Two faces but one winner

29th August 2003 at 01:00
Peter Coleridge on one woman's attempt to reconcile her risk-taking Afghan roots witha liberal English upbringing

THE STORYTELLER'S DAUGHTER: Return to a lost homeland. By Saira Shah. Michael Joseph pound;16.99.

"It is practically impossible to convey concepts outside somebody's cultural experience," writes Saira Shah. Exactly. For a westerner to penetrate a different culture and interpret it authentically is very difficult.

What if we happen to be born with the genes of one culture but raised in another? Saira Shah has an Afghan father but was brought up in Tunbridge Wells, in leafy Kent. She has returned to Afghanistan repeatedly to seek her roots and explore the authenticity of the stories told to her by her father.

Does an ability to speak Persian, to have been nurtured on tales (or are they myths?) of Afghanistan, with Afghan blood in her veins and a fearlessness few could equal, make her an insider or an outsider? As Saira herself says: "Two people live inside of me. Like a couple who rarely speak, they are not compatible. My western side is a sensitive, liberal, middle-class pacifist. My Afghan side I can only describe as a rapacious robber-baron. It revels in bloodshed, glories in risk and will not be afraid."

The book is a confrontation between these two opposite personalities. It takes a great deal of pain, risk, drive, phenomenal courage - and luck - to resolve her identity. Shot through with the intense passion of her personal quest for identity, the book reflects on her journeys to Afghanistan during the late 1980s and 1990s as a journalist, up to the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Her documentary films such as Beneath the Veil did not always find a happy reception, even among liberal Afghans.

It was not the Taliban who compelled women to wear the burka: they were simply enforcing in previously liberal Kabul a form of Pushtun culture that has run right through the southern half of Afghanistan and western Pakistan for centuries.

To portray the veil itself as a symbol of oppression is a western, not an Afghan view. Perhaps marriage is the ultimate litmus test. Saira Shah seeks the help of a fearsome Afghan aunt to fend off a proposed arrangement.

This aunt, a key person in the book, bridges two cultures: she understands as well as Saira that the quest to be truly who we want to be transcends culture. Saira Shah's western nurturing wins. But this does not detract from the overall power of the book. Her adventures reveal to her in grimy, chilling detail the harsh realities of Afghanistan and its people.

You thought the mujahidin fighting the Soviets were a people with a cause? Think again. "You cannot buy an Afghan's loyalty," as the saying goes; "you can only rent it." Without the billions of American dollars and Stinger missiles behind them, the mujahidin would not have driven the Russians out.

But once the Russians were gone the money dried up and they fell prey to infighting.

But is the fickle opportunism of the Afghan warlords any different from the cynical manipulation of historical fact by the Americans themselves? It was Ronald Reagan and Bush Snr who set out deliberately to create an Islamic counterforce to communism, with undoubted success. Thus, in the training camps of Afghanistan, was Osama Bin Laden created. For Bush Jnr now to ring his hands over "Islamic terrorism" is monumentally disingenuous. We need books like this to remind us of the very different reality of just a few years ago.

However, the authenticity of her writing comes not from a political commentary, but from encounters with the ordinary people she met and travelled with, villagers who refuse sanctuary to the mujahidin because they have lived for centuries in peace and do not now want war, a guide who drives his vehicle down a mined road while his passengers walk behind, a refugee family who prefer to return to their bombed-out village in dignity rather than suffer the shame of being shunted around Pakistan.

As Saira Shah learned from her father, "the only thing we truly own is what cannot be lost in a shipwreck". Such tales of dignity and courage by ordinary people are what we identify with, whether we are from east or west.

Peter Coleridge is a development worker who ran a UN national programme for disabled people in Afghanistan from 1995 - 2001

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