Books nowadays have trailers and taglines, movie style. Suraya Sadeed’s book, Forbidden Lessons In A Kabul Guesthouse has a trailer too, where an urgent baritone — very much in the style of erstwhile Hollywood action blockbuster trailers — informs us that the book “is the story of one woman who risked everything to bring hope to Afghanistan’s children.” And if you think that’s a bit self-aggrandising, it’s not a patch on the rest of the book.
To be fair, Sadeed does risk much, if not everything, and brings aid and hope to some Afghan children and indeed adults through her surreptitious underground girls’ schools (under the Taliban rule through the ’90s) and medical clinics. Sadeed’s achievements are nothing short of remarkable and they have been recognised as such. At the end of the book, after having navigated chain-smoking militants, corrupt Afghani bureaucrats and intransigent refugee camp personnel, Sadeed finally achieves the holy-grail of American recognition, a spot on Oprah. And that’s all very good. However, as a book and a narrative, if you’re expecting anything more nuanced and original than a story of a feisty heroine battling with evil and the odds perennially stacked against her, then you’d be disappointed.
Sadeed’s personal story is quite interesting. Along with her husband Dastagir, Sadeed, the daughter of a former governor in Afghanistan escapes the country at the beginning of the Russian occupation. They land in America, where through graft and determination, which is so often a part of an immigrant’s success story, she builds a successful real estate business. Dastagir however dies suddenly and Sadeed after a period of depression, is shaken in to fervent activity when she sees a news story on TV about the terrible conditions of refugees along the Af-Pak border. She puts all of her considerable spirit in to steamrollering through all the various obstacles, some deadly, some merely corrupt all the way into the worst affected areas of Afghanistan.
Self-styled lone ranger
These are the grounds for a terrific story. However, so enamoured is Sadeed by her own deeds and adventures, that everything that happens to her, every person she meets, everything she does is used only as a vessel to further her characterisation as an aid-dispersing superwoman, a terror to her enemies and an angel to those she helps. The Afghani people she meets are either wide-eyed victims or power hungry politicians who care very little for the plight of the common Afghan. The politicians and bureaucrats she’s able to stave off through the force of her righteous anger and plain-speaking ways. The militants of course are a different kettle of fish. Here Sadeed turns into a mother figure. At once scolding and emotionally manipulative, she not only manages to pass through the various checkpoints relatively unharmed but also enlists the help of one particularly impressionable young fighter who actually helps her to get to where she’s going. But we merely get glimpses of these characters, not enough to really glean anything apart from their relational usefulness to Sadeed’s personal narrative of triumph.
The misery of the Afghan people even before the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent American military occupation was fierce. Caught between the infighting Mujahideen tribes the Afghan people were dispossessed and displaced, fated to a terrible life of penury and exploitation, if they were lucky enough to survive the constant hail of bullets and rocket fire in the first place. The Taliban, much maligned in the post 9/11 world, was then a welcome agent of peace for the Afghan people. Yes, they were restrictive and punitive, but it was better than being in a state of constant war. When the earthquakes hit in 1998 and Sadeed rushed into the quake ravaged interiors to bring aid, the Taliban warlords proved to be helpful. This is the only bit of nuance in the book, which otherwise is driven by Sadeed encountering obstacles and opposition which she batters in to submission through a mix of initiative, righteousness and, in some cases, naivete.
Sadeed styles herself as a lone ranger. In her first trip into the Afghan heart of darkness, she writes of how foreign aid organisations stuck at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, suffering from a distinct lack of courage and conviction, try to dissuade her from crossing the border into Afghanistan. If she is to be believed then Sadeed and her then nascent organisation, Help the Afghan Children (HTAC), were the only aid organisation that had the necessary cojones to go into the highly fractious cauldron of violence that was Afghanistan post the Russian occupation. Other aid organisations who had a presence in the area are completely dismissed through a calculated lack of mention.
Afghanistan laid bare
What the book has in spades are ghastly scenes of horror and misery. When Sadeed returns to Kabul, a hollow shell of its previous luminous self, she sees a pack of dogs tearing apart human carcasses in the streets. The families of the dead didn’t dare step out of their shelters to claim the bodies of the fallen. They left them to their fate at the slavering jaws of hungry dogs. And while such grotesque imagery elucidates horror and revulsion — much like the pictures of swollen bellied, hollow eyed children from Africa so often used by aid organisations to solicit donations — whether they’re actually effective enough to inspire action is debatable.
The book also describes a pre-9/11 Afghanistan, ending just as the planes crashed in to the World Trade Centre towers. Which again in the book is viewed through the prism of Sadeed’s personal shock at the event. The situation in Afghanistan since then has changed enormously, as is obvious to anyone keeping a cursory track of the events there in the ensuing decade. So for someone looking to get a sense of the geo-political situation in Afghanistan currently, the book is severely outdated. As a profile of a wealthy Afghan-American woman zooming in and out of the country towering odds spreading education and blankets, it’s a decent read. Nothing more, nothing less.