Afghanistan would probably not be high on my list of places to visit should I get the chance, but it was a fascinating visit via this non-fiction book by Asne Seierstad.
The author is a Norwegian journalist who has reported on war zones such as Syria , Iraq and Chechnya. This book is an account of her stay with a large Afghan family after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
I did find the journalistic writing a bit jarring after a while – I found myself wanting a more personal point of view – but it was worth reading for the detail into lives that are very different, unimaginably different, to my own.
The book brought up a lot of conflicting feelings – sympathy for the bookseller and members of his family for the suffering they had to endure under the Taliban regime, but also frustration and fierce anger over the treatment and lives of the women.
I felt especially for poor Leila, a nineteen year old girl and lowest in the pecking order of the house. She does all the cooking, cleaning, and caring for the extended family, working from dawn to midnight every day and never has time alone.
“Leila never walks alone. It is not good for a young girl to walk about without company. Who knows where she might be going? Maybe to meet a man, maybe to commit a sin. Leila does not even walk alone to the greengrocer a few minutes away from the apartment. She usually takes a neighbour’s boy along with her, or asks him to run errands for her. Alone is an unknown idea for Leila. She has never, ever, anywhere, at any time, been alone. She has never been alone in the apartment, never gone anywhere alone, and never remained anywhere alone, never slept alone. Every night she sleeps on the mat beside her mother. She quite simply does not know what it is to be alone, nor does she miss it. The only thing she wishes for is a bit more peace and not so much to do.”
Leila is treated worse than a servant and dreams of a different life where she might have gone to university or been a teacher.
The Afghani people as portrayed here, are stuck in a kind of no man’s land – half wanting to be pulled into the modern world, but also resisting that and clinging to the staunch traditions of Islam with which they’ve been brought up.
It was the dusty, overcrowded, claustrophobic atmosphere of the house where they all lived that lingers with me the most. The women of this family may have willingly, gladly even, thrown off the Burka, but there is still so much of the oppressive system deeply ingrained into their behaviour that it is clear it will take generations to shrug that off.
Reading this gave me greater understanding into how ordinary people with essentially good hearts get trapped into oppressive cycles; an interesting, but definitely not easy read.