What Fiction Can Tell Us about Afghanistan

People are at the heart of what we are doing in Afghanistan. Novels can help us understand them and their cultures in all their subtlety and complexity.

You are trying to understand some piece of the puzzle that is Afghanistan and our involvement there. You listen to the news and read the papers. You wonder why, at the cost of more than 2,000 American lives and an estimated six billion dollars, this is so hard. No amount of briefing books, field manuals, data sets, information files, training simulations, logistical flow charts, or resource allocation spread sheets seems to answer the question.

Try adding some novels set in Afghanistan to your reading list. For educators, especially military educators, novels like the ones I describe below are a strong complement to theories of strategy, negotiation, and military ethics, because they show these principles exercised, for good or ill, in settings that reflect everyday life in Afghanistan.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (2012), set in recent decades, roams through lands of the Baluch and the Pashtun, where clan affiliation matters far more than any nation-state claim to borders or citizenship. This is a realm informed at almost all levels by tribal identity and norms, and by the harsh climate of their region.

The Widow’s Husband by Tamim Ansary (2009), set in the mid-1800s during the British presence—and failure—in Afghanistan, is told from both the Afghan and the British perspectives. The reader learns how people from different cultures can easily see the same events through entirely different lenses, and why failure to understand this can lead to ruin.

The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam (2009), set in modern times, presents characters who remain hopeful despite gut-wrenching, heart-crushing devastation and brutality. Their lives are a testament to humans’ ability to persevere through wars to peace. No nationality has a monopoly on evil or goodness in this book. In excellent prose, Aslam portrays nightmarishly brutal Afghans, Russians, and Americans. Yet there are also Afghans, Russians, Americans, and others who live through war daily by loving others and appreciating what beauty may be found.

Caravans by James Michener (1963), is set in 1946. Published almost fifty years ago, its story remains relevant. It follows a young American woman from Bryn Mawr who marries an Afghan and then goes missing in Afghanistan, and depicts the efforts of her husband and other Afghans to bring development and change to their remote, mostly rural land with firmly set cultural norms that do not warm easily to change. Caravans has the Michener stamp of good storytelling, and provides a window into the waning years of nomadic life, as the USSR and other states begin trying to define and enforce borders. Michener successfully shows an American’s transition from romanticizing tribal life and its endless adventures to accepting tribal norms and their impact on human lives more realistically.

For educators, these novels can engage students as a supplement to textbooks. Ansary’s novel, for example, offers a creative method of training students to understand the dangers of conducting military (or other) operations while culturally and linguistically blind. In one passage of The Widow’s Husband, relations between two British soldiers living near an Afghan village and the Afghan people deteriorate into disaster with horrifying speed.

Military educators could give their students Ansary’s book as an example of negotiation theory at work. How better to understand the personal and collective motivations of negotiators than by reading about the wrangling, maneuvering, backstabbing, plotting, and strategizing of British leadership and tribal chiefs in Kabul in 1841? Though the story is fiction, its tragic ending is a lesson in how not to negotiate. And as fiction, the story would allow students to study negotiation not as a set of distant theoretical principles, but as a dangerous and stressful form of human interaction.

Similarly, The Wasted Vigil offers a strong lesson in the ethics of decision-making through the terrifying decision a husband faces regarding his beloved wife.

As for studying the intersection of culture with justice and the rule of law, Caravans, which would be complemented well by Mark Weiner’s insightful Rule of the Clan, shows the diverse reactions of Afghans to a public execution; students can see how a gathering of multiple tribes handles accusations of theft, and experience how this feels to a Bryn Mawr alumna who has been wandering the mountains with one of the tribes. Both Caravans and The Wandering Falcon allow students to feel the simmering frustration of nomadic tribe members as they confront government attempts to enforce nation-state borders, which may seem “normal” to us but are incomprehensible to them.

These novels also show us how individuals understand, experience, and practice (or don’t practice) Islam in Afghanistan. In The Wandering Falcon, Islam is more of a social identity; tribal and cultural norms play a greater role in determining codes of behavior. In The Widow’s Husband, a Sufi sheikh figures prominently in the story; his joy in God and peace bring light to the story, even at dark times. Meanwhile, the inability of most of the British to understand the sheikh’s importance to the Afghans reminds us, in its far-reaching consequences, that foreign military or political missions cannot consider religion irrelevant.

In The Wasted Vigil, by contrast, violent fanaticism is nearly the sole expression of Islam. In Caravans, the dominant expression of Islam is narrow, harsh, and tightly controlled by a small, self-appointed religious elite. But some of the Muslims consider progress and openness in Afghanistan entirely compatible with their faith, and they debate among themselves whether the way forward is to bypass the religious elite entirely, since they are hopelessly ossified, or whether progress can only unfold if the religious power brokers have a change of heart.

But why read novels? How does fiction help us understand a real world situation? After all, these books cannot offer the scholarly research of non-fiction such as Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History.

Consider it this way. Each of us is a story, with a life full of characters, settings, and plots. And chances are good that deep down inside, we all know that if anyone is going to figure us out, really understand us, and know what we’re thinking and how we’re feeling and why we act and believe as we do, then they’re going to have to know our story, because our story, with all of its twists and turns, tells who we are. To really understand the people in Afghanistan, whether they are Afghans or foreigners, we need to understand their stories.

A briefing book can tell us how women are treated in a particular region, or that some particular behavior will bring shame to a family. But it won’t tell us what an ashamed man is worried about, or what a woman’s power in a clan feels like. A lessons-learned report written by an American won’t tell us what an Afghan learned from the same situation. Nor will it help us understand the motives of participants in a village jirga. A drone’s-eye-view cannot tell us why a boy, recruited and trained by radicals, has left them and is now living in the home of a peace-loving family.

People are at the heart of what we are doing in Afghanistan, and comprehending this is one key to success there. Novels can help us understand them and their cultures in all their subtlety and complexity.

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