear who might be the winner in the end.”

While governments battle, life goes on for the Afghan people. “Individuals like Parvana, Shauzi, and Mrs. Weera are working to make life better. They, and the many many Afghan women, men, and children like them, are the ones the world needs to support. We owe it to them.” Ellis’s own support is especially inspiring: she’s raised over a million dollars in royalties for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and Street Kid International with the first three Breadwinner titles alone. As Parvana’s story continues, imagine how a few more titles will add to Ellis’ golden giving pot!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Afghan, Canadian