A War Ago
A Debut Novel From Afghanistan Recalls Pain and Hope During the Soviet Invasion
When the eyes of the world zeroed in on Afghanistan in the weeks after Sept. 11, there was a flurry of literary activity about the troubled Central Asian nation. Bookstore shelves filled with nonfiction about Afghan culture, the rise of the Taliban, and other topics that publishers rushed into print. Last autumn, when it seemed inevitable that we would establish a military presence in Afghanistan after a decisive war, we wanted to know the "enemy's" face. What we learned, however, was that the enemy had been as much a victim as we had.
Atiq Rahimi's new novel, Earth and Ashes, reminds us that there is more to a nation, a people, and a culture than history and political analysis. Born in Kabul in 1962, Rahimi, now a documentary filmmaker in France, fled Afghanistan about five years after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. That invasion catapulted the region into a war that would devastate much of Afghanistan's infrastructure and would set the stage for the now-trumped Taliban to seize power in the 1990s. Earth and Ashes, a slim novel, proves that literature is an invaluable tool for accessing the tragedies of others, even those who seem most remote to us.
Rahimi dedicates the novel to "My father, and other fathers who wept during the war," appropriate since the plot centers on fathers and sons whose bonds are tested by the brutality of war. Dastaguir, an elderly man, travels many miles to find his son, Murad, who works in a coal mine far from home to support his young family. The news Dastaguir carries is grim, and the novel traces his thoughts, fears, and anxieties as he tries to track down his son, accompanied only by his grandson Yassin. Translated from the Dari, one of Afghanistan's major languages, Earth and Ashes is narrated in that rare, second-person voice ("A sob constricts your throat. A tear drops from your eye") that is challenging for even veteran writers, but Rahimi, a first-time fiction writer, sustains it smoothly and gracefully.
It is obvious that Dastaguir is emotionally in shambles, but the source of his anguish remains a mystery at first. While waiting for transportation to the mines, Dastaguir and his grandson encounter Mirza Qadir, a shopkeeper who shows them kindness by allowing them to wait in his shop, out of the sun's blaze, for a transport vehicle. When Qadir realizes where they have traveled from, he says, "The Russians destroyed the village"--and the reader suddenly understands Dastaguir's burden.
His mission is to relate to Murad the destruction of the village, the death of Murad's wife and his unborn child, his mother, and his brother's family. Dastaguir is one of only two survivors: "Why wasn't I killed before I reached home?" he asks Qadir. "What wrong had I committed to be condemned to witness?" The other survivor, of course, is young Yassin, whose own tragedy becomes clear soon enough: The bombings of the village have deafened the bewildered boy. "He is squatting down, crushing a piece of apple between two stones . . .," Dastaguir says. "The child shouts: '. . . Why don't these stones make any noise?'" Later, in an effort to understand why the world has gone silent, Yassin asks: "Grandfather, have the Russians come and taken away everyone's voice? . . . Why did you let them take away your voice? If you hadn't, would they have killed you? Grandmother didn't give them her voice and she's dead."
Dastaguir and Yassin represent the tragedy that shattered the lives of all Afghans during the Soviet invasion. In the 1950s and '60s, Afghanistan had been moving, albeit slowly and roughly, from a monarchy to a constitutional political system. However, its proximity to the Soviet Union, combined with the reluctance of Western nations like the United States to invest in it, forced Afghanistan to become dependent on its powerful northern neighbor. Those in Afghanistan who were sympathetic to communism inevitably clashed with Islamists, who correctly saw communism as a threat to the country's religious foundations. The Soviets, meanwhile, also feared a threat from the Islamists, especially when, in the 1970s, the Afghan government made moves toward independence. In December 1979, the Soviets moved in and thrust the region into war. The war, however, resulted in both personal and national losses that have not, until now, been brought before American reading audiences.
Rahimi's novel, with its poignant, simple style, finally paints a picture of this devastation. In absorbing the enormity of his loss, Dastaguir describes, "Your hands tremble. You put the cup on the table. You know that your sorrow has taken shape now. It has become a bomb. It will explode and it will destroy you too." Even the landscape around him is described in bleak terms: "The dust rises. It engulfs the bridge, then settles. Silently it covers everything, dusting the apples, your turban, your eyelids . . ." The dust is as oppressive as Dastaguir's sense of helplessness.
And yet, Rahimi offers hope in the form of Murad, whom Dastaguir never actually gets to see. Unable to descend into the precarious mine, the father instead waits for his son to come up to him: "If he comes after you, you'll know Murad is your Murad," the father reasons. "If he doesn't, you will have no Murad anymore." In this intense allegory, Murad becomes a chance for Afghanistan's future, a chance to rebuild and reunify, though only time will tell if it will actually come.
It's almost impossible not to draw contemporary parallels between the events in the novel and Afghanistan's current dilemma. Now that the Taliban has been ousted and al-Qaida operatives largely ejected, Afghans must still overcome the challenges to its nascent democracy. But after obstacles have been hurdled and other tragedies endured, as Dastaguir says simply at the end of this brief yet powerful novel, "Then you continue on." One can only hope that this novel is the first step to a steady stream of literature from Afghanistan.