This book has been standing around on my “to read” bookshelf at home for 9 months until I finally got to it. I’ve picked it up at the airport in Montreal but I guess the topic finally sounded a bit too intimidating to jump on reading it earlier. The story circles around the conflict in Afghanistan, focusing on a personal story of a reporter, illustrating how you can’t always stick to the premise of emotionally staying away from the people you interview. In the author’s case, it was two documentaries that she shot, that turned her subject’s life completely upside down.
Stylistically, the book was an absolute pleasure to read. You noticed from the very first sentences on that it’s written by a journalist, what allowed you to relax into the story completely and the reading flow was completely fluid.
“I saw in that interview how a question should be a key, sliding into the most reluctant lock and opening a portal on a private mind. Even the most guarded subject becomes vulnerable to the skilled locksmith […].” (p. 10)
The quote below was one of my absolute favourite ones within the book. Having a very personal story that illustrated it, made the whole narrative additionally captivating.
“The lesson I learned that day is that journalists all too often have their best moments when other people are having their worst.” (p. 4)
What turned out to be problematic for me personally, was how detailed the descriptions of the conflict in Afghanistan were. I felt like you had to go into reading this book with an already existing and strong knowledge, otherwise you would get knocked off your feet with all the background and historical facts, as well as all the new names of people and places within the first half of the book. It ended up being too heavily loaded for me, which was one of the reasons why it took me 18 days to finish the book. Nevertheless, I do have to say that everything possible has been done in order to ease your comprehension: A map of the concerned regions was added in the beginning, as well as a chronological glossary of the significant events in the end, so I’d definitely give it an A for effort!
A topic that specifically appealed to me were the descriptions of the lives of women within the Afghan society or rather all the ways how it is attempted to suppress them, silence them and make them invisible. It reminded me a lot of the accounts within the book “The Bookseller of Kabul“, which was one of my favourite ones I read in 2019. It becomes apparent that even within the most advanced families, the cultural factor of the dominance of the male figures is still imposed in daily life.
“The Rahmans had wealth and a sophisticated world view and yet Habib limited the women’s freedom at home , bound as he was to culture and tradition.” (p. 47)
“They feared women as dangerous creatures who appealed to human weaknesses and wicked appetites. They believed men needed protection from women. Women needed protection from their own vanity.” (p. 110)
“The girls’ existence in Kabul was without play, joy, or celebration of any kind. They were not permitted the kiss of the sun on their faces or the flutter of a breeze through their hair. They dared not look out a window without wearing a burqa for fear of being seen by the police who sometimes ordered windows to be whitewashed so passersby could not be tempted by even a glimpse of a female face.” (p. 112)
A big part of the story is also dedicated to an immigration debate – how to leave one’s own country if your life is in danger and all the obstacles that are put in your way, even if you have the most valid reasons to receive the needed support. The descriptions of all the bureaucracy linked to such a life changing experience are harrowing and they open up a whole new understanding of ones own privileges of living life in security. The whole story makes you appreciate and cherish your situation, if you don’t live in fear for your life and the one of your loved ones on a daily basis.
“The seething centre of the refugee debate is not really about policy; it’s about perception. Either you identify with others or you don’t. Either you see yourself in the eyes of others or you don’t.” (p. 275)
“What differences flow from a simple accident at birth. In one country a man speaks his mind and his world falls apart; his children are left without a future and they live in abject terror for years.” (p. 241)
What I was longing for after finishing the book, was to watch the two mentioned documentaries in the beginning, which the author produced after her trips to Afghanistan. It’s a pity that I wasn’t able to find them online, but at least there is this short and very interesting video I came across. It adds a visual layer to the story but since it’s a bit of a spoiler, I’d suggest you to watch it in the end of the book.
If the described subject matter sounds interesting to you, do give the book a try, but keep in mind that you will have to be resilient with your reading. The first half will be a bit of a challenge, whereas it picks up in pace towards the second half. I feel like the story would have deserved a 4/5 ★ rating and that I simply got to it at an inconvenient time, when I couldn’t make as much time for reading as I would have liked to. I’ll be aiming at re-reading it soon and I’ll finish off this review with another brilliant quote:
“If a journalist asks good questions she might win an award. If someone answers good questions it might get him killed.” (p. 279)