Palgrave Macmillan’s publicity department saw what I wrote here on Dandelion Salad and sent me a free copy of their newly published book, The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight To Lead Afghanistan Into the Future in exchange for a review of it. Got to wonder if the folks actually read what I’ve written about us and our adventures abroad before making me this deal. Shoot I am flattered to actually get some recompense of sorts for the writing I’ve done, but I aint pulling any punches on this turkey. I’m calling it as I see it, now as always.
“You Americans always start off with a story” say all the Europeans I know, they are right of course and I’m starting this off with a Richard Pryor story. Back right after my namesake Dan White shot Moscone and Milk in SF, there was this major and important rally against twinkies or whatever that the gay political movers and shakers in SF put together to show their solidarity against junk food or Irish Catholic white boys or whatever it was. Anyway the organizers invited Richard Pryor to speak there, and he showed up and said to the crowd there, near as I can remember it, just this and nothing else: “Sheeyit, you all are upset about Milk and Moscone being killed? Where were you when Watts was burning down and all my black brothers and sisters were being shot down dead by the National Guards? As far as I’m concerned, all of you can kiss my rich black happy ass.” Didn’t go over well with the crowd, that. Lily Tomlin was asked afterwards what she thought about it, and she replied “You ask for Richard Pryor, you get Richard Pryor.” So, Palgrave Macmillan, like it or not, you asked for Dan White, you get Dan White.
This book isn’t worth anyone’s time. It got rave reviews from Kirkus, The Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and Ms. Magazine, judging from the back cover blurbs. I suspect these reviewers were all female historical illiterates lacking critical faculties who fell for the admittedly horrifying stories of gender-related cruelty from Ms. Koofi’s life in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Horror stories make good Hollywood teenager movie fare but don’t make a book, and folks writing for a living ought to know that. As it is, this books flaws are profound and obvious. This is a politician’s autobiography written prior to an election and it has all the flaws of the genre. Nothing bad is said about anyone, with the exception of the Taliban. Facts are that it is no more possible to write favorably about the Taliban than it is the Nazis, so that’s no brave stretch. Overly large percentage of the book reads like political speeches rewritten into prose, with the usual loss of impact speeches suffer from transformation into prose. Worse is that much of this speechifying is alleged letters from the author to her daughters, and they all are cloying. The political hot potatoes are all left untouched here. The drug trade, Afghanistan’s largest industry, gets well avoided. Corruption in her country’s government is tut tutted for a bit with no insight into it or cures suggested. Nothing about her own finances, and how she makes a living. Nothing about the American war, except that Ms. Koofi urges the US to maintain its presence in Afghanistan to keep the evil Taliban from returning. Nothing is said to explain why Afghans are giving a known bad quality, the Taliban, a second chance nowadays. Particularly when the second chance is against her own government. She doesn’t lack company on that question; nobody here in the US is asking that question and we’ve had nine or so years to. Can’t be too hard on her there, I suppose.
Question needs raising as to if Ms. Koofi’s saying, twice, that the Russians invaded Afghanistan in order to get a warm water port shows her as a historical illiterate about her own country’s recent history–what with her lack of formal education that’s sadly very possible–or if she is making a(n)(odious and reprehensible) red-meat pitch to American conservative dumbshits. Seeing as our good friend Zbigniew Brzezinski has said for some two decades now that the US in effect tar-babied the Russkis into invading her country via CIA covert actions under Carter, the answer to this question matters. My estimation is that any Afghani who supports US conservative interests, after what all we’ve put their country through since 1978, needs to be shot or institutionalized.
So can you get a good read on Ms. Koofi, what sort of person she is, or what sort of political leader with what kind of political agenda from reading this book? No, it just isn’t honest or revealing enough. It is too much of a politician’s motherhood and apple pie electoral speechifying gandy-dancing* to draw anything much revealing from. However, the distressing thought to me as I read this book is that it may well be to a large if not totally part a USG/CIA piece of propaganda/disinformation for the person we’ve selected to replace Karzai.** Possibly the book is a result of her own electoral plans and efforts. I can’t say, but if the USG is in any way responsible for this book, particularly the CIA*, then I am furious and disgusted at the waste of taxpayer dollars and the shameless reprehensibility of USG agents engaging in domestic propaganda for an undeserving recipient like Ms. Koofi.
On the other hand, I can recommend reading Confessions of a Mullah Warrior, by Masood Farivar, published by Atlantic Monthly Press. Masood Farivar is a much better writer, and writes with a great deal of personal honesty about his own life growing up in Afghanistan, his family’s flight to Pakistan during the war, and his coming to the United States for a college education, from Harvard no less. Book is of 2009 vintage, and Farivar moved back to Afghanistan in ’08 to put his talents and abilities in service for his Afghanistan. Someone needs to interview him these days, as I am sure he will tell things straight up now about things there as he, near as I can tell, did so plenty in his book.***
In his own words, Masood Farivar tells of life in post-9-11 US for him, in New York City, in his immediate post-Harvard days. From pp280-81, where Masood rides the NYC subway, and sees a bearded Muslim reading what appears to be the Koran on the subway:
“My curiosity increased as the train neared Manhattan, and the man continued his quiet reading. I got up from my seat to steal a glance. When I walked past him I saw the distinct Arabic letters and the zippered black leather case of the Koran. I was stunned. What did he think he was doing? Wasn’t he afraid? Was he suicidal?
