Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Woman Among Warlords

A Woman Among Warlords

Malalai Joya

This book takes a one-sided and firm position on the current situation in Afghanistan, which is that Afghans are perfectly able to manage their own affairs, and would like all meddling countries OUT. The author, Malalai Joya, speaks so coherently and knowledgeably that she has quite turned around my thinking on Afghanistan. I have read other books recounting individual tragedies in this turbulent country, but Malalai speaks on behalf of the ordinary people of Afghanistan. She is their champion and spokesperson.

Malalai speaks from her heart, and it is a brave heart indeed. She has dared to denounce the warlords who are members of the present government put in place by NATO. An elected member of the Loya Jirga (Afghan government), she has been prevented from taking her seat by the warlords who form the majority of the present government. She is constantly in hiding, moving from safe house to safe house. Nevertheless, women and persecuted minorities find her and tell her their stories which she publicizes through her support groups in democratic countries around the world.

Malalai criticizes freely the NATO forces which installed the weak puppet, Hamid Karzai, and his corrupt government, and for this reason she is not liked by governments which support sending armed forces to Afghanistan. In her fight for an independent Afghanistan, she singles out individuals and names names relentlessly. She is very well informed on the history and leaders of her country. She knows that she could be assassinated at any time, and she is in a hurry to achieve as much as she can in the effort to create a free democracy in her country.

The book is full of interesting accounts of famous people and little-known events. Benazir Bhutto is known as the Mother of the Taliban because of the support she gave them as part of her tactic to oppose Indian influence in the area. Laura Bush’s comments on the achievements wrought by the Americans are quoted fully, remarks based on observations she made during visits which lasted six hours. Schoolbooks printed at the University of Nebraska for Afghan children, which are still in use today, are filled with talk of jihad and teach children to count using illustrations of tanks, missiles and landmines.

Malalai tells countless stories about the mistreatment of women in her country. Her statistics as well as accounts of individual experiences is shocking. All the world has heard similar accounts, but Malalai is angered when they are used to justify the invasion of her country. Women and children are abused in many countries, but it is only when there are financial or strategic incentives that there is an invasion.

One of Malalai’s targets are lazy Western journalists who rarely challenge the fables spun to them and insist that Afghanistan has always been ungovernable and needs Western direction. In fact, the first modern ruler of Afghanistan, King Amanullah Khan who won independence from Britain in 1919 was a freedom-loving and democratic leader. During his rule, education was compulsory for every Afghan child, religious, racial and linguistic discrimination were outlawed, and women were encouraged to integrate fully into society. The British sowed a revolt against Amanullah because they were afraid of having a modern independent country next to India which they still ruled, and he was overthrown. As his successor, the British supported the dark-minded and ignorant Habibullah, and after his murder, the brutal Nadir Shah. Subsequently, Afghanistan was invaded by the Russians and then the Americans. Malalai’s main theme is that without NATO’s support of corrupt warlords, and other malign interference, Afghans are well able to sort out their own country. Those unable to read her book can consult her website: www. But the website does not have the impact of the book which is dominated by Malalai’s strong personality and countless incidents showing her bravery in her mission to give voice to the ordinary people of Afghanistan.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Pearl by Mary Gordon

Pearl  by Mary Gordon

I have a problem with the voice in this book.  It should be classified as omniscient third person, but the narrator intrudes him/herself into the story with the voice of a storyteller.  And yet this storyteller is unidentified, so I couldn’t classify his perspective.  This produced for me an impersonality which was one of the reasons why I found it hard to sympathize or involve myself with the characters, or the plot for that matter.  When a story is told by a storyteller, we are used to hearing a spoken voice or seeing a face, and then we can identify with his perspective.  But as this storyteller is impersonal, so I responded impersonally to the story.

Another reason why I found it hard to involve myself with the characters is that they are all so difficult to like, by me or by the storyteller.  So I didn’t really care whether they lived or died.

The plot turns around the 20-year-old Pearl, who has an impossible mother and loser friends and has been a difficult teenager.  When she is accused of being responsible for the death of a young man, and realizes subsequently that the world is full of people who cause harm to one another, she decides to martyr herself to make a statement about the presence of evil in the world.  This is an interesting theory and response, but because Pearl is so obviously immature and psychologically damaged by her mother, uprooted, insecure and impressionable, we dismiss the whole thesis as a personal difficulty in dealing with guilt, without thinking of martyrdom’s  proven efficacy  as in the cases of Gandhi’s hunger strikes and Mohamed Bouazizi  in Tunisia, or the Cambodian monks in the Vietnam War.

