I'm on an email list where, at each year end, we exchange lists of books we recommend to each other. This year, I decided to focus on books about Afghanistan, frankly because so many people ask me how to best learn about the country. This is in no way a comprehensive list of books or films about Afghanistan, or even everything that I have read, but it's a good start for anyone who wants to learn more. Here are my picks:
1) The Taliban by Ahmed Rashid: originally written in 2000, the author, a long time reporter on the country, updated the book in 2010. It's timely and relevant and gives a good perspective on modern Afghan history and politics.
2) The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: a gripping account of a woman who made a living as a dressmaker under the Taliban, employing many other women. Since being in Kabul, I've met Kamila Sidiqi, who is the dressmaker, and she continues to be a role model for women and positive change here. This is a story about women entrepreneurs but also about women and war. The book paints a stark picture of the impact that the Taliban's rule had on women: women became invisible in the public sphere, banned from work, their lives closely prescribed and their clothing mandated. After Kamila's father left Kabul as it became clear that it was not safe for him to stay there, she decided to make and sell dresses, even though neither she nor her sisters could sew. They found a teacher, worked hard, and built a business that offered work to 100 women. She traveled around Kabul with her brother in tow (as her guardian) and took risks to build this business and keep this community of women working. This compelling story paints a picture of what women will do to keep their families and lives intact during war, and the impact of war on the daily lives of so many across the globe.
3) The Places In Between by Rory Stewart: it's a quirky book by Stewart who, starting two weeks after the fall of the Taliban traveled to Afghanistan to walk from Herat to Kabul. This book chronicles his walk across the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, but it is also about the history of the area, the isolation of the people, the ebbs and flows of allegiances and alliances, and about his almost crazy dedication to a goal. For me, the snippets about the region's history, both distant and not so distant, were the most compelling. The book also is a good resource for travel fanatics and those interested in ethnography and anthropology. It's not a fast read - after all it is about a walk that lasted months - but it is worth the time it takes to follow in his footsteps.
4) The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad: Like Rory Stewart, Seierstad came to Afghanistan two weeks after the fall of the Taliban. However, her book is a different kind of portrait of Afghans and Afghanistan than Stewart's account of his walk from Herat to Kabul. It is intimate, focuses on daily life, and the impact of family and social norms, especially on women. When Seierstad came to Kabul, she met and befriended a local well-known bookseller, Shah Muhammad Rais, and eventually lived with his sprawling family for several months. The book is a slightly fictionalized version of the family, its interactions, and the family members' views and experiences. Sultan Khan, the character based on Rais, is complex. He is both heroic in his quest to protect literature and learning and a fairly despotic family patriarch, whose word must be obeyed, and who makes rash decisions to protect his pride. To me, the most compelling parts of the book are the passages that underscore the complex and often contradictory nature of people. Fiction or not, complexities and contradictions are real and they form the backdrop to any society's reaction and relationship to change and upheaval.
5) Farishta by Patricia McArdle: McArdle's first novel is based loosely on her experiences in Afghanistan as a Foreign Service Officer, and highlights the challenges that her character, Angela Morgan, faces in her one year tour in Afghanistan. Against her wishes, Angela is sent to Mazar-i-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan as the only American (and the only woman) attached to an isolated British Army Provincial Recovery Team (PRT) compound. While in Mazar, Angela confronts the sexism and indifference of her male peers, the seeming hostility of her interpreter, and the blatant disrespect of many Afghan warlords and tribal chiefs. Against this backdrop, she works valiantly to do her job, finding allies along the way. As the year progresses, Angela finds new strength, becomes more accepted and befriends both her interpreter Rahim and a young Afghan woman law student, Nilofar. Through their friendship, Angela sees the hard reality of being a woman in Afghan society. While out in the countryside, she is also shocked by the children she observes gathering scarce firewood for cooking, thus further decimating Afghan land. Angela remembers a cardboard solar oven she used as a girl and sets out to build and use those ovens to help Afghan women. It is a well told story of the daily dangers that Angela and her male colleagues face, the trauma that can accompany their work, and the difficulty they have reentering society.
All worth your time.
Stephenie Foster is the Women and Civil Society Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government