Thursday, September 6, 2007

Afghanistan in Print

My reading seems to follow trends, even when I'm not consciously choosing them. Recently, the trend has been Afghanistan; I've read three very different books that give three very different views of the country and the people.

Kabul Beauty School, by Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson, is a very personal story of one American woman's experiences in Afghanistan, with the country almost incidental to her narrative. The focus is on Rodriguez's experience when confronted with a foreign way of life, and how she comes to love the Afghan women. The view it gives of Afghani life is intimate, centered in the beauty school she starts as a way to help the women in Kabul; although Rodriguez, a foreigner, is allowed to be seen in public, most of the women she works with are not, and working in an all-female beauty salon is their only chance to earn money of their own. Like Three Cups, it is the story of a person transformed by the effort to help others.

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, is, in a way, the masculine version of Beauty School. It is also a personal narrative, of how Mortenson came to dedicate his life to building schools in Afghanistan, but its focus is wider, covering more of the country as Mortenson travels to different communities. Of the three books, Three Cups provides the best picture of the various tribes and the physical geography of the northern part of the country, and the most dramatic moments. (This is also the most popular in Montana, since Mortenson lives in Bozeman; freshman at both Montana State University and the University of Montana were asked to read it before school started this fall.)

The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad, is an impersonal narrative of a family living in Kabul; the focus is firmly on the Afghans themselves rather than the author's reactions to them. It provides a clear picture of family life in a traditional partriarchal family, without judging the people, their relationships with one another, or their way of life. Seierstad lived with an Afghan family for six months, able to follow both men and women through their daily lives, so while Beauty School focuses primarily on the Afghan women and Three Cups on the men, Bookseller shows, in great detail, the relationship between them and how it affects each. Without personal filters, the book gives a clear picture of Afghani culture; according to some friends who have spent much of their lives living in or studying Afghanistan, it is an accurate depiction of the Afghans.

All three books do a good job of showing real human beings, with all the strengths and weaknesses of any poeple. Of the three, Bookseller is best for understanding the lives of Afghan women and how men and women interact; Three Cup is best for understanding the tribal tensions in the north of the country. Having read all three, I at least know exactly where Afghanistan is (rather than just "over there") and I'm developing a sense of who the Afghan people are. Now I wonder what related book will turn up next.

No comments: