Afghanistan: 3 Books and a Song

The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb

Christina Lamb is a foreign correspondent with a close relationship to Afghanistan and its people. Long before the current crisis of the west’s longest war-without-end, Lamb was reporting from Afghanistan.

During the time of the Russian invasion of more than 30 years ago, she travelled with the Mujahedeen fighters opposing the Russian forces. Some of those Afghan travel companions afterwards became Taliban members, another of them became the Afghan President.

This book looks at the complexities of Afghanistan from the time of the Russian war through to more recent, post-Taliban years.

The book’s title refers to a group of women in the city of Herat, who took the risk of studying during the Talban’s rule, under the cover of holding a sewing circle. Those women reflect the persistence, the resilience and the stubbornness of one group of Afghan people determined to live their lives no matter what outsiders may try to inflict upon them

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Kahled Hosseini

Kahled Hosseini came to attention through his book The Kite Runner a book about male friendship and betrayal before and during the Taliban’s rule. This is his second book and this time his main characters are Afghan women of different generations, both of whom become married to the same man.
While the women’s relationship starts with resentment, shared experience binds them closer together.

This book also stretches across Afghanistan’s different political eras but starts well before the Russian invasion and ends after the Taliban was driven out. The changing politics also reflects in the changing attitudes and opportunities faced by Afghan women during the decades spanned by the story.

Beneath the Pale Blue Burqa, by Kay Danes

In December 2000, Kay Danes’ husband Kerry (the Laos based managing director of a British security company) was abducted by the Lao secret police and attempts were made to get him to make false accusations against one of his clients. Soon afterwards Kay was arrested and imprisoned to increase pressure on her husband. They spent nearly a year in custody, a year of being subjected to torture and mock executions, while diplomatic wrangling went on to secure their eventual release.

After such an experience it may be hard to understand why less than a decade later Kay would choose to work in Afghanistan, especially after suffering years of PTSD following the Laos imprisonment. But her experience and recovery motivated her towards involvement in humanitarian issues, where she could make use of the public profile her experience had given her.
Then, in 2008 she was approached about a planned visit to an Afghan women’s prison in Jalalabad…

Just don’t tell mum I’m going to a war zone.


(lyrics here:Good Morning Freedom)

Kabul Dreams holds to the claim of being the first rock band from Afghanistan; established in 2008 in Kabul.

All of the band members were born in Afghanistan, but they were displaced to different neighbouring countries as refugees during the Taliban reign: Iran, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, returning to meet and establish the band after the Taliban fell.

In 2014, the band relocated to Oakland, California where they recorded and released their second album.


A Nurse at the Front, by Sister Edith Appleton

The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton.

This is a book I’ve been reading over a long period – not quite for as many years as it took for the original diaries to be written, but I’ve been dipping into it since I bought it, back in April 2015 and I finally finished it last weekend

I don’t find diaries the easiest things to read, but those written from within big historical events are worth it to get the “raw” impressions of those going through the experience, especially from the point of view of “every day people”.

The surprising thing about Edith Appleton’s account is the mix of experience described. There are the obvious times of extreme stress, when increased activity at the front results in waves of countless casualties needing hospital care. But there are also the quieter times: of country walks, afternoon teas, swimming in the sea. Those quieter times are the things so often missed out of the histories. The contrast is shown below.


July 4, 1916

Wounded! Hundreds upon hundreds on stretchers, being carried, walking – all covered from head to foot in well-caked mud. The rush and buzz of ambulances and motor-buses is the only thing I can remember of yesterday outside my wards. Inside it took us longer than the whole day to anything like cope with the work of changing, feeding and dressing the wounds of our share of them. We had horribly bad wounds in numbers – some crawling with maggots, some stinking and tense with gangrene, One poor lad had both eyes shot through and there they were, all smashed and mixed up with the eyelashes.


September 17, 1916

Had the day off yesterday. Indeed, I think about half the staff did too as we had so few patients in. I went for a walk with Wood and Maxy over the cliffs and lunched with Madame – crab, roast mutton, grilled potatoes and salad, then a delicious sort of cheese that is traditionally eaten with sugar then cider, and all followed by coffee. At 1 o’clock Matron, Maxy and I started off for Caudebec en Caux… The journey was a joy of beauty, bathed in sunshine. The Seine was most picturesque, with all the trees and hills along its banks just beginning to turn to autumn.

