Afghan chronicle

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

AFGHANISTAN has historically been a tortured land. Not since the end of the Cold War, heralded by the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the country in 1989, but from the times when hardy and resilient Afghans battled British colonisers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In fact, the modern history of this much-storied land has become a byword for tragedy and destruction. Much of the blame for this must lie with outsiders who have always treated the country as a happy hunting ground for their own ends and purposes, without any regard for the wishes of its people.

In recent times, much of this tortured history has spilled over into neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and, as a horrible blowback, on American shores in the form of 9/11.

Yet history continues to be ignored, distorted and treated with utter contempt by Afghanistans new imperial masters and local satraps. One cannot say the same about novelists, though. Nadeem Aslam has written what can perhaps be described as the definitive Afghan novel. I say this because The Wasted Vigil is not just a mesmerising work of fiction, elegantly speaking for millions of nameless victims of the Afghan tragedy in modern times, but also a socio-political history of the country.

There have been notable attempts in the past, by novelists of Afghan origin, to chronicle the pain of their country, such as Atiq Rahimis beautiful, albeit short, novels Earth and Ashes and A Thousand Rooms of Dreams and Fear and pop-schlock attempts by Khaled Hosseini, the Hollywood darling, in The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. The noted Pakistani activist Feryal Gauhar made the American occupation of Afghanistan the theme of her recent novel, No Room for Further Burials.

Aslams novel overtakes all these in its sheer stylistic beauty, broad scope and historical approach. There is a seeming attempt to incorporate as many of the protagonists in the Afghan history of the last two decades as possible, with their respective responsibilities culminating in the wasteland that is Afghanistan today.

There is the Englishman Marcus, a doctor of advanced age settled in the village of Usha, who shares an intrinsic adoration for Afghanistans rich culture and history owing to the accident of personal history and having married a progressive and outspoken Afghan woman, Qatrina. He eventually pays a heavy price in post-communist Afghanistan for nurturing this love for the land: his hand is amputated, his wife is executed, his daughter Zameen is kidnapped. Besides these is the semi-obliteration of his house, built as an ode to the pleasure of the aesthetic sense.

The novels most important character is an Afghan fundamentalist known as Casa, who is a metaphor for the woeful state of contemporary Muslim societies, enmeshed as they are in the choice between modernity and medievalism. Casa is ensconced in his own world view of the dichotomy between Dar-ul-Harb (abode of war) and Dar-ul-Islam (abode of Islam), and hates womens rights and the Wests secular values.

Yet Aslams success is to show that like each of his other characters, Casa is very much a human being sensitive to the pleasures of passion and unafraid to learn to use the latest technology and its appended benefits for the propagation of al-Jehad.

Zameen is another tortured but brave woman who survives Soviet captivity, the assaults of a Soviet soldier and the travails of childbirth to carve out a self-made life, dependent as it is on the whims of Afghan warlords, for one of whom she is forced to work as a spy. She falls in love with an American ex-Central Intelligence Agency agent, David Town, who originally came to Afghanistan in the 1980s on a civilising mission to defeat the Soviets, yet is witness to and subsequently turns away from the horrors perpetrated by his erstwhile employers in the name of democracy and civilisation, no doubt a dress rehearsal for successful imperial adventures to come in the years ahead.

Another very important character in the novel is the Soviet communist wife Lara, who has come searching for her brother from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He went missing during the Soviet invasion: he actually is the father of Zameens child and was executed by one of the warlords after being captured while defecting from his camp.

Marcus house is where all of these characters come together with their varying personal histories, ideologies and quests. However, where they ultimately find their paths entwined is in their sense of loss and how these losses connect them to one another and open avenues of hope.

It is an apt metaphor for Afghanistan in the throes of Jehad Inc. during the 1980s involving a multitude of countries such as the Soviet Union, the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan.

The Wasted Vigil is a work of suppressed anger and anguish at the various forces that have turned Afghanistan into a wasteland. The writer does so with a remarkable eye not just for Afghan history but for the history of Muslim civilisation, beset as it has been with civil war, lack of democracy and dissent, the enthronement of blind orthodoxy and faith over healthy scepticism, reason and logic, and creeping extremism.

The two most potent symbols the writer uses throughout the novel are the underground perfume factory, a testament to Marcus passion for the sense of smell, and the figure of the reclining Buddha. Both are hopeful reminders of everything that the Taliban is against: most of all the aesthetic pleasures of smell and sight and any sense of Afghanistans ancient syncretic history, a history shared as much by Greek and Muslim conquests as by its Buddhist heritage.

The brutality of the Taliban enforcers is painfully brought out in the novel: whether it is their philistine attitude towards learning and art a powerful example is the way books have been nailed to the walls of Marcus house to prevent the Taliban from finding and destroying them or their vandalising of paintings, ancient artefacts and sculptures. Much more painful is the way they brutally punished women and children.

The real heroes of Aslams novel are all tortured Afghan women, three generations of them represented by Qatrina, Zameen and Dunia. They have all been tremendously wronged by the Taliban.

Their lives, loves, struggles and eventually their benighted fates are a testament and a tribute to Afghanistans valiant women. Many of them dot recent Afghan history, from the courageous Queen Sorayya, who drew the ire of Lawrence of Arabia (along with her husband, the progressive 19th century monarch King Amanullah), to the communist Anahita Ratebzad, Meena Keshwar Kamal (the martyred founder of the Revolutionary Afghan Womens Association), and Malalai Joya, the courageous legislator who drew the ire of corrupt warlords in post-occupation Afghanistan and was ousted from Parliament on false charges. Aslams novel-cum-social history clearly pins the blame for Afghanistans tragedy on external interference, be it by the British, the Soviets, the Pakistani intelligence agencies or its latest masters the Americans.

The sad truth is that whenever Afghans wanted to emancipate and modernise their society, it was outsiders who put paid to these attempts and bathed the country in Afghan blood. There is a distinguished lineage of achievers in this regard, from Sorayya, an early advocate of womens emancipation, to some of the communist leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan regime such as Nur Muhammad Taraki, Hafizullah Amin and Najeebullah, who modernised major Afghan cities, decreed free education and health care for ordinary Afghans, emancipated women and curbed the power of the oppressive landlords and mullahs.

The writer also makes a sharp critique of institutionalised religion, which currently dominates most Muslim countries and prevents these societies from advancing, and of the ways in which it has placed fetters on independent thought and dissent, democratic rights and the rights of women. The wasted vigil alluded to in the novels title refers to the vigil in search of the Messiah in many Muslim societies, which many devout Muslims think will lead them out of the impasse they are in.

The novel warns that unless Muslims rediscover their rich syncretic traditions of the past (exemplified in the novel by the reclining Buddha, itself a reference to the Bamiyan Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the Taliban amid international condemnation), allow the flourishing of dissenting thought and make an honest analysis of their past and current mistakes, such a vigil is likely to be a useless exercise, unhelpful in combating the twin perils of imperialism and fundamentalism.

Raza Naeem teaches political economy at a private university in Lahore.

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