An Afghanistan minus the Taliban

An afghan journey: travails in an awakening country
Roger Willemsen
Jaico
2011, pp 196
Rs.275
 

Afghanistan, a country ravaged by strife over decades, has always captured the attention of the international media and popular imagination. The associations are many: kites, apricots, opium, the burka and guns. And then of course, the Taliban. It is only now, after the Taliban first took over the country in April 1996, and after rousting General Dostum, that the country is breathing free. The Taliban’s extreme fundamentalism and restrictive ideology has by now been well documented. It is into this Taliban-free situation that Roger Willemsen journeys. The author is a journalist and television presenter and brings to us, by way of this book, images of a war-torn country.

Willemsen takes us through the length and breadth of the country, starting from Kabul to Paghman, a little mountain resort, to Kunduz in the north to the infamous Salang Tunnel, at the end of which the mujaheddin fought against the Russians and the Northern Alliance. The fact that Willemsen is a journalist has come in handy, considering the brevity that he brings into his writing. But one’s only quarrel with the treatment is that one wishes the author had delved deeper and brought us a little more than snapshots. This however does not take away from the writing or the images that Willemsen captures. The narrative begins with what greets the author at Kabul airport. “Every plane that touches down here in the misery of this ruined city is greeted by three giant hoardings of representatives, President Karzai, the war hero Massud and Siemens — Welcome to Kabul.”

Thankfully, the narrative is most often free of western stereotypes. There is no escaping from the romantic tinge that the country is given, but then, that’s understandable. Literature over the decades has always romanticised the country. Willemsen often quotes Robert Byron, a British travel writer who wrote about Afghanistan. The author also looks at the war-torn country and culture vis a -vis the western perspective. What does an encounter with a timeless Afghanistan do to the author? In his own words, “You question your own culture...what we find touching, an Afghan storyteller won't dwell on; what shocks us,
doesn't affect him...”

Then, there are some heartwarming mentions of women such as the famed football women, picked from eleven clubs in Kabul. There is also mention of Djamila, a human rights’ activist, one of the modern Afghan women in whom the country's future lies. And who can forget the famed woman filmmaker who, even in the Taliban era, filmed from under the burka? Now, if only the author had elaborated on their stories... The author eventually meets Saif, with whom he has a detailed interview about the camp in Cuba, the infamous Guantanamo, about life in Afghanistan and his rise in the Taliban ranks. Willemsen is helped on his journey by Afghani Nadia Karim, her cousins Mirwais and Turab. He talks about their lives too. The common man in the country, his life, his views on democracy, the refugee camps etc., all find a place. These are stories of survivors, of beautiful people who have held on to their Afghaniyar, a term that covers the love of the homeland and pride in it. Afghans in exile want to return to a land that they hope will finally allow them to relive their childhood, of cardamom scented tea, music and a hundred tales. It is in bringing out all this that Willemsen succeeds.

A compelling read, especially coming at a time when the country saw the tenth anniversary of the US-led war recently.

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