There is an Edith Appleton website where the diaries are accessible online, along with a lot of other information about her.

Sister Appleton received the Royal Red Cross, a medal awarded for exceptional services in military nursing. It’s the kind of medal I’d love to add to my collection of Medical Militaria, but I would never expect to find one for sale.

Then by accident today I found this one being sold, but for some reason Gloria won’t let me buy it. Maybe she thinks the $1,200 AUD could be put to better use for things we actually need 🙂 .

Noah’s Law, by Randa Abdel-Fattah


This book has been a “breath of fresh air” on my recent reading list.

I needed something like this – the kind of book I was very reluctant to put down, and could have read in one sitting had real life not interrupted from time to time, but as a compromise, I had to spread the reading over two days.

Sixteen year old Noah is an imaginative prankster whose originality is matched by the punishments his Lawyer dad devises.

After being caught altering the grades of classmates’ assignments when left alone in a teacher’s office, a dining room court hearing is convened and Noah’s dad sentences Noah to spend the six week  summer holidays working at his Aunt’s law firm.

The tedium of days spent copying legal documents change when Noah starts to suspect something fishy about a client’s pursuit of financial compensation from storage good franchise.

Noah’s talent for mischief turns out to be a helpful attribute, as he gains his first real-life experience of the legal system and finds how difficult it can be for justice to prevail.

I’ve just realised this is now the third Randa Abdel-Fattah book I’ve read. Only a week or two ago I finished Where The Streets Had a Name, and it was only a few minutes ago as I was typing up this “review” that I realised she is also the author of When Michael Met Mina, a book that I enjoyed last year. ( When Michael Met Mina. At the end of that post I included a link to the author’s personal website, but when I tried to access it a few minutes ago, the site didn’t seem to have any content, apart from the page title.)


Publisher’s page for the author.




Where the Streets Had a Name, Randa Abdel-Fattah

Every political situation has human face: often unseen or unnoticed, expediently pushed aside and ignored. Decisions made by rulers affect voiceless, everyday people who are prevented from determining their own path in life.

In Where the Streets Had a Name,  an elderly character describes this to her granddaughter.


“My life has been all politics,” she whispers as she touches the pile of photographs of my aunts and uncles on her bedside table. “I do not watch the television for politics because it is in every breath I take. It is here in this apartment, in the empty chairs that should hold my children who were forced to scatter around the world. It is here in the mint leaves floating in this cup of tea beside my bed. Mint leaves that should have been picked from the garden bed in my home, not bought from Abo Yusuf’s store. It is in the olives I eat from someone else’s tree and the patch of sky I am told I must not live under”.

This grandmother was made a victim of circumstances beyond her control, when national borders shifted, separating her and her family from their home and land, being moved from refugee camp to small apartments, prevented from returning to her former home by both political and physical barriers.

When a health scare sends her to hospital, her granddaughter, 13 year old Hayaat decides to aid her recovery by collecting a jar full of soil from her home village (now a part of Jerusalem). The seven kilometre journey between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is made into a major expedition, taking several hours in a variety of vehicles, held up by multiple check points, with seemingly pointless delays, dependant on the whim of checkpoint guards. On arrival in Jerusalem before she reaches her intended destination, Hayaat gets inadvertently caught up in a demonstration, bringing her face to face with tragedy from her past.

As a supporter of Israel I tentatively moved through the first few chapters wondering how biased the story would seem – but I started to realise that the fear came out of MY biased expectations and not the story.

I said I’m a supporter of Israel, and I could have qualified that statement by saying I’m not a supporter of everything that Israel does. I think reading this book has shown me the extent that my qualification was probably more of a self-justifying platitude than a reflection of a well-considered stance, because I’d never given much thought to the day to day experience of those affected adversely by unjust Israeli government policy.


I am thirteen years old and I know what blood is. I know what loss is. I know the smell of a corpse. I know the sound of people screaming in terror as they run from a tank. I know the dusty clouds left behind a frenzied bulldozer. The wall will soon be finished. Parts of Bethlehem will be fully deserted. Businesses closed, houses abandoned, streets emptied, schools sliced in half. I’m living in an open-air prison.


Reading this book hasn’t changed my support of Israel.

