Afghanistan has yet to find its happy ending, so it isn’t a surprise that you won’t find one in author and film-maker Nelofar Pazira’s immaculate memoir of her life growing up in that country.
With America’s controversial presence, and NATO’s ongoing involvement, it’s a good as time as any to reflect on that country’s sad history, and ponder its grim future. And while Pazira penned her memoir several years ago, it is one that beautifully captures the story of a woman who lived on both sides of history – when national intrigue and repression jailed people like her father for speaking out for justice in a modernizing society, and later, when the Soviet invasion and Taliban rule laid waste to the country’s very foundations.
“We stood and looked across into the Soviet Union on New Year’s Eve of 1978. No one could have imagined that in a just a year’s time, the people on that other shore would invade our country….” writes Pazira at the start of the book, both mystified and angry at the shattered past.
Pazira’s effectiveness in her storytelling stems from an ability to explore the sweeping themes that marked her time – and continues to mark these uncertain times as well: popular will versus power, freedom versus repression, women’s rights versus tradition, national needs versus geo-political interests. Afghanistan’s destruction took place before social media would have transmitted those early protests against dictatorship and communism around the world, though with the Cold War preoccupying the narrative, it’s hard to know if that would have made a difference.
While the book includes a bold examination of the effects of war on a society that had found itself squarely in the middle of a geo-political game between the USSR and the United States, it is especially memorable in its capture of the nuances of family life, particularly under the stress of a society slowly and painfully disintegrating.
“For fear they might find something that could be used against my father, Jamila [my mother] has decided to burn every magazine, newspaper, book, album – every bit of loose paper belonging to my father. In utter anguish she sits on the bathroom floor, legs crossed, in front of the wood stove …book-burning is a quiet ritual.”
The reader is witness to Pazira’s slow maturity into a political actor, largely influenced by a father whose strong convictions would eventually break under the necessities of survival. After reluctantly accepting that Afghanistan had become too dangerous due to constant firefights and kidnappings, her father finally acquiesces to their escape to Pakistan. The journey symbolizes the culmination of his slow emasculation, and by extension, that of many of his countrymen who could not resist Soviet encroachment by any other means than escape or by taking up arms with the jihadi movements. Civilized negotiation had long ago become out of the question.
“My father looks tired and broken. A once influential man, he’s being reduced to a powerless creature, humiliated over and over again in front of his family,” writes Pazira. “There was a time when his words were taken seriously by both his employers and those who worked for him. Neighbours always greeted him respectfully. But now, the road to Pakistan has left him as helpless as the rest of us.”
But it is her deep friendship with a girl named Dyana that would eventually come to symbolize the decimation of civilized society and the utter damage of war on the psyche of those who survive its physical harm. Her childhood friend who grew up with her to defiantly throw stones at the Soviet tanks, with whom she shared lines of poetry by the school gates, herself would crumple beneath the suffocating weight of her father’s rigid support of the government and his perception of a man’s absolute authority over his women.
“You and I are the memory of a story,” she would write in one of many letters sent to Pazira after her family had finally found refuge in Canada. “The story of a long night/ That won’t be forgotten for a long time./ For years, I’ve been thinking/ I wish life was without memories.”
“I tried to go back to find Dyana,” explains Pazira, seemingly carrying the guilt of leaving her friend, and her country, behind. Her attempts to find her friend were famously documented in two films, “Kandahar”, and “Return to Kandahar”. But she would eventually confirm her fears: Dyana had taken her own life out of desperation.
From that moment on, Pazira tries to find some closure to her country’s past and the legacy of cruelty that was unleashed on her people. The ending leaves the reader dissatisfied, not with the storyteller, but with the irony of history. Those who inspired the bloodshed would never experience any victory from their cruel designs, nor face account for the brutality they unleashed.
“Leave me, for I’m destroyed,” Dyana had written in one of her final letters. “I’ve become a flaming house of pain. . .” Is this the fate of Afghanistan, one cannot help but wonder? If so, what can put out its flames?
Amira Elghawaby is a writer and teacher based in Ottawa, Canada. She is also a co-founder of the Sisters Reading Collective book.