Saturday, February 25, 2006

Portland: City of Books

Somehow I managed to time my trip to Portland to coincide with two consecutive sunny days in February. I’m having a great time so far, thanks to my wonderful hosts from the English Department, University Studies, and the library. At the talk I was happy to run into ‘SeaJay’ from Another Subcontinent, as well as Jeffrey St. Clair, one of the editors of Counterpunch. Thus far I’ve mainly been at the university -– though today I get to go off and do a little sightseeing before heading back east tomorrow.

Last night, I gave my lecture on The Kite Runner and other narratives of Afghanistan in front of about 80 people at the Portland State University library. It seemed to go off pretty well. Unlike some recent talks I’ve done in a crunch, here I was really able to focus on my subject in the days leading up to the talk, and do some quality mulling. (Quality mulling is crucial.)

At the beginning I spent a little time introducing some of the other books about Afghanistan I think people should consider reading –- actually showing Powerpoint slides with pictures of the book covers and descriptions.

The term I worked with in the talk itself was ‘cultural translation’ -– how these writers make Afghanistan ‘real’ to their readers. I used some of the material from my earlier blog post, including the reference to the Shahnamah, and some of the hostile reviews of the novel. I also raised questions of my own about the twin dangers of nostalgic exoticism (‘masala’) and extreme negativity (the obsession with the burqa) that one sees in some of the recent books about Afghanistan. Here I singled out Saira Shah’s The Storyteller’s Daughter as an example of a book that gets excessive in both directions. (You can still read an excerpt from the book here.) In fact, for whatever flaws it may have, The Kite Runner manages to avoid that trap.

I also (probably predictably) alluded to Indian expatriate literature, which I think has a lot in common with these narratives of expatriates returning to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. I brought up Salman Rushdie’s metaphor of the ‘broken mirror’ of the expatriate writer:

It may be that when the Indian writer who writes from outside India tries to reflect that world, he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost. (Imaginary Homelands)

To some extent, all of these writers are writing about loss and the hope of recovery (this is especially pronounced in Nelofer Pezira and Hosseini). But they are also benefiting from that same broken mirror (or perhaps prism): the expatriate gains perspective even as she loses a direct window on the texture of everyday life.

I didn’t say this in the talk, but I’ve been struck by the deep connection between the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan in all of these readings. A number of people who fled Afghanistan in the civil wars went to Pakistan, but quite a number (including Said Hyder Akbar’s family) went to India. And the connection is deep in the Afghan psyche, as this poem by Ahmed Shah Durrani suggests:

By blood we are immersed in love of you.
The youth lose their heads for your sake.
I come to you and my heart finds rest.
Away from you, grief clings to my heart like a snake.
I forget the throne of Delhi
When I remember the mountaintops of my Pashtun land.
If I must choose between the world and you,
I shall not hesitate to claim your barren deserts as my own.

--Ahmed Shah Durrani

Ok, off to do some sightseeing, and maybe stop by Powell's. If it stays sunny, there might even be some pictures!


Archana said...

I was struck by the same connection between the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan in terms of culture and nostalgia in the Kite Runner - the same themes were echoed when I saw the author speak here in the Bay Area. Enjoyed your comments.

Desiknitter said...

Amardeep, this is probably a very silly question but this isn't the ruler Ahmed Shah Durrani the Marathas famously clashed with at Panipat, is it? It's unlikely, but he wouldn't be the first military ruler-cum-poet so I thought I'd ask. Do you have a link for the poem and are there others?

Amardeep said...


It's not a silly question... he is the same person. He also waged war against the Sikhs (and won). Short Wikipedia article on him here.

Archana, thanks for the comment! Glad I'm not the only one to see this.

Quizman said...

Yikes, is this that Ahmed Shah Durrani?