Fariba Nawa was born in Afghanistan, but her parents fled to the United States when she was a child. At that time, Russia was fighting to occupy Afghanistan. When her grade school was bombed, her parents had had enough.
But her parents weren't happy in the United States. Her father missed the intellectual life in Afghanistan and the opportunity to practice his profession, which he couldn't do in the United States. Her mother was sad because she missed her family and friends. Fariba missed the people, language, food, and culture of Afghanistan. She liked her American teachers, but not the other students, who were too rude for her.
Nawa was dismayed at the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. reaction, and the sight of her two countries at war. She felt she had to return to Afghanistan. Although her parents weren't happy in the United States, they believed she was foolish to try to go back.
Fariba Nawa went to Afghanistan as a journalist and found it in disarray. Many people, at least at first, were glad to have the Americans come to fight the Taliban.
Nawa complains that Hamid Karzai was chosen as the country's leader by the Americans. She says that a democracy cannot succeed unless it controls its political process. Many Afghans preferred the former king, but the Americans deemed him too old.
She saw that the opium trade was one of Afghanistan's major problems. She took many risks, interviewing people involved in every part of the trade, including drug lords.
Farmers have had little choice but to grow opium since the Russians came and the mujahideen fought them. Trees have been cut down and fields are no longer fertile enough for many other crops. The farmers make what little they can from growing opium, but of course the profits go mostly to others. Drug lords force simple farmers into becoming drug couriers, mostly to Iran, which is combating the spread of opium by jailing and often executing the sometimes hapless couriers.
Opium has become the medium of exchange in Afghanistan. All parties sell it: warlords, the government, the Taliban, and foreigners. Despite their professed enmity, they often sell opium to each other and accept bribes from each other.
Nawa says that when the Taliban cracked down on opium production, they did so only to keep the prices up. When occupiers like Britain and the United States have tried to eradicate opium, they have hurt poor farmers most, not the drug lords. Nawa was overwhelmed by how much opium has affected her country.
Opium was grown traditionally as a medicine and used mostly in moderate quantities, she writes. It was British colonialists, specifically the East India Company, backed by the British government, which started the international opium trade and forced the Chinese to buy large quantities of opium so that the British could have a product to exchange for tea, which they coveted.
Nawa went to a Mother's Day event in Afghanistan, and was surprised that the subject that the women discussed was opium. Mothers wept about their sons' addiction.
She met a girl who did everything she could to resist becoming a child bride. Nawa was able to persuade the older man the girl was promised to (a drug lord) to postpone the wedding, but eventually he took the girl away and married her. She was given to him in payment for an opium debt: Her father had been forced to sell it, but he went missing, apparently caught and probably killed. His family couldn't repay the drug lord for the lost opium. Numerous other girls have met similar fates.
When she was in Afghanistan, Nawa met a man who treated her like a person and became a friend. She married him and has been happy with him and her children in a marriage of shared responsibilities. They lived for several years in the United States, where she reported on the U.S. Muslim community, among other things. I particularly remember her writing about progressive mosques, where women have a greater role than the traditional one.
At one point, Nawa brought her father back to Afghanistan to stay with relatives there. He thought he wanted to visit, but he discovered that the intellectual life he remembered had disappeared. The people he knew were either gone or hardened by constant struggle. He decided that life in the United States, though it disappointed him, was better.
Nawa still loves Afghanistan, but she grieves for it and worries about family and friends who still live there. She now is practicing journalism in Turkey.
Through reading Nawa's Facebook posts, I learned about two fine novels about Afghanistan by Nadia Hashimi, an Afghan-American doctor: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell and When the Moon Is Low (see my February 16, 2016 blog). The former book is the story of a girl growing up in a family that raises her as boy. Her story is interwoven with the story of a rebellious great aunt. The contemporary girl reaches puberty and is forced to marry. The book takes us up to present-day Afghanistan and its leaders.
