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Melodrama in the Service of Empire

“Smart Power” and the Afghanistan Novel

by PADMAJA CHALLAKERE

In the context of the much-talked about Afghan drawdown of 2013-14, it is relevant to consider the successful Afghanistan novel and the work it has done in waging the Afghanistan war. One could argue that the Afghanistan Novel is the ghost in this war machine. Novels like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite-Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) and the torrent of immensely popular “blue burqa” books like My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban (2002) and Behind the Burqa (2002) produce a televisual feeling for Afghanistan history which has influenced the form and content of literary novels like Nadeem Aslam’s A Wasted Vigil or Philip Hensher’s The Mulberry Empire.

But more fundamentally, the blockbuster Afghanistan novel has generated  our support for and acquiescence to the long and bloody NATO war on Afghanistan. These novels provide the “narrative container” into which truth (figured as surplus) about Afghanistan’s war-torn history must be confined. The gestures that this container allows are, of course, predictably narrow in range: sensational narratives of violence (never ours), or a catastrophism which declares that Afghanistan is “the wall against which empires crash” or “the land where Empires go to die” (Philip Hensher’s The Mulberry Empire) or, the most sensational horrorism wherein the Afghan woman is brutally assaulted (Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns) or, narratives of self-exoneration or self-indemnity (Hosseini’s The Kite-Runner).

First and foremost, there is complete silence about the NATO war on Afghanistan in these novels and in memoirs like Asne Seierstad’s The Book-Seller of Kabul (2002) or, in the now discredited Three Cups of Tea (2006) or, in  Suraya Sadeed’s Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthoust (2011). The appeal of these texts and the positive reviews they garner lies in the way in which they produce affect by minimizing culpability and accountability. What is also missing in these books is the long history of  US support for the most violent and reactionary Islamist mujahideen who now go under the banner of Northern Alliance, our current allies in the war against the Taliban.

Catastrophism is the aesthetic mode of these novels. It is not incidental that the recurring themes and preoccupations in the Afghanistan novel are fatedness and tragedy rather than responsibility or liability.”Tragedy” seems to encapsulate the very essence of Afghanistan. A quick Google search will reveal that no word appears in conjunction with Afghanistan more than the word “tragedy;” so, the shooting-rampage by Robert Bales which killed 17 Afghan civilians, 9 of whom were young children, is “tragic,” “the civilian casualties” from drone strikes is “tragic,” “the roadside bombs that kill 3 out of 4 American and British soldiers” is “tragic,” the abuse of foreign workers in military bases in Afghanistan is “tragic,” the “IED explosives causing brain injury to our soldiers is tragic,” the “44 year life-expectancy”  and the millions exposed to hunger there is “tragic.” The events tagged “tragic” underscore the inevitability and hopelessness of our well-intentioned efforts suggesting that the catastrophic violence and destruction and death in Afghanistan is ‘tragic’ but not really ‘historically significant’.

The immense energy spent in transforming the “invasion of Afghanistan” into a narrative about “the Afghanistan tragedy” has its own political history, one which shows this war to be, to quote Chomsky, “the most doctrinal and the ideological war of our times.” This political history has to do not merely with differentiating between good violence (ours) and bad violence (theirs) but about producing new fictions of evil which offer a salve to those most deeply implicated in the violence in Afghanistan. The popular novels and memoirs have played a significant role not only in sensationalizing or selling violence but in licensing our aggression and recovering our innocence.

Two dominant features of this melodramatic genre can be most readily identified. The first is a Spielberg-like sensationalism as seen in the striking gratuitousness of the sexual violence to which Hassan is subjected in The Kite-Runner or in the physical and sexual violence to which Mariam and Laila are subjected in Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. The second signature of this genre is, what Mark Seltzer in True Crime: Observations on Violence and Modernity, calls “traumatophilia” or  “contemporary wound culture” narrated in the “neutral self observing the self” mode popularized by crime novels like The Talented Mr. Ripley. We see this dynamic between the narrator/protagonist Amir, of Khaled Hosseni’s novel The Kite-Runner and his victim/servant/friend: Hassan. Mark Seltzer in his analysis of popular media technology speaks of “a Ripley-like identification, and doubling to the point of taking the place of the other” which “entails an unremitting self-reflection bordering on what seems like self-violence.” But, as Seltzer observes, it is a mistake to understand this paradoxicality as self-examination, rather, it is its mode of operation:”

He [Hassan] had the blue kite in his hands; that was the first thing I saw. And I can’t lie now and say that my eyes didn’t scan it for any rips. His chapan had mud smudges down the front and his shirt was ripped just below the collar. He stopped. Swayed on his feet like he was going to collapse. Then he steadied himself. Handed me the kite . . . .Hassan dragged a sleeve across his face, wiped snot and tears. I waited for him to say something, but we just stood there in silence, in the fading light. I was grateful for the early-evening shadows that fell on Hassan’s gaze. Did he know I knew? And if he knew, then what would I see if I did look into his eyes? Blame? Indignation? Or, God forbid, what I feared most, guileless devotion?  . . . . I thought he might burst into tears, but, to my relief, he didn’t, and I pretended I hadn’t seen or heard the crack in his voice. Just like I pretended I hadn’t seen the dark stain in the seat of his pants. Or those tiny drops that fell from between his legs and stained the snow black. (The Kite-Runner,78)

