Growing up as a British citizen in an Afghani family, Saira Shah is steeped in the culture, myths and stories of her homeland from her earliest days by her father, the writer Idris Shah. Her family, descended from royalty, has been displaced from their ancestral home of Paghman, Afghanistan, and keeps its memory alive through storytelling. The stories she hears are full of the magic and mystery of Afghanistan and are so compelling Shah cannot wait to travel there herself to find this mystical land her father so loves.
These stories are part of the reason why Shah, at the age of twenty-one, leaves for Afghanistan as a war correspondent during the Soviet occupation. Later, in April 2001, she returns to Afghanistan with the BBC to film the documentary Beneath the Veil, which, while viewed in England, was little known outside that nation until after September 11th, when it was shown repeatedly on the American TV station CNN.
Shah interweaves the narrative of her time in Afghanistan with the fables her father told her as a child, depicting the mythic country she sets out to find with the reality she encounters as a war correspondent. Of her time in the country under the Taliban regime, she writes, “The Taliban aren’t just oppressive. They have corrupted all the qualities I grew up believing to be quintessentially Afghan: generosity of spirit, courage, boundless self-confidence and, above all, a sense of humour.”
The Storyteller's Daughter, while not a comprehensive history of Afghanistan, the Taliban, or the West’s role in the formation of the nation, lends itself to a deeper understanding of Afghanistan and its people. It is, above all, the story of one woman’s adventures in the country of her ancestry and the pull she feels between England, her place of birth, and her Afghani heritage. Though the book will not thoroughly explain the troubled history of Afghanistan, it is an important addition to the library of any reader struggling to understand the Islamic world. Shah is adept at humanizing this troubled nation by depicting the human faces of both those who are oppressed and those who have done the oppressing.