In the nearly forty-five year history of the Peace Corps, almost two hundred thousand Americans have returned home to the United States filled with fantastic memories and life-changing experiences from the Third World. It seems completely reasonable that many of these returning volunteers would--at least at some point--think about writing a book based on their time abroad. Indeed many have.
Paul Theroux (who was actually thrown out of the Peace Corps for his involvement in a failed coup attempt in Malawi in the early 1960s) is a fantastically gifted writer and has written many books--often developed from his own experiences in Africa. And first-time author and Peace Corp returnee Sarah Erdman penned the brilliant Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village last year…and those are just two examples.
Eloise Hanner’s poignant collection of letters, written at a pace of about one a week, to her mother while volunteering in Kabul from 1971-1973 is another example of Peace Corps writing. At the ripe age of twenty-one, freshly graduated from college and just married (to Chuck Hanner, who volunteered along side his wife) the couple arrived in Afghanistan ready to change the world--and teach English to the Afghan people.
While Hanner’s letters are sweet, informative, and thorough, and they are adept at tracing her mood from timid and unsure at the beginning of her tenure to confident and experienced near the end, the reader cannot help but feel distanced while reading them, as if we came across a private diary that we’re not supposed to see.
For example, in a letter dated December 5, 1971, we read about Eloise and Chuck’s celebration of Thanksgiving thousands of miles from home . Further along in the letter, Eloise lets her mother know that India and Pakistan are at war over Kashmir. She writes, “this means (in addition to useless bloodshed) that the dock in Karachi, Pakistan is closed. So, if your Christmas packages did make it through the dock strike in the USA, they will now sit in Karachi until the end of the war.” In fairness to Hanner she does clarify in the next sentence--quite prophetically in fact--that the concern that she has about her Christmas gifts over concern for the war is a product of the fact that she believes this war will continue, on and off, for decades. But just when the reader thinks that she’s addressing an issue of larger importance, Hanner launches into a lament about how the war will put “the kibosh on our vacation plans for January,” and pleads to her mother about her desperate need for pantyhose.
Hanner decided to publish the letters--as she explains in the introduction--after September 11th, when all anyone saw of Afghanistan were “bombings and machine-gun toting Afghans.” And while Hanner’s goal of allowing readers to see Afghanistan as she saw it over thirty years ago is more or less successful, it begs a larger question: Beyond its mild entertainment value (tempered greatly by the fact that the reader is reading the private correspondence--not meant for their eyes--between two people who the reader does not know), is this really useful?
In some respects, Letters from Afghanistan is useful. It is the honest, hopeful, and energetic correspondence of a young woman in a difficult and unusual place. It does provide some insight into what day-to-day life was like for an average Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan during the early 1970s, and it does shed some light on how the Afghans lived and thought as well. But in many respects this collection of letters is hollow and empty.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book are the last few pages. Hanner confesses in her Epilogue that her two years in Kabul likely did very little to help the Afghan people, particularly given the tumultuous turn of events that Afghanistan has gone through in the decades since she left. Hanner continues by practically issuing a eulogy for Afghanistan in the next to last paragraph of the book, explaining that “throwing money at problems won’t help” Afghanistan and that “it will take years of dedicated work by the Afghans to even get back to the miserable conditions they had in 1970.”
While Hanner is probably correct about much of this, it does get back to the wider issue of the book’s overall importance and usefulness. Why, if Hanner believes Afghanistan to be hopelessly trapped in the pit of despair, would she want to relay to readers what life was like in the country over thirty years ago, when--using her own words--Afghanistan had "miserable conditions"?
Unfortunately, the answer tends to lean more toward the selfish. Among the many who have traveled and lived under harsh conditions, there tends to be a desire to boast about one’s accomplishments. There seems to be a tendency to want to show the people of the West--with our abundance of food and material possessions--that the writer lived alongside the poor people of the world and survived to tell the story.
Perhaps it is unfair to judge Hanner by this standard. Clearly she has not intended to brag about her accomplishments but, in the end, Letters from Afghanistan is a disconnected and somewhat patronizing view of the country over three decades ago.