As Afghanistan returns to the rule of Taliban, online chatter reveals the pivotal role of fiction plays in shaping narratives and the public imagination about invaded “other”.
Twenty years after the start of the US occupation of Afghanistan, the rhetoric of “who will protect the poor and helpless women?” has resurfaced. Few realise just how instrumental literature and modern media has been in swaying public opinion and concealing Western occupation and war crimes in the country.
In late 2001 the US, Britain and their close allies invaded Afghanistan on the pretext of capturing Osama Bin Laden, who was being sheltered, we were told, by the barbaric and backward Taliban.
The Taliban had come to power in 1996, and had replaced the corrupt and violent rule of the various warlords in power before them. But it was exclusively under the Taliban, the American’s argued, that Afghan women had truly become victims who needed rescuing.
Thus, the mission statement of the US invasion of Afghanistan (termed ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’) by GW Bush included the supposed liberation of Afghan women.
The use of feminism to colonise, invade and degrade a people or culture isn’t new. The practise dates back decades and centuries and is present in iorientalist literature and foreign policy.
What makes the invasion and the subsequent 20-year occupation of Afghanistan unique, is not only the use of bombs and violence to ‘liberate’ Afghan women from burqas (widely justified by so called feminists and humanitarians), but also the vast body of literature (fiction and nonfiction) to come out from ‘insiders’ of the region who defended the need for intervention and the ongoing occupation.
In 2003, Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini debuted with his global best-seller The Kite Runner. A New York Times bestseller, the book sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, was translated into 42 languages and even turned into a high budget film.
Hosseini was born in Kabul in the 1960s but spent little time in Afghanistan. His father, a diplomat in Kabul, moved his family to Paris in the 1970s and then eventually applied for asylum in the US. It was in 1999 that Hosseini first wrote The Kite Runner but only as a short story. He submitted the manuscript to multiple publications only to face rejection. He scrapped the book until 2001, when he began to expand it into a novel.
The book was released, conveniently enough, in 2003 during the height of the US occupation of Afghanistan, when public opinion was turning. Though The Kite Runner is set during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, it paints a picture of a land and people that could easily have been imagined in current times.
A country ravaged by war, is ruled by tyrant religious fanatics and its people yearning for freedom and liberation. It was easy to see why the book became a best-seller in the West.
The book told a story that seemed authentic, and a narrative that could be trusted. After all, Hosseini was an actual Afghan, born in Kabul, he wouldn’t sell out his homeland for political or capital gain, would he?
In response to the recent re-capture of Kabul by the Taliban on August 15, Hosseini said in an interview: “For a lot of people Afghanistan is synonymous with conflict, war and prosecution and displacement”.
Hosseini is right.
However, The Kite Runner and his second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns (also a bestseller), depicts Afghanistan and its people as nothing but violent caught up in war and persecution. Certainly a reality, but not the only or the dominant one.
Let’s examine these two books further. In The Kite Runner, the protagonist, is a Hazar boy (an ethnic group heavily persecuted in Afghanistan) who flies kites to escape from the horrors of everyday life. The antagonist, Assef, is a Pashtun who believes his own race to be superior to the Hazaras. A bully who rapes boys, Assef is also a staunch Nazi supporter. The book paints the ruling Pashtun class, through Assef and his actions, as racist, misogynist and monstrous.
By extension, all Taliban, majority of who are Pashtun tribesman, are categorised the same way. Later in the book we see the same tropes played out: that bearded Afghan men with turbans sexually exploit children, oppress their women and practise a fanatical and zealous form of Islam that deserves nothing but condemnation.
In A Thousand Splendid Suns, the protagonist is a woman but the themes are almost the same – violence and abuse. Published in 2007, it, too, became a bestseller and according to Hosseini, he wanted to tell a story that dealt with the plight of Afghan women: “I went to Kabul [in 2003], and I recall seeing these burqa-clad women sitting at street corners, with four, five, six children, begging for change.”
The story deals with the ‘heroic tale’ of two women married to a much older man. Age 15, Mariam is a child-bride, and Laila an unrivalled beauty, are both raped, abused and forced to cover by their vile husband – Rasheed, a staunch follower of the Sharia system (‘Islamic Law’) implemented by the Taliban.
The book was applauded universally by Western commentators, with the female lead characters described as “stunningly heroic whose spirits somehow grasp the dimmest rays of hope” and Rasheed as “one of the most repulsive males in recent literature”. And again, Rasheed the antagonist is an ethnic Pashtun (as are the Taliban), and his two wives both Tajik (another persecuted ethnic group in Afghanistan).
The themes of female victimhood, minority oppression and the yearning for freedom is exactly what the US and its allies needed in maintaining — and justifying — their illegal occupation. Afghanistan is a scary place, and without the invasion, unspeakable crimes would take place. Hosseini himself is publicly noted for backing the US led invasion of 2001, and he maintains, without apology, a close allyship with G W Bush.
While Hosseini makes clear that his novels are fiction, they represent for many, the only window into Afghanistan. A similar genre of literature, seeking to profit from war has also arisen.
The Swallows of Kabul (written by the Algerian author Yasmina Khadra in 2002) tells a similar story of oppression, abuse and exploitation. Storyteller’s Daughter published in 2004 by Saira Shah, a British Afghan (daughter of the famous Sufi writer Idries Shah) tells a part autobiographical and part-fiction tale of the difficult reality of Afghanistan. Many other books, including: Three Cups of Tea, The Bookseller of Kabul, The Favoured Daughter repeat the same theme and style.
In 2017, even Angelina Jolie jumped on the cause of ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’ and produced a heart-wrenching animation, The Breadwinner, a story of a young girl, overcoming incredible adversity in a barbaric and hostile land to provide for her family.
The richness and diversity of Afghanistan and its people has been muted by dangerously reductive stories, which despite their good intentions, have amplified one reality and buried several others.
In a recent interview Hosseini said: “[Afghanistan] is a beautiful country, filled with beautiful people, who have poetry in their soul, who are humble, who are hospitable and who are kind. They don’t deserve the 40 years of violence and prosecution and cruelties that they’ve endured..”
Most people would agree with this statement. It’s a shame that he has failed to reflect this message anywhere in his books. It is a shame that he has fuelled tribalism (something he claims to detest), through one-dimensional characterisation of the majority ethnic Pashtuns. And it is a shame that he has pushed for women’s liberation and rights through the tool of war and foreign occupation, overlooking the death and destruction of his homeland that has resulted in over 100,000 dead, 5 million displaced and countless more injured and traumatised for generations to come.
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