Thomas Barfield is an anthropologist and professor of anthropology at Princeton whose experiences in Afghanistan stretch back to the 1960s, when he tr...moreThomas Barfield is an anthropologist and professor of anthropology at Princeton whose experiences in Afghanistan stretch back to the 1960s, when he travelled overland through the country as a student. He began ethnographic field studies there in the 1970s and witnessed the overthrow of the Afghan King Zahir Shah in 1973.
In his own words "Critics of the university tenure system undoubtedly put me among those useless faculty who purveyed esoteric and irrelevant knowledge to the young wihtout fear of termination. Wise policymakers had already determined that such remote places and people could be safely excluded from America's New World Order. . . . On September 11, 2001, Afghanistan suddenly became relevant" and Barfield became one of the few Americans who had the intimate knowledge of the country, its people and its history that we so desperately needed.
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is a broad overview of the history of Afghanistan and its culture. For a reader like myself, who reads the New York Times daily and a couple of other works on the country, namely Rory Stewart's The Places In Between and thinks they know everything, this book was a much needed corrective to my cultural biases, misunderstandings and creative ignorance of the country that we went to war with almost ten years ago. Afghanistan is blessedly well organized, with a clear goal set out in the introduction: to answer for the reader the following questions:
1. How did Afghanistan, which was overrun and ruled by a series of foreign dynasties for more than a thousand years, become renowned as the "graveyard of empires" in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries after forcing the withdrawal of both the British and Russians in a series of wars?
2. Why did the U.S. invasion of 2001 that toppled the Taliban not immediately set off a similar national insurgency (as it did in Iraq), and despite that, still fail to bring stability to the country?
3. Why have foreign attempts to change Afghanistan's politics, social structures, and government proved so ineffective?
4. How did a ruling dynasty established in 1747 manage to hold power over such a fractious people until 1978, and why has the afghan state since them experienced such difficulties in reestablishing a legitimate political order?
5. Why did a country for which the term"Balkanized" appeared ideally suited show so few signs of disintegration as a national state in spite of its many divisions?
6. How and why have splits in Afghan society since the 1920s over the structure of government and its policies led to so many periods of state collapse?
The chapter on the American-led invasion of Afghanistan was particularly enlightening. There are so many cliches about Afghanistan - that it can't be governed effectively because of its warring tribal factions won't allow it, the belief that it would become a new Yugoslavia, fracturing along ethnic lines that its history is one of constant insurgency and the belief that the country is mired in a medieval mindset are all simply untrue. Barfield demonstrates for the reader that Afghanistans long political history gives the lie to these suppositions and shows how a Western mindset regarding political intstitutions might lead us to believe them anyway.
I have two small gripes:1. There are typos. I feel like an academic press shouldn't have any 'teh's in their text. 2. There isn't much cultural history here. While I disagree with other reviewers who say that this is a dry read, I will add that it is an extremely dense one, packed with a lot of information in a relatively small number of pages. With that said, however, I highly highly recommend this book for anyone looking to educate themselves on Afghanistan's history and its current political climate. As Barfield says in his closing, Afghanistan is becoming more than just a backwater where the US fought the Taliban; with its rich mineral deposits and border with Pakistan (a soon-to-be-failed state with nuclear capabilities. Aside: I am scared shitless by Pakistan.) and other central Asian powers like Iran, Afghanistan will continue to be a focus of international interest for generations to come. I have, through reading this book, gained a tremendous amount of respect for Afghanistan and its people. I wish the country the best and hope that the US, Russia, China, India and whoever else can behave themselves there and work with the Afghan people to achieve the rich future that they deserve. (less)
Maria Gallante was a photojournalist; she had a nervous breakdown and now photographs food-porn for a living. One day, her agent calls her; he wants h...moreMaria Gallante was a photojournalist; she had a nervous breakdown and now photographs food-porn for a living. One day, her agent calls her; he wants her back in journalism, and he wants her to go to Kabul to photograph young women who have chosen self-immolation over arranged marriage. She does. Moral dilemmas abound.
I don't know how I feel about this novel: Is it a half-hearted attempt or just too reserved? The scenery could use a little fleshing out, but then, the inability to do just that is sort of the point. Characters could be developed better, but to do that, you would have to know them well, and the point seems to be that you can never know them well enough. Reading this novel was not what I would call an 'enjoyable' experience, but novels that force us into examinations of conscience rarely are. I can't stop thinking about it, and I feel compelled to put it back in the 'to read' pile.
This novel has left me with a lot of questions; questions like: what do I want from a novel? What do I want from the news that I read? Have I started treating novels and news like products to be consumed instead of sources of artistic and factual enlightenment? When did that happen and how do I stop?
Earth and Ashes shows a new face of Atiq Rahimi than The Patience Stone. It is subtle, sewn with beautiful images: an apple falling on the ground, a c...moreEarth and Ashes shows a new face of Atiq Rahimi than The Patience Stone. It is subtle, sewn with beautiful images: an apple falling on the ground, a cloud of dust, a tear welling in an eye.
An old man and his grandson are all that is left of a large extended family after the Soviets burn down their village. They make a days trek to the mine where the boy's father works to inform him that his mother, brother, and pregnant wife have all perished in the bombing. The little boy, Yasmin, has been struck deaf, but doesn't realize it yet.
Reviewers were right to compare this to Antigone, and the same themes are here: what we owe to the dead, how to avenge, how to mourn.
This, and The Patience Stone are both highly recommended. I will be reading The Thousand Rooms of Dreams and Fear very soon. (less)
Wow. This is a little novel that packs a mighty punch. The anonymous wife of a comatose mujahadeen keeps him company day after day, waiting him to wak...moreWow. This is a little novel that packs a mighty punch. The anonymous wife of a comatose mujahadeen keeps him company day after day, waiting him to wake up or die. He is her 'patience stone'; the stone that made up the throne of Adam in heaven, that was given to men and women to tell their sorrows.
This was an exceptionally powerful book, giving voice to the struggles of Afghan women. I can't wait to read more of Atiq Rahimi's work. Highly recommended. (less)