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41

The Culture

THE NATIONAL PSYCHE

Foreign writers have frequently turned to romantic clichés when writing about Afghans. They are portrayed as fiercely proud, lavishly hospitable to guests yet always ready to pick up their rifles to defend what is theirs, and with a streak of defiant independence that renders the country un- governable. Like all clichés, these have some basis in fact, but the truth is more complex. Afghans are a naturally conservative people, and deeply religious. Their independence comes from the harshness of the country, where arable land is at a premium and the difficulties of the terrain has promoted self-reliance and inhibited the formation of strong central governments. As a result, power has devolved down to the tribe, village and – central to Afghan life – the family. The household and the mosque are the cornerstones of community. Travellers have always remarked on Afghan hospitality, derived from

the tenets of Islam and tribal codes such as Pashtunwali ( p44 ). Even today, showing hospitality to a guest is a point of honour, down to the poorest Afghan who will offer tea even if they can ill afford it. This is a mani- festation of Islam that gets to the heart of traditional Afghan tolerance, and a world away from the insular and zealous strains of Islam imported into Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion. The experience of war has greatly damaged Afghan society. Nearly

a quarter of the population fled the country, where years in refugee camps in Pakistan, or in exile in other countries, has fractured tradi- tions and ties to the land. Many recent returnees have headed for the cities in search of work, rather than return to their home villages. Civil war helped further split the country along ethnic lines, and post-conflict reconciliation continues to be a painfully slow process. Many warlords retain political power and sit in parliament, despite an official prohibition

‘THE BOOKSELLER OF KABUL’

The most successful of the flood of books on Afghanistan that followed the Taliban’s ouster was The Bookseller of Kabul by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad. It recounted her meeting with a Kabuli bookseller, Sultan Khan, who invited her to live with his family for several months. A pacy account of Afghan family life, in particular the drudge and horrors regularly inflicted on the women of the family, it became Norway’s top-selling non-fiction book and was subsequently published in over 20 countries. It was here that the controversy began. ‘Sultan Khan’ was the thinly-disguised Shah Mohammed Rais, owner of the renowned Shah M bookshop (p84) in Kabul, who had had his books burned by the communists, the mujaheddin and the Taliban in turn. When given a copy of the book he was outraged, and claimed that Seierstad had abused his hospitality by revealing family secrets and writing slander, including allegations that female relatives had had boyfriends – a grave matter of honour once the book was translated into Dari and Pashto. Many Western critics also weighed in, questioning Seierstad’s fictionalising of the thoughts of the characters when she had not met many of them, and spoke no Dari of her own. Seierstad herself appears nowhere in the book. Rais has repeatedly threatened a lawsuit for compensation, while in July 2006 his wife applied for asylum in Sweden claiming that the book had put her family’s life in danger. On her part, Seierstad has openly regretted not consulting with Rais on the way his story should have been told. As the story rumbles on, this best-selling book has also become the most controversial.

‘Here at last is Asia without an inferiority

complex.’

ROBERT BYRON, THE ROAD TO OXIANA

An Historical Guide to

Afghanistan (1977) by Nancy Hatch Dupree remains a classic tourist guide to pre-war Afghanistan. It’s still a great read, and can be picked up in Kabul. Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56  |  Page 57  |  Page 58  |  Page 59  |  Page 60  |  Page 61  |  Page 62  |  Page 63  |  Page 64  |  Page 65  |  Page 66  |  Page 67  |  Page 68  |  Page 69  |  Page 70  |  Page 71  |  Page 72  |  Page 73  |  Page 74  |  Page 75  |  Page 76  |  Page 77  |  Page 78  |  Page 79  |  Page 80  |  Page 81  |  Page 82  |  Page 83  |  Page 84  |  Page 85  |  Page 86  |  Page 87  |  Page 88  |  Page 89  |  Page 90  |  Page 91  |  Page 92  |  Page 93  |  Page 94  |  Page 95  |  Page 96  |  Page 97  |  Page 98  |  Page 99  |  Page 100  |  Page 101  |  Page 102  |  Page 103  |  Page 104  |  Page 105  |  Page 106  |  Page 107  |  Page 108  |  Page 109  |  Page 110  |  Page 111  |  Page 112  |  Page 113  |  Page 114  |  Page 115  |  Page 116  |  Page 117  |  Page 118  |  Page 119  |  Page 120  |  Page 121  |  Page 122  |  Page 123
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