Reading the latter book, the story of a family of Afghan refugees, gives a clear picture of how squalid and brutal life in refugee camps in Greece can be, and of the refugee camp in Calais that the French government recently destroyed (while providing no better place for refugees). I encourage you to read this book and see what life is like for the refugees the European Union seems determined to return to Afghanistan, under the pretense that Afghanistan is safe. According to the United Nations’ mission in Afghanistan, 600 civilians were killed and 1,343 were wounded by fighting in the first three months of 2016; more than 80,000 people were displaced just during those months (The New York Times, April 18, 2016). About one-third of those killed and wounded were children, the UN said. The report noted that about 60 percent of the civilian casualties were caused by the Taliban and other insurgents, and 19 percent by the Afghan government (the article didn't say who caused the rest – perhaps it wasn't clear who was responsible).
American War Reporter
Taliban Shuffle describes the experiences of a journalist for the Chicago Tribune who covered India, minimally, and Afghanistan and Pakistan in depth, starting in 2002. Barker apparently had much less close contact than Nawa did with Afghan women; as a war correspondent and political reporter, Barker mostly dealt with men.
At times, she was embedded in U.S. military units. She reported on the soldiers' frustrations, but I'm not sure whether she could see that being embedded in a fighting unit was ethically problematic.
Barker was brave, but she eventually realized that some of her courage was bravado that unnecessarily risked her own life and those of the Afghan men who worked for her. After the United States occupied Afghanistan, almost all the men who could speak English – doctors, engineers, and so on – wound up in jobs serving Americans as interpreters, drivers, guards, and “fixers” (people who found ways for the reporters to interview officials and fighters whom they otherwise had no access to), because they could earn so much more money that way than in their professions. That, in addition to the wars, cost Afghanistan a generation of professionals, Barker reports.
Barker met warlords and high government officials. Her description of then-president Hamid Karzai as ineffectual, and later connected with corrupt officials, is damning – and is omitted from the movie.
Both the book and the movie depict Western reporters and officials in Afghanistan as distanced from the people and steeped in alcohol to cope with the danger. That was all I learned from the movie.
Barker wrote that Pakistan is probably more dangerous than Afghanistan, and that the Pakistani Taliban is fiercer than the Afghan Taliban, and is likely connected with Pakistan's secret service.
Barker developed a sort of friendship with Nawaz Sharif, who was then a deposed prime minister and is now once again the prime minister of Pakistan. He helped her make contacts, but he also seemed bent on making her his mistress.
Barker witnessed the excitement in Pakistan when Benazir Bhutto returned and the chaos after her assassination. Nothing about Pakistan was in the movie - it didn't show her going there at all.
If you read the book, you'll learn as much about Pakistan as about Afghanistan. You'll come to understand, as Barker does, that Pakistan likely supports the Taliban in Afghanistan because India supports the current Afghan government.
Barker didn't decide on her own to leave Afghanistan, as the movie suggests. Instead, a media magnate who took over the Tribune and gutted its news department forced her to come back to the States. (It's grotesque that the movie showed this character as a moderately sympathetic woman instead of the obnoxious man that he was in the book.)
Barker quit her job and went back to Afghanistan on her own, to work on a book. She did finally leave, because she realized that she had become an adrenalin junkie, and needed to reclaim her life. Her personal life was somewhat different from what was portrayed in the movie – she didn't have an affair with the reporter who was kidnapped and certainly didn't blackmail an Afghan official into helping rescue him. But the toll that war reporting took on her personal life was great.
Most Afghans don't have the choice to leave the dangers, and Europe is trying to force those who have left to go back. Westerners who go there can try to recover from the stress. I can only imagine what toll the stress of war has taken on the people of Afghanistan. I should think the whole nation is suffering from PTSD.
It is extremely important to read Afghan women's accounts of their country. But an American woman's perspective also has its place, in showing what the egocentric, ethnocentric American presence there is like.
The U.S. government is still in Afghanistan, so we ought to care about what happens there, to say the least. We should support organizations that are building shelters (Women for Afghan Women) and organizations that are helping the refugees. And we should demand that Western nations like ours provide a decent life for these and other refugees.