The interviewer for this session was Marianne Elliott who had trained as a human rights lawyer. She worked in the area of advocacy and communications and Afghanistan was one of the many places she has worked. She recounts her time there in her book Zen under fire, and her experiences and empathy really helped make this session successful.
Nadia Hashimi wants to portray the “heroic women of Afghanistan rising above it all”. The common portrayal is of an oppressed downtrodden group, meek and in the shadow of the men, hidden by the burka. Afghan women are a mystery, we start making our own assumptions aided by portrayals of the western armies going in to save them.
Nadia Hashimi was born in the USA but weaves the stories of her family into her stories. Many have been refugees and her book When the Moon is Low portrays a refugee story and was published before the recent refugee crisis. Ahead of her time on this issue, it had always been one that had affected her family and the people of Afghanistan.
She not only portrays women differently than the common view but her men too are often kind and romantic and opposed to brutal and paternalistic. She described romance as being a huge part of Afghan culture. Radio shows abound where people can call in anonymously and talk about their loves and relationships, she called it an obsession with romanticism and Bollywood movies are incredibly popular.
A House without windows describes the experience of Afghan women in prison. For some it is a complete erosion of their freedoms, for others whose lives are incredibly brutal it is a welcome refuge, there is no one to bother and harass them, they are fed and may even be able to go to literacy classes. The justice system is flawed and women are often imprisoned after false statements and for such crimes as running away from home. Both women described the frustration of working in the justice arena, but also acknowledged that there are some amazing people working in this area who are slowly trying to bring about change.
A question was asked about how we can best support Afghan women. Sending money can be risky as corruption is rampant. She suggested supporting the arts, Afghan women’s writing projects and women’s crafts, we can also read their blogs, listen to their stories and realise that these women are strong and resilient.
Marianne Elliott and Nicky Hager‘s books at first sight appear to be quite different beasts. Investigative journalist and author Hager needs no introduction, he has been illuminating New Zealand’s political, military and intelligence underbelly since 1996. His books are weighty tomes (metaphorically if not literally) replete with formidably detailed research. Zen under fire by Marianne Elliott, former United Nations’ human rights officer and lawyer, uses a more personal tale-telling technique to describe her time in Afghanistan and its impact on her, her nearest and dearest. Surprisingly the books taken together are complementary and sympathetic, providing a picture of Afghanistan, big and small.
Both Hager and Marianne felt compelled to write due to the lack of information on Afghanistan despite New Zealand’s involvement there. Further Marianne wanted to tell the stories of her Afghani colleagues, “to use the location and time in history to inform people”, to give context and reveal the discrepancies between the theory and practice of humans rights in Afghanistan.
For research Marianne relied on the almost verbatim notes she’d kept of interactions with warlords and non-governmental organisations. Her own “tenacious memory” informed the rest. Hager spoke to serving soldiers, senior officers and collected intelligence and military documents in the tens of thousands. The sheer volume of evidence “nearly melted down his brain” and Hager initially struggled to reduce this mountain of paper and find the essence.
Finding the “voice” of their respective books had challenges for them both. Hager didn’t want a critical, nagging voice. He wanted Other people’s wars to be a nation building book explaining who we are as New Zealanders, and to be read by the military, military families and the wider New Zealand public especially the young. Marianne wrote for her friends, women she knows and loves but who sometimes struggled to understand her experiences. She also felt strongly that most New Zealanders wanted to understand Afghanistan and be able to access nuanced information. The personal story was for her the best vehicle
Asked about what the next five years held for Afghanistan neither author was optimistic. Nicky Hager believes the slow collapse of Afghani society is inevitable once the West withdraws. Marianne likewise, despite her reservations about the West’s original involvement in Afghanistan, fears the lack of long-term political commitment will result in hardship for the many people who have experienced improved lives since Western forces entered Afghanistan. The transition needs to be slow and thoughtful and she hold real reprisal concerns for the many Afghani who have worked alongside the West.
This was a carefully structured and sensitive exploration of the writer’s craft rather than a febrile, political polemic. Well attended, the audience provided some thoughtful and topical questions.
I am still reeling from having finished Nadeem Aslam Aslams book The Wasted Vigil, author of the previously well revieiwed Maps for lost lovers. This is a story that is hard to categorise. For those who want to read about the degradation of women under the Taliban, then there’s something for you. If you want to read about misguided Americans meddling in Afghanistan’s culture then you won’t be disappointed. If you want to get inside the mind of a young member of the Taliban or experience Russia’s brutal invasion of Afghanistan then it is all here; a poetic and personal lesson in Afghanistan’s history. It’s compelling brutal reading, at times hard to read, but is an incredibly powerful way for a writer to convey the complexities of this country to those of us in the west, who find it all so hard to comprehend.
There are four main characters; Marcus, an Englishman who has adopted Afghanistan as his home, Lara, a Russian woman who has come to find what happened to her brother who was a Russian soldier, David an American ex spy, and Casa, a young man in the thrall of the Taliban. All end up at Marcus’s house, a home that he once shared with his Afghani wife, and a place where books are nailed to the ceiling, in the hope that they won’t be found by the Taliban.
The story moves about from present to past, dreams to reality, brutality to tenderness. There are no answers and no happy endings, how can there be? The story is political without having an obvious agenda, and for those of you, like me, who want history that is based on people rather than events then this is a hard, but engrossing read.