“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
There was a dispiriting piece in The New York Times Magazine Sunday (1 June 2003) on the resurgence of feudal chiefs in Afghanistan. It seemed oddly out of place. (Huh? Afghanistan? What does that have to do with anything?) The zigzag tour we’ve taken of Central Asia since 9/11, and America’s notorious elephant memory have left Afghanistan, sadly, not surprisingly, stage left. Iraq was the new Afghanistan. Iran is the new Iraq. It makes Christina Lamb’s Sewing Circles of Herat—her personal and thorough account of two wars in Afghanistan—that much more significant.
Lamb is an award-winning foreign correspondent who covered the mujaheddin-Soviet war in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and then returned after 9/11. She writes about two different wars with similar horrific results. Both of which are, for the most part, forgotten. Lamb published her book on the heels of War in Afghanistan II. It seemed a perfect coda—portrait of a troubled country before we fixed it. The upshot is that it’s about as fixable as shattered glass. What is left of Afghanistan after centuries of brutal wars, oppression, depraved destruction is essentially rubble. Which might be why it’s slipped out of the news—there’s no “there” there.
Lamb arrived in Afghanistan an idealistic adventurer “stumbling out of a battered mini-bus in the Old City of the frontier town of Peshawar, dizzy with Kipling and diesel fumes.” She had romantic notions of faraway adventures and despite the horrors she had seen, the romantic notions persist on her return to the country years later. In the midst of mass destruction, death and ruin, Lamb is quick to point out the bird singing, the lone flower pushing defiantly through the dirt, the smell of a pine tree. She captures the essence of culture, tradition and pride of a people that is impossible to see in news accounts.
The title of the book refers to one of the only social gatherings allowed in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Using sewing circles as a cover, women carried baskets of needles, thread and cloth to houses where they gathered to write, read poetry, teach and learn. Children playing in the street were instructed to signal if Taliban approached so they could hide their books and pick up sewing needles. The art, beauty and intellectual fulfillment these women craved enough to risk their lives for was very strictly forbidden. Lamb uses their story to weave together the country’s complicated history. Hse juxtaposes images of beauty and horror throughout the book - a metaphor for her own writing. Lamb believes passionately that stories, no matter how horrible, need to be told, and beauty is never completely lost.
Some of her accounts are literally jaw-gaping. Travelling the country with the mujahedeen in the 80s she spent two days huddled in a trench waiting out Russian tanks parked at close range ready to shoot any sign of life. The group of men in the trench included current Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, whom she forged a close friendship with. They lived on dirty puddle water and mud crabs until the tanks inexplicably drove away.
One of the eeriest sections of the book, “Mullahs on Motorbikes”, is an account of her friendships with the men who later became the Taliban. At the time they were fighting the Soviet Union—idealistic youths who loved their country yet a few years later systematically destroyed it. In those earlier days she writes, “I found them brave men with noble faces who exuded masculinity yet loved to walk hand-in-hand with each other and pick flowers.” Later she describes the atrocities committed by the regime they formed: public executions, torture and unimaginable destruction. It’s an unsettling comparison—one visit she’s laughing with the Mullahs, the next she’s recording horrific carnage at their hands. When the oppressive Taliban regime is finally toppled in Afghanistan, all that remains of the country’s jeweled past are stories. The Taliban’s focused efforts to destroy art, culture and history recall more recent events in Iraq—the annihilation of a country’s soul.
Sewing Circles of Herat ends on a just barely positive note. Lamb tracks down a young girl whose letters are sprinkled throughout the book. She wrote to Lamb secretly during the Taliban, describing life under their rule candidly enough to get her killed. Lamb developed a strong emotional attachment to this girl through her intimate conversations in letters and when they finally meet, exchanging hugs and gifts, things seem to be looking up. But it’s a sitcom conclusion—one that American readers look for. We’re accustomed to neat, happy endings, whether they are neat and happy or not. Certainly Lamb didn’t leave the country with excess optimism. Nobody could have.
Though heartbreaking, Lamb’s book is a beautiful gift to Afghanistan and essential to understanding a people beyond news clips. She is also the author of The Africa House: The True Story of an Englishman and His African Dream and Waiting for Allah : Pakistan’s struggle for democracy.