Kabul, Literature, and Global Engagement

It’s time to come clean about my own ignorance. I didn’t know much about Afghanistan and its history until I read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. I should have. I was teaching, and students expected me to know things about the world. I had lived through September 11, and understood the concepts of the Taliban and al-Qaeda and regularly heard updates on those groups and the American military intervention through my listening to NPR. But I didn’t fully understand how the Soviet invasion or the Mujahideen had shaped Afghanistan of the 2000s, and I certainly didn’t know much about the culture of the people who lived there. I’m ashamed, but after I read The Kite Runner, I was inspired. I started doing research on Afghan history, food, culture, languages, ways Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran were all connected. Ways the United States had been politically entangled with what seemed like a very faraway and very culturally different place long before our post-September 11 invasion and search for Osama bin Laden. I read more of Hosseini’s books. I began teaching English as a foreign language classes to students, some of whom were from neighboring places, and we talked about everything from global politics to clothing differences to how soccer/football transcends national borders. (Another read: Outcasts United, about a soccer team made up of refugee kids from around the world and coached by a Jordanian woman immigrant.)

While I wish I had known more about this part of the world sooner, I’m not embarrassed that literature led me down a path of exploration. That’s the beauty of good literature. It’s not that we read a book and think we know everything about the world it depicts. It’s that it inspires us to think about, care about, and go learn more about new things.

I logged onto my computer this morning to see that, as of yesterday, the Taliban have taken the presidential palace and President Ghani has fled to Tajikistan. My heart is breaking for the people of Afghanistan, especially the women who have worked so hard for equal rights, education, and respect. While I’m thinking about them today, I thought I’d share some of my recommendations for reading – and eating! – for anyone else who wants to become inspired to learn more and care more.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2004, Trade Paperback) for sale online  | eBay

Some of my literature colleagues criticized this book as being “a clear example of a debut novel,” a criticism that means the book has tidy parallels and a pretty clear chain of cause and effect. (Calling that emblematic of a “debut novel” seems like a kind of snide way of saying you prefer to read things that are chaotic with unresolved conflict, no?) But it’s hard not to fall in love with Amir, the protagonist, even as he makes some terrible choices that lead to horrifying consequences for the people around him. He is such a richly drawn flawed character that you understand him, and you understand how he’s just a dumb kid trying to find his way at a time when the world is actually being turned completely upside down. (Much of the book’s action takes place during the civil war in 1989 as the Soviets withdraw from Afghanistan and the Mujahideen try to assume power in a crumbling nation.) The book’s final line will fill your heart and haunt you. There’s no perfect happy ending to be found here for a boy who flees Afghanistan, only to be forced to return years later as an adult when the nation is under the Taliban’s influence as he searches for long-lost family. But there is hope, and sometimes that’s more important and more authentic an ending to a story.

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

The Kite Runner is my fiction recommendation, and this is my nonfiction recommendation. Reporter Jenny Nordberg spent years interviewing girls and families who practice bacha posh, in which daughters in families without sons may be raised as “boys” and enjoy greater freedom to dress in pants, play sports, move about more freely than a girl is able to. We hear so much in the US about the treatment of girls and women under Islamic fundamentalist or extremist groups in places like Afghanistan that the restrictions can seem absolute and terrifying. And while they are, it’s important to remember that societies are messy, and there are always exceptions. Bacha posh is one. As girls are raised as “boys,” there’s an interesting amount of flipping what seems like a very prescribed gender script. Nordberg’s research finds that some bacha posh girls continue the practice as adults even, though this may result in their marginalization from society. It’s such an interesting look at how parents and daughters work around misogynist restrictions. Is it feminist to be bacha posh, or is actually limiting to women and girls because freedoms can only be enjoyed by co-opting male roles? There are no clear or easy answers here, but there is a much deeper understanding of how Afghan society can sometimes be organized around fixed binary gender.

Kabuli Pulao

Kabuli Pulau (Afghan rice and lamb pilaf)

Pulao (spelled pilau, palaw, and other ways) is a rice dish that features savory and sweet ingredients mixed together with cooked rice. Heaping serving bowls of this dish are often a feature at weddings and other family gatherings. It’s food for celebration. I’ve recently fallen in love with trying various combinations of dried fruits, nuts, spices, vegetables, and legumes (curried chickpeas, lentils, etc.) in this highly customizable global dish that’s eaten everywhere in central Asia, the Middle East, and the eastern Mediterranean regions. Because of its wide appeal, you’ll find a ton of different recipes and techniques for preparing it. My attitude toward global cuisine is one of total flexibility, since I’m a vegetarian and since certain ingredients can be hard to find in other parts of the world. But I want you to at least try mixing fruit and rice and spices, and however you create your combination, you’ll be rewarded. And you don’t have to wait for a special occasion to make it at home.

Gourmet Traveler has a recipe for a vegetarian version with almonds, pistachios, and sultanas (raisins to us Americans). They credit this version with being most like what you’d find among Pashtun people in Kabul.

New Delhi TV’s food website has another vegetarian version that includes chickpeas for protein. This one uses ghee, cardamom, and pomegranate. These are things you can find in the US at upscale grocery stores – though I’d argue that, if you live in a place that has a Middle Eastern or Indian market, you should make the trip there to pick up your supplies! We are fortunate to live in reasonable proximity to an H mart, Indo-Pakistan specialty market, and Middle Eastern halal market. We can get imported food and ingredients from pretty much everywhere. If you can’t, you can always swap. Ghee is just clarified butter, and you can always substitute cardamom with something like allspice or nutmeg.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think reading a few books or eating some food is going to solve the world’s problems, and it’s certainly not going to spare the lives of artists, writers, filmmakers, and feminists who are definitely facing persecution and possibly execution at the hands of the Taliban at any moment. But I do think that literature and food have the power to awaken our senses and take us on journeys to new places, and in doing so, they spark our interest to learn more and engage more. And that, maybe, one day, will help us find peace.

In the meantime, all my love and thoughts to the people of Afghanistan.

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