That support is based on my faith as a Christian and informed by my understanding of land ownership promises made by God to the people of Israel (as recorded in the Bible).

However, the benefits of those promises come with responsibilities of justice that aren’t always upheld by the current nation of Israel. But that ongoing story has some way to go…




Now it shall come to pass in the latter days
That the mountain of the Lord’s house
Shall be established on the top of the mountains,
And shall be exalted above the hills;
And peoples shall flow to it.

Many nations shall come and say,
“Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
He will teach us His ways,
And we shall walk in His paths.”
For out of Zion the law shall go forth,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between many peoples,
And rebuke strong nations afar off;
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.

But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree,
And no one shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

Micah 4:1-4

But in the meantime, support for Israel should not mean support of oppressive policies and actions directed towards any people living within borders under Israel’s control.

And neither should support of those experiencing injustice under Israel’s government mean holding a hostile attitude towards Israel as a nation and as a people.


Half Girlfriend, by Chetan Bhagat

Half Girlfriend follows the complicated relationship between Madhav Jha and Riya Somani, who meet at college in Delhi.

Madhav is heir of  a faded “royal” family from a poor Indian town where his mother manages and teaches at the local impoverished school. Riya’s family is ultra-rich, a fact she finds limiting, as family and class expectations hinder her personal dreams.

Madhav falls for Riya at first sight and a shared interest in basketball gives him the hope of initiating and furthering a relationship with her; but while Riya encourages close friendship, she makes it clear that she doesn’t want a full “girlfriend-boyfriend” relationship, a situation Madhav finds hard to accept. What does Riya mean by “half girlfriend” anyway?

Through breakup, forgiveness, reconciliation and heartbreak the relationship between the two is never easy when each seems to want something different. What would it take for their situation to be resolved?

And what roles do the book’s  author (Chetan Bhagat himself) and Bill Gates play in the couple’s attempt to maintain their relationship despite their differing desires and expectations?


This is another book I found while trawling through the shelves of  a local charity shop. I’ve been looking for books by authors of non-western backgrounds because I find they give a different perspective to “western” writers.

Half Girlfriend could be included in the same kind of  category as Mike Gayle’s books: stories I can always rely on to help me overcome “reader’s block” – when I need to read a book I know I won’t be able to put down until its finished. Mike Gayle is someone I turn to when I’ve read one too many “worthy” novels and need to rediscover a love of reading for reading’s sake, when story is given priority over the author’s clever wordplay. I found this book had  a similar appeal to Gayle’s work, the main differences being its setting and the cultural background of the characters, both of which play a significant part of the story.

As evidence of how much I enjoyed the book, I chose to order a boxed set of 8 of Bhagat’s books (which includes a new copy of this one). He’s someone whose work I’d like to read beyond this one story.

In trying to find out more about his writing, I found that some of his books have been adapted into Bollywood films. Half Girlfriend seems to be the most recent adaptation. After watching the trailer (see below), I hope it’s a film that will eventually be released on DVD.

According to what I’ve read about Bhagat, his first language isn’t English, but he writes in English for a mainly Indian readership and sells far fewer copies outside of India than he does in his homeland. After reading half way through my charity-store copy I came across the receipt from the original book purchase: at an airport shop in Mumbai (for 176 Indian Rupees).

The following description of Bhagat was in the Guardian:

…the 39-year-old Punjabi is one of India’s most successful English-language novelists currently at work. Unlike Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga, however, he has not been adopted by London’s literati, anointed the “authentic” voice of the subcontinent and exported back to a fawning welcome by India’s anglophone elite. Nor is Bhagat’s phenomenal success (with six novels shifting 7 million copies) due to foreign sales and profile – of which he has very little. It’s more to do with his intimacy with lower-born Indians, whose restricted hopes, humdrum work, romantic dramas, family tensions and sense of humour he has shared and sympathises with.

The article also notes that his work has been described as “Hornby-lite”, a reference to Nick Hornby, another writer I enjoy whose work, along with Mike Gayle, has been pejoratively described as lad-lit. A term used as a comparison to “chick-lit”.

Lad Lit is a fictional genre of male-authored novels about young men and their emotional and personal lives, often characterized by a confessional and humorous writing style. The term combines the word “lad,” which refers to a boy or young man and “lit,” which is short for “literature.”