Here the narrator confesses that not only does he refuse to see Hassan’s condition but that he is selfish enough to check that the kite has no rips because that was the errand he had sent Hassan on. This looks like honesty, but this sleight of hand in “the neutral self observing the self mode” as Seltzer argues, is media technology long familiar to us from crime TV and Hollywood cinema—a trickery that has very little to do with self-distance and self-examination. This particular confession is, as they say, playing political hardball and winning!  For all of our horror of what Amir does when he unprotestingly watches Hassan’s rape by his classmate Aseef, we (the readers) stand by Amir till the end. “Stand by Me” might have made a more honest title than Kite-Runner, as a friend suggested. The entire plot of this novel is carried out to sustain this one myth, that despite Amir’s silent collaboration with the rapists of Hassan, “he can be good again.” The myth of “reversibility”– or what the blurb on the cover of The Kite-Runner calls “redemption”– is at the heart of the novel’s appeal to its readers. The myth that our actions can be reversed and undone is not just the most conventional of norms, it is a myth that we are particularly addicted to in the neoliberal age.

The “new realism” of the middlebrow Afghanistan novel–its emotional logic and aesthetic form– bears examination not just as an insulting camouflage but because its silences and contortions have much to tell us about what Lauren Berlant in Cruel Optimism calls “the affect of the political” or “the desire to skirt the political.” The bloated discourse about Taliban’s violence cloaks the violence of their predecessors, the Northern Alliance or the mujahideen warlords, who were armed to the teeth with truckloads of US weaponry and millions of dollars in the 1980s. These mujahedeen groups, the most reactionary and violent Islamic extremists, both anti-nationalist and dangerously anti-women, used religion as a form of brutal feudal authority and were responsible for the deadly civil war in Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996 in which 65,000 people died in Kabul alone. Oddly enough, the story of US collusion with reactionary Islamic forces is told in Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, but it is placed in the mouth of a brutally violent man, and as in political TV, told in a way that reduces it to a caricature of itself.

The one exception is Malalai Joya’s memoir A Woman Among Warlords which reverses the truism about improving conditions of Afghan women as a result of the NATO war:

We are caught between two enemies: the Taliban on one side and US/NATO forces and their warlord hirelings on the other…. Obama’s military build-up will only bring more suffering and death to innocent civilians…. I hope that the lessons in this book will reach President Obama and his policymakers in Washington, and warn them that the people of Afghanistan reject their brutal occupation and their support of the warlords and drug-lords. (p. 5)

Where, she asks, is the much-touted  “progress in the condition of the Afghan women” when it passes without notice among the US intelligentsia that the “U.S.-backed Afghan president Karzai signed a law which, among other horrors, allows men to deny food and housing to their wives if the husbands’ sexual demands are not met, and prohibits a woman from leaving her home without her husband’s permission.” And in plain speech, Joya’s memoir details the vast destruction brought on by the US invasion:

The people of Afghanistan are fed up with the occupation of their country and with the corrupt, Mafia-state of Hamid Karzai and the warlords and drug lords backed by NATO…. It is clear now that the real motive of the U.S. and its allies, hidden behind the so-called “war on terror,” was to convert Afghanistan into a military base in Central Asia . . . . But those who get their news from the corporate media may not realize that allied attacks on supposed al-Qaeda and Taliban targets are also killing, maiming, and terrorizing innocent Afghan civilians. We live everyday of our lives in the terror of an endless war. (196)

This is the kind of anchoring that is required in times like this when Suzanne Nossel, a former State Department Official (known for coining the term “Smart Power” which was adopted as Obama administration’s foreign-policy slogan) is now the Executive Director of PEN–the “world’s oldest literary and human rights organization.” Yes, “Smart power” has the right sound, both of homage and parody to absolute power, welded during the Obama administration through the expanded use of drones and of the CIA.

When Suzaane Nossel was at the helm of Amnesty International, this organization, known for opposing the Iraq War and the prison at Guantanamo Bay, was making common cause with the US government. Now that Nossel, hot on the heels of securing the passage of the Afghan Women and Girls Security Promotion Act of 2012, is getting ready to “promote literature and free expression,” we can surely expect a lot many more “redemptive” novels about the “Afghanistan tragedy.”

If Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” can be sold as “empowering for blacks” and as “healing the wounds of slavery,” by the same logic, the Afghanistan novel can make us feel good about the violence of our wars. For, supporting war today is not illiberal but rather most committedly liberal.

Padmaja Challakere lives in St. Paul, MN and teaches in the English Department at Metropolitan State University.