“The train continued to my stop at Fourteenth Street. As I got off, the man shifted in his seat as if aware of my scrutiny, but he remained engrossed in his reading. I wanted to talk to him, ask if he was afraid. But I knew his answer. Why should I be afraid? I’m not afraid to practice my religion. I read the Koran because I love it, and it is every Muslim’s duty to read it. The Prophet said reading the Koran cleanses the heart. God will protect you when you are in danger, and when your time to die comes, it comes. No one can stop it.
“He was retaining, on a PATH train to Manhattan, the faith I had learned as a Muslim but had since lost.”
And on Afghan life, and his and his kin and kith’s attachment to the ancestral lands. Visiting his clan’s cemetery in 2004, in his first visit back to Afghanistan in more than a decade, Masood writes, pp301-2:
“The extent of my family’s suffering is all the more apparent when I visit our clan cemetery to pray at the tombs of my grandparents. The cemetery sits on the edge of town and has grown overcrowded, the mounds of rain-washed dirt that pass for graves packed tightly like sardines in a can. Many hold the remains of martyrs and are topped by green banners. I’m struck by their number and ask Mayar who they all are. Mayar, who has lived in Sheberghan all his life save for two years during the Taliban rule, has an encyclopedic knowledge of our family history. As he points at each grave and rattles off names, I try to remember them, but my mind wanders back to the lost time when this cemetery was small and pretty and we came to this part of town in the spring to run in the surrounding fields, red with tulips, and the air was filled with the scent of wild roses and fruits.
“…(the caretaker) says that the cemetery has grown beyond capacity and will soon run out of spots to squeeze in more graves. Our clan, the Laghmanis, have been trying to buy the outlying fields, but the owners have not agreed to sell. The caretaker is not sure where our family will bury our dead when the graveyard runs out of space. Perhaps in a different part of town. In any case, he reminds me, tradition dictates that every forty years or so graveyard are flooded, planted with wheat for two seasons, and then readied for fresh burial. The time to flood this graveyard will come soon.
“I’m saddened to hear this. I tell my cousins that in America many cemeteries are hundreds of years old, and then I realize a paradox of Afghan culture. Afghans revere their ancestors and bury them nearby where they can visit them often, but Afghanistan is a poor country and habitable land is scarce. After a generation, we have to let go of them. Physically but not spiritually. As much as we revere shrines, what matters most is their spiritual presence.”
Writing to explain your people to others, others unfamiliar with your people and their ways, is most difficult to do well, rarely is it done this well, and there are passages enough like this to make this book worth anyone’s time. Particularly nowadays, when we are at pointless futile war in their country, and likelier than not we will be receiving many of these people here into the USA as refugees from our military efforts in their lands in the near future, assuming we act responsibly towards them. I hope we do; we certainly never have in the past.
*Readers are encouraged to look into the etiology of this expression from the Irish railroad worker days.
**Once upon a time, if the CIA did in fact spend money on this book’s publication, well that would probably have been illegal. I am not up to speed on all the gutting of constitutional protections things like the Patriot Act have done, but I suspect that even if the prior prohibitions of the CIA spending monies on domestic political operations were still in effect, it wouldn’t matter because there isn’t a soul (umm, that’s probably the wrong word to use when talking about attorneys) in the US DOJ with guts and professionalism enough to prosecute the CIA for a law violation anyway.
***The book’s one weakness is one that it shares with Ms. Koofi’s, and that is on how these upper-class–distinctly upper-class in Ms. Koofi’s case–families make their money in one of the three or four poorest countries in the entire world. Admittedly their standard of living isn’t any better than any working stiff here in the US’, but that puts it lightyears ahead of so many of their rural compatriots. Ms. Koofi does have a few good tales of rural poverty and what the French sociologist Germaine Tillion called clochardisation, the reduction to a near-mentally retarded state from living in dire rural isolation and poverty. Both families would seem to make their money from rural agricultural landholdings and the rents from it. Seems to me that somebody needs to look into just how badly Afghan farmers have been and still probably are being screwed by their landowners. There’s more than a whiff of near-medieval economic slavery and oppression I catch here, sharecropping on steroids. For all our stated concern for improving the lives of Afghans, well hell here’s the logical first place to start, seeing as most all Afghans are rural farmers. The fact that we haven’t done anything in rural Afghanistan, except for some anti-drug crop substitution nonsense, shows more of the ugly truth about us and our true motives for being in their country there.