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Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Storyteller's Daughter by Saira Shah

Two summers ago a friend and I both read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. After completing the book I was pretty fired up about not knowing anything about Afghanistan. I found a few possible books to read, but then the desire faded away in the wake of other shiny books, and I didn't follow up. When I finished A Thousand Splendid Suns (review here) a few weeks ago I had the same feelings, only stronger. Determined that for once I would do the right thing (like my reading books is a moral choice to be made) I actually followed through. Someone had recommended that I start with The Storyteller's Daughter: One Woman's Return to Her Lost Homeland by Saira Shah. I found it at the library and started right in.

Here is the Publisher's Weekly summary, via Amazon:
Born in England and raised on her father's fantastic stories of an Afghanistan she had never known, Shah spends her adult life searching for a mythic place of beauty. "Any Western adult might have told me that this was an exile's tale of a lost Eden: the place you dream about, to which you can never return. But even then, I wasn't going to accept that." What she finds is a place ravaged by decades of war, poverty and, later, religious puritanism. Shah first visits Afghanistan in 1986 as a war correspondent at the remarkable age of 21 and later returns as the documentary producer of Beneath the Veil, an expos‚ of life under the Taliban that predated the national interest in the embattled country. Her journey forces her to reconcile the vast disparities between fact and fiction, the world she has pieced together from her father's tales and the reality she glimpses from behind the grille of the Taliban-imposed burqa. Shah weaves legends and traditional sayings into her text, lending a greater context to her expectations and experiences. She also offers a piecemeal history of Afghanistan to accompany the accounts of her travels, but for readers unfamiliar with the many years of political tumult Afghanistan has suffered, the history may not be thorough enough. Most compelling are the characters she encounters and their indomitable spirit, including a woman with 10 children who asks her about a "magic" pill to prevent pregnancy, and her husband, whose intense machismo is not enough to save him from the war.

I found the book to be mostly overly romantic yearnings for a mythical place with a little smattering of horrific detail. Shah wants very very badly to belong to this place that her father has always told her about. She embarks on foolish missions into the hills to find it. At 21 she bluffs her way into the country as a journalist, but it is clear that her primary mission is to find a place that accepts her as it's own. All of this seems like a great book, and perhaps if you're looking for that type of memoir, it is. I really wanted more about how the people lived, not how Shah romanticizes them. Here's an example, from page170:
I had been ready to blame everyone- the West, the Arabs, the Islamic extremists- but I could not let go of my noble mujahidin. Because they belonged to my myth and, in a sense, they were a part of me.
At page 201 (out of 251) the book takes an abrupt turn into realism. At that point, it turns into more of what I was really looking for. The change in the narrative happened in 1992, about when the Soviets withdrew. I marked a point on that page as I was reading it where she says:

Every gun in the city was firing for joy. The spent bullets tumbled down and bounced off the pavement with little pinging noises. At night, great arcs of red tracer bullets flew above our heads like welding sparks. If I'd been looking more carefully, I might have seen the friction of worlds colliding. But I thought they were just sparks of happiness, pulsing into the sky.

From this point on Shah talks about what it's like to live in Afghanistan today. What it's really like to live in a war zone. It's still written as a memoir, not a history book, but it's there. Part of Afghanistan have no electricity or running water and probably never will. The ground is littered with landmines. The drought is so severe that nothing will ever grow again. She doesn't hold out much hope for there ever being peace, and honestly I don't either. This paragraph from near the end (page 233) sums it up really well. She is talking to a 12 year old soldier.

I asked what he would do when the war ended and he said, in the singsong voice of a child reciting a lesson, that when peace came each person would go back to kar i khud- his own work. What was his work? He didn't know. Had he been to school? No. Could he read? No. Did he remember how to farm? No, and his family's farm was destroyed anyway.

Usman led us out of his commander's earshot and said: "This country is full of men who know nothing except how to fight. They have no other way to earn a living. They have plenty of weapons and they will try to keep on fighting in any way they can."

Pretty bleak.

One last quote from the book to sum up why I am reading these:
When I proposed that we should cover the civil war in Afghanistan, the honest, good eyes of one of my editors said silently what he put into words a few seconds later: "Is any of this our fault? Can you convince me that we should care?"
The next book on the Afghanistan list is Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson. This one is about both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

(sorry about the multicolored quotes, I can't seem to fix it. Grrr)


  1. I enjoyed Three Cups of Tea. Hope you will too!

  2. I'm looking forward to reading it- but it was due back at the library YESTERDAY and I have not yet started it! I have to read The Blind Assassin before I can get to it too. I am considering returning it, and putting myself on the list so that the next person can only have it a week, then getting it back...

  3. I'm also about the start Three Cups of Tea. We'll have to compare! I loved Kabul Beauty School as well, you should try that one!

  4. Great review and great quotes. Its been a few years since I've read this book--we taught it in freshman comp at Texas Tech. The freshman all hated it, and I'm wondering if I have a different opinion because I spent so much time defending it...and correcting ethnocentric students who continually refered to Shah as an American. Urg!! :) Also, this was my first introduction to Afghanistan. You are really on a kick! I haven't heard of Three Cups of Tea. I'll check it out.


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