Afghan and American Misunderstandings
The best plan would be skip this review and run out and purchase a copy of Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden, certainly one the most important novels of the past decade. Particularly if you are interested in understanding American foreign policy since 9/11. More particularly, if you believe that fiction can often be more illuminating than fact. Moreover, once you finish the book, send your copy to your senator or congressman/woman. Take up a collection with your friends and purchase copies and send them to people in the State Department. Find a way to get a copy to Madeleine Albright, who is mentioned in the text.
Perhaps that is a safe place to begin, in a scene where a Waziristan warlord asks the Pakistani main character, Mikal, who is about twenty years old, why he has been aiding an injured American soldier, trying to return him to his platoon.: “Tell me…have you heard of a lady called Madeleine? No? In 1996, this lady named Albright Madeleine, the US ambassador to the United Nations, was asked on television how she felt about the fact that five hundred thousand Iraqi children had died as a result of US economic sanctions. Do you know what she said? She said it was ‘a very hard choice’ but ‘we think the price is worth it.’ These are her exact words. How do you feel about that?”
How could any of us respond to such a question, let alone Mikal? His own brief past is wrapped up with Americans (right after our invasion of Afghanistan), who bought him from another warlord for $5000, believing he was a terrorist. The American soldiers spent weeks torturing him, threatening to send him to Guantanamo, but finally released him when they realized that he was innocent. He was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, but the United States was picking up suspects everywhere. During his release, Mikal assumed that he was being tricked and his captors were going to kill him. He shot two Americans and then fled before he was apprehended a second time. Much later when he discovers the injured soldier on a desert road, Mikal attempts to return him to his platoon as a kind of atonement for the two earlier killings.
Which is only to say that this is a very complicated book because of the shifting loyalties of its main characters, most of them Pakistani, as is Nadeem Aslam. Mikal is also the survivor of an earlier incident in The Blind Man’s Garden. He left from Heer, along with Jeo, his brother (who is a third-year medical student), intending to cross into Afghanistan shortly after the American invasion—not to fight but to help with the wounded. It was an altruistic decision, more Jer’s idea than Mikal’s. The
two young men grew up together in the liberal atmosphere of the school where their parents once taught. Mikal is the adopted son, Jer the biological one. Jer’s mother died giving birth to him, so Jer and Mikal (once he arrived) were raised by Rohan, their father.
Shortly before the two young men left for Afghanistan, Jer married Naheed, though it was Mikal whom she loved. There is some suggestion that Mikal planned the Afghanistan venture, hoping that Jer would be killed and he would then be able to marry Naheed. Both young men were captured by the Taliban, and in the midst of a huge attack with the Americans, Jer was killed. Though his body was eventually taken back to Heer, no one knew what happened to Mikal. Somewhat later, while he is still in a state of shock, Rohan agrees to go along with another father who has learned that his son—also named Jer—is being held by an Afghan warlord who is supposedly keeping dozens of Pakistani young men for ransom. Perhaps Rohan will also find Mikal. Perhaps the two young men named Jer were switched. Once the two adults enter Afghanistan, they encounter a sadistic warlord who will do anything for profit. Rohan says he will pay for the release of the young man called Jer with a large ruby he has brought along with him. In the aftermath of the transfer, the warlord insists that the ruby is a fake and retaliates by blinding Rohan with bits of red glass, though it is likely they are not from the ruby used for payment.
What we observe repeatedly in Aslam’s novel is the ruthless life in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in Afghanistan. What the Americans do after 9/11 is bad enough, but life in these areas is shown as violent, replete with gratuitous acts, with little concern for human dignity. That is in large part why reading the novel can be so unsettling. We are constantly moved out of our comfort zone, thrown into the mind of a tribal Afghan or Pakistani. Here, for example, from a loudspeaker on a truck driving through Heer, recruiting young men to fight in Afghanistan:
“Hundreds of thousands of poor defenseless Afghanistanis have been murdered by the Americans in cold blood. No one tells you about it… And hundreds of thousands of American soldiers have been killed by the brave Muslim fighters. No one tells you about that either. The Americans are on the verge of defeat so we need a few more volunteers….”
Or this, in the thoughts of Tara, Naheed’s mother, once she learns that Jer is dead and her total concern is getting her daughter remarried: “During her adult life there has not been a single day when she has not heard of a woman killed with bullet or razor or rope, drowned or strangled with her own veil, buried alive or burned alive, poisoned or suffocated, having her nose cut off or entire face disfigured with acid or the whole body cut to pieces, run over by a car or battered with firewood. Every day there is news that a woman has had these things done to her in the name of honor-and-shame or Allah-and-Muhammad, by her father, her brother, her uncle, her nephew, her cousin, her husband, her husband’s father, her husband’s brother, her husband’s uncle, her husband’s nephew, her husband’s cousin, her son, her son-in-law, her lover, her father’s enemy, her husband’s enemy, her son’s enemy, her son-in-law’s enemy, her lover’s enemy.” If Tara believes that men are so ruthless, why is she in such a hurry to find a second husband for her daughter?
And yet—in spite of this questioning at the expense of both the Western invaders and the people over whom they seek revenge—The Blind Man’s Garden is as much a family saga and a love story as a dialectic reflecting the dual responses to 9/11. Rohan’s Islamic school, the Ardent Spirit, once holistic and inclusive, has been taken over by a younger generation of Islamic thugs, more concerned with jihad than piety. His sons, in their naivety, believe they can enter Afghanistan after the American invasion and do good, as if made safe by protective coverings, and return home intact. Rohan, in his blindness, is forced to question some of his earlier, rigid beliefs, including his troubled relationship with his wife, whom he still mourns.
Equally important, and a major reason why The Blind Man’s Garden is a masterpiece, is Nadeem Aslam’s extraordinary prose—lush, full of vivid images and juxtapositions, often describing beauty in the most horrific incident, or a cultural artifact or profession unique to the traditional life of the people he writes about. Ever heard about a “bird pardoner”? “The man had appeared at the house late in the morning today and asked to put up the snares. A large rectangular cage was attached to the back of his rusting bicycle. He explained that he rode through town with the cage full of birds and people paid him to release one or more of them, the act of compassion gaining the customer forgiveness for some of his sins.”
Finally, there is also the intricate construction of the story itself—typical of Aslam’s three earlier novels—always capable of startling the reader; and the author’s genuine faith in mankind, of the redemption of men through education and tolerance, in spite of the ugly world his novels occupy. Nowhere is that more evident than in a snippet of dialogue near the conclusion of the novel, when Mikal attempts to explain to a much older man why he had tried to aid the America soldier, in spite of the fact that he had been tortured by other Americans:
“I myself was held captive by the Americans,” Mikal says. “I didn’t really know what they wanted from me. I am afraid of what they might be doing to the people they have picked up.”
“We can’t know what the Westerners want,” the old man says. “To know what they want you have to eat what they eat, wear what they wear, breathe what they breathe. You have to be born where they are born.”
“I am not sure. You mentioned books. We can learn things from books.”
Worlds apart, but we can still learn.
Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden
Knopf, 384 pp., $26.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.