It is fair to say that in contemporary times, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner was the first to credibly convey to a Western audience the trials and tribulations of modern family life in Afghanistan. In similar fashion, this book paints a vivid portrait of the peripatetic life of a large Afghan family over
a time period of approximately three decades.
The account begins in the aftermath of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s. We learn that the author’s family “lived well” (p. 9), that many members of the family including women were educated, and that the family’s daily concerns were similar to the concerns of many other Afghan families resident in Kabul at that time. The author emphasizes the point that Kabul was a very desirable place to be living in after the departure of the Soviets. The author—then seven years old—flew kites from the roof of his grandfather’s house and he, along with his many cousins and friends, lived an idyllic life.
This tranquil environment in Kabul was suddenly shattered with the arrival of the bloodthirsty mujahedin, the self-proclaimed “holy warriors,” who gradually tool over not just Kabul but all of Afghanistan. Thus began the civil war in which the mujahedin, divided into several factions, constantly fought against each other.
The consequences of their deadly activities were hellish for civilians in Kabul.
Rockets constantly flew in all directions over Kabul, dead bodies were frequently to be seen on city streets, and there was a general breakdown in law and order. It is against this background that the author’s father seriously entertained the possibility of taking his immediate family out of not just Kabul but also Afghanistan. Thus began the family’s travels northward, through various villages, towns, and cities in Afghanistan.
We learn of the family’s travels to Doshi, to the verdant hamlet of Tashkurghan, to the town of Bamyan in central Afghanistan with the magnificent statues of Buddha carved in stone, and finally to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The author delineates these journeys to distant and, on occasion, exotic locales with enthusiasm, and it is clear that he has a flair for detail. For instance, the author’s anguish—when commanded by his father to steal pomegranates from the garden of a stranger in Tashkurghan to feed the starving family—is described not only with great specificity but also very poignantly.
Of particular interest is the manner in which the author and his family deal with the many financial and emotional difficulties they encounter during the course of their itinerant life. Despite their best efforts, circumstances frequently appear to conspire against them and they are, in the end, unable to leave Afghanistan. The family returns to Kabul, which is soon overrun by the despotic Taliban with quixotic rules about life in general and the societal role of women in particular. Although the Taliban brought peace to Kabul, this was “an unhappy peace, a frightened peace” (p. 286).
The departure of the Taliban and the return of normalcy in Kabul marks what is ostensibly the happiest phase in the life of the author and his family. This event also marks the concluding part of this book.
This is a fine coming-of-age memoir recommended to all readers who wish to learn more about present-day Afghanistan and about human fortitude under adversity.