Ultimately, I was disappointed by the plot.  Pearl tried to kill herself because of “the human will to harm, in all its shapes, all its varieties… (and) a world where the desire to harm was the most true thing that could be said about it.”  (p.174) She wanted to be a “witness.“   But as the plot unwound, this issue was never resolved.  The theme of the presence of evil in the world was diverted and diluted.   A new theme was introduced:  Pearl ‘s health was restored by the possibility of forgiveness, which is quite a different concept.  When  Pearl received helium balloons from Breeda, the mother of the boy whose death she had possibly caused, she felt healed because she was forgiven.  Worse still, Breeda suggests that Pearl was not responsible for the death.  So my anticipation that the book would end with a resolution of how to deal with guilt and the evil in the world is all sloughed off with an easy glorification of the merits of forgiveness, and is further diffused by the annulment of the whole issue of guilt as Pearl is relinquished from its load.  (The question of how the impoverished Breeda could have afforded balloons, and why she did not reach out her reassurance to Pearl while she was at the American embassy, before her health deteriorated to such a critical state, after all, we are told that she watched TV all day, so she would have seen Pearl on the news, all these details are evidence to me of a poorly constructed plot.) The ending was much too easy.  Pearl and Maria are reconciled, Joseph goes back to his old life, and Pearl relinquishes her deathwish.

Following the strong indications at the beginning of the book that the theme would be the question of how to expiate guilt and be a living witness against the universal power to harm, I was disappointed with the easy and convenient ending.  The original themes are much more familiar to the characters in the book, who are all Roman Catholics or lapsed Jews.

The impact of the ending is further weakened by the crisis of Joseph.  If the author wanted to examine the emotional states of all three of her main characters, she should have dealt with them more evenly throughout the narrative.  Joseph’s extraordinary explosion, his bizarre solution and his sudden return to normalcy serve to drag out the ending rather than flesh out his character, and left me feeling impatient rather than sympathetic.

My strongest response was to Pearl’s mother, Maria, who is quite a piece of work.  Gordon made her a product of a background that she herself knows well.  Like her character, Mary Gordon was born in New York to a Catholic mother and a father who converted to Catholicism from Judaism, was raised in a strict religious environment and at one time considered becoming a nun.  Maria’s problems stem in part from the strict Catholicism of her youth, her motherless home, and the turbulent, faith-destroying politics of the 60s.  She is unlikable because she has no sense of limits and was cruel to her father, one of the two people who ever loved her. Early on, it is evident to the reader that Pearl’s rejection of her is a mirror of her own treatment of her father. One reason why Maria is hard to like is that her hubris prevents her from making this connection until the last chapter.  However, Gordon seems fond, even admiring, of Maria, and the redemption at the end of the book is as much of Maria as it is of Pearl.

Gordon scatters the pieces of her characters throughout her plot and we piece together the jigsaw and realize their complexity.  Pearl is barely more than a child, but Maria and Joseph are full of interesting contradictions and personal challenges.  The minor characters in Dublin are well drawn.  We are repelled my Mick, so dangerously full of his own importance in the small pond where he has chosen to be the big fish.  We are scared by the narrowness and certainty of Finbar’s vision and his capacity to destroy.  We are moved by the humbleness of Breeda who recognizes truth through her simplicity.

Gordon’s  writing style is not easy to read, littered as it is by obtuse lines like,  “His mind is a muscle whose existence makes itself felt only on account of, or in rebellion against, overuse.”  But she is a master of original imagery and observant, precisely worded descriptions.  There are some wise passages and some big questions that demand our response.   Read in excerpts, the prose is beautiful and the concepts challenging.  Maria prompts us to think about how to be a good mother.  Joseph makes us ask how one can balance responsibility to others with the fulfilment of our own dreams.  Pearl (before her plot petered out) challenges us to accept that we can be flawed and also have value.  Pearl asks Maria, “Why is it life that we want?” and we ponder her answer, ”It seems we’re meant to.”

But taken as a whole,  I find the plot is poorly constructed,  the characters universally unsympathetic and the diversity of the issues unfocused.