One of the reasons I love in-person indie bookstores is that I find books that I didn't know I wanted to read. Malalai Joya's "A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice"
is one of them. In the first couple chapters, she discusses her upbringing in the refugee camps in Pakistan, and her attendance of RAWA
-sponsored schools for girls. This led to her career as an underground teacher, going back into Afghanistan and teaching women in defiance of Taliban policy that women should not be educated. After several years of this, in 2003 after the US invasion toppled the Taliban, she ran for office for her province and went to the Loya Jirga (Afghanistan's equivalent of a constitutional convention) to represent her province. She got one chance at speaking before the parliament, and she told off the warlords to their faces and said they had no place in government
. (I am delighted that there is video of this. Go her!) She somehow managed not to be killed on the spot, was hustled out, came back, was overwhelmingly re-elected, got thrown out again, has survived four assassination attempts to date, and basically has never backed down at all
. She has continued to help run a school and an orphanage as her job, her concerns as a politician are exposing government corruption and building infrastructure to feed and house people, and she keeps winning human rights awards which she uses to fund said schools and orphanages. She is a devout Muslim who advocates a secular government and has built support for the separation of religion and state in a place where that is a revolutionary idea. It's a difficult read because the problems she's fighting are so hard
, but she is an immensely inspirational figure, a feminist in a place that badly needs it
, and a champion of human rights.
She is not a fan
of American policy in the region. Frankly, I don't blame her at all. I don't think we've done well there either -- she details how happy many Afghans were initially, only to be dismayed at the re-installation of the Northern Alliance warlords into power in the Karzai government. She talks about her meetings with President Karzai, why she thinks he was selected (fascinating to read from someone who knows far more about Afghan politics than I do!), and what he has promised versus what he's done. Very insightful and helpful to get the insider's perspective. Five stirring jeremiads out of five.
I have also read Artyom Borovik's "The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan"
, which was differently compelling. Borovik starts before Joya was born, and writes lyrically and compellingly about the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan which preceded the Taliban's rule. I was surprised to find it such a literary read -- one might have been reading Solzhenitsyn. (And it's pretty bleak. One might have been reading Solzhenitsyn.) Basically no one wants to be there... the soldiers Borovik describes are every one of them marking time until they go home, hoping not to die while simultaneously knowing that they will never go home the same even if they make it. At the time of publication, this was a scandal, showing the vulnerable underbelly of the great Russian war machine. (Not that it wasn't pretty obvious that they were losing, in much the same way as America is demonstrating currently. But saying so publicly was equally verboten.) There are several passages early in the book which are just painful in their prescience; one wonders if any of our military decision-makers read this before committing our troops to a similar attempted occupation. I mean:As a general to whom I became quite close in Afghanistan put it, "All of the wars that Russia lost led to social reforms, while all of the wars it won led to the strengthening of totalitarianism." ...[snip] The war itself wasn't the only thing that chipped away at our morality. The official lies about the war, in newspapers and on television, also took a heavy toll. I'm not blaming the journalists themselves. Even when one of us tried to report the truth the military censors masterfully made it into a lie. Anyone who stayed in Afghanistan for a long period of time, or who went there on a regular basis, typically went through four phases.
The first stage (which would usually last up to three months) went something like this: "The war is proceeding on a normal course. If only we can add another twenty or thirty thousand men, everything will be fine." Several months later, the second stage: "Since we've already gotten ourselves in this jam, we should get the fighting over with as quickly as possible. Adding another thirty thousand men isn't going to do it. We need at least one other army to shut off all the borders." Five or six months later, the third stage: "There is something desperately wrong here. What a mess!" Then, half a year or so later, the fourth and final stage: "We'd be wise to get the hell out of here -- and the sooner the better." I went through all of these stages too. A reader who compares the two parts that make up "The Hidden War" will easily see that.
Depressing, lyrical, well worth reading; I would be particularly interested to see what modern military vets who have been over there think of it. Five eyes on the ground out of five, and not just because of my fondness for Russian literature.
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Tags: book reviews, history, journalism, russian literature, war
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