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Books set in Afghanistan | Packabook

Finding the joy in Afghanistan – Andrea Busfield’s ‘Born Under a Million Shadows’

Well – not sure what has happened to October, but it is almost over and we are hurtling towards the end of our month highlighting books set in Afghanistan. But if you have just enough time to squeeze in one more, then please, please give Andrea Busfield’s Born Under a Million Shadows a go.

Like the Kite Runner, this book gives us a look at Afghanistan through the eyes of a child – eleven year old Fawad. But Fawad has had a much tougher time of things than the Kite Runner’s Amir. His father and brother have been killed, his sister has been abducted and he and his mother Mariya are forced to rely on family charity.

The opening line of the novel is enough to send a shiver down your spine…

“My name is Fawad and my mother tells me I was born under the shadow of the Taliban.”

But despite this, and the inevitable horrors and bloodshed of any book set in Afghanistan, Born Under a Million Shadows is a delight.

Things look up for Fawad when Mariya becomes the live-in housekeeper for three westerners — NGO worker Georgie, James the journalist and lesbian engineer May. He is understandably suspicious of his mother’s new employers, and takes it upon himself to spy on them, setting the scene for some wonderful interaction and misunderstandings.

The novel is filled with Fawad’s wry humor and observations. Horrified to discover that foreign women don’t know how to wash clothes without the help of a machine, Fawad questions his mother about Georgie’s other domestic deficiencies.

‘Does she sew?’
‘No’
‘Can she cook?’
‘No’
‘Does she have a husband?’
‘No’
‘I’m not suprised.’ – p26
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And he is a bit perturbed by the foreigners’ Christmas and how it compares with their own celebrations for the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.
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“What we don’t do, however, is drink alcohol from the moment we get up until the moment we fall into bed – or, in James’s case, on the stairs. And after attending my first celebration of Jesus’s birthday I now understand why everybody needs two days off work to recover….As a Muslim I respect the foreigners’ Jesus and I like the fact that they celebrate his birthday even if they have got their facts muddled. However, it was hard to believe that for such a big day in their calendar I never once heard my friends mention Jesus’s name. Although James shouted ‘Christ’ when he slipped on the stairs.” – p103-104

Throughout the novel, Fawad is exposed to a whole lot of perplexing aspects of western culture – alcohol, Christmas, Wikipedia and the Sex Pistols just to name a few – and tries to rationalise how these fit into his own beliefs and upbringing. And while his reactions are so often those of a child, it doesn’t take long to realize that Fawad is a little wiser than the rest of us when it comes to understanding what really matters in the world.

“Beautifully written, touching and laced throughout with humour…. A stunningly assured debut novel from a writer who looks set to be a big star.”—The News of the World (UK)

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We have read novels before that give us detail of life in Afghanistan, but what I enjoyed about this book was its glimpse into the way locals and foreigners are forced to interact – at least in Kabul. It reminds us that it’s never clear cut, motives are not always obvious and that beneath it all, there is often genuine good will to make a difficult situation work.

There are mentions of contemporary issues and developments – Afghanistan’s first elections, NGO programmes and the Karzai government – as well as references to the past. And I’m pleased to see The Buddhas of Bamiyan make another literary appearance (something I believe is mandatory in all novels about Afghanistan!).

“Readers who like to explore other cultures and current events through fiction will find here an intriguing picture of contemporary Afghanistan.”—Library Journal

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Andrea Busfield, who lived in Afghanistan for several years, has managed to write a novel which provides a bit of everything. By the end of Born Under a Million Shadows I had learnt something, had had a good cry and laughed more than I have for a good long-while.

I really don’t want to give away too much about the story, but it is one filled with love and romance (more than one romance in fact!), heartache, and at times almost inexpressible joy. There are warlords, cashmere goats that need combing and entrepreneurial shop-keepers who offer “Free Delivery and Cak”. There is also a host of truly lovable characters, you really won’t want to say good-bye to.

Here is what Busfield has to say in this interview with The Guardian:

“I don’t think you could find two more different books than The Kite Runner and Born Under a Million Shadows,” she says. “Mine is quite humorous I think. I wanted to capture something different; I didn’t want to do another tragic tale about Afghan people.”

In this, I think she really has succeeded. There is tragedy, but the novel is infiltrated with the black humour that is typical of societies that  have had to find a way to deal with the almost endless despair of their daily lives.

As Fawad’s mother Mariyam tells him…

“Of course, that was long before the Taliban came. Now look at us! We don’t even own a tree from which we can hang ourselves.” – p15.

You’ll need to brace yourself for some colourful street language and gut-wrenching descriptions – but I would be very surprised if you didn’t turn the last page of ‘Born Under a Million Shadows’ and want to start it all over again.

So go on – as I have left it so late to write this post, you have special dispensation to let your Afghanistan journey spill over into the beginning of November.. pick up a copy of Born Under a Million Shadows today, and let us know what you thought of it.

And I leave you with this, from Fawad.

“The foreigners can keep their talk of beautiful scenery and traditional goodness because all of us would swap it in a heartbeat for just one moment’s peace and it’s high time the sorrow that came to plant itself in on our soil just packed up and went away to terrorize someone else.” – p99

Suzi

Previous posts on our Afghanistan World Party Reading Challenge:
Exploring Books Set in Afghanistan – World Party Reading Challenge
Help Women in Afghanistan – Just by Reading Books

Disclosure Policy If you click on the links in the posts to buy books, then I will receive a tiny commission for referring you. This does not affect the price you pay for the books, and I am grateful for your support. Every little bit helps! Thank you. (Packabook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk)

Help women in Afghanistan – just by reading books

As things are starting to get going on our Afghanistan reading challenge at the U.S. packabook site – I’d encourage our European readers to head on over to take a look, and join in.

It’s all part of a World Party Reading Challenge which will see us visit one country each month, and we will be unleashing lots of great reads along the way. Unfortunately, in a bid to keep the discussion in one place, it’s all happening over there – so you are going to have to cross the pond to check it out.

BUT! Please read this first….

In my travels around the internet in search of fascinating tidbits about Afghanistan for the challenge, I came across a truly fantastic project which is completely in the spirit of Packabook. It is the woman’s writing project AWWP, started by the novelist Masha Hamilton, and it is helping to give Afghan women a voice.

If you buy a book set in Afghanistan from Packabook during October, then the commission Packabook earns will be donated to the Afghan Women’s Writing Project



If you visit the AWWP site you can read first-hand what these courageous women are writing, often sharing their stories at great risk to themselves. Most take part in secret. I cannot encourage you enough to have a look around, read their stories and comment on their work – this is how they know their stories are making it out to the wider world.

If you buy a book set in Afghanistan from Packabook during October, then the commission Packabook earns will be donated to the Afghan Women’s Writing Project



I was so moved by these extraordinary stories that I asked Masha Hamilton whether she’d respond to a few questions about the project, and she kindly agreed.

What inspired you to start the project?
The inspiration actually came back in 1999, when I saw a smuggled video tape that showed the execution of Zarmeena in Kabul.  I understood from this horrific event that Afghan women were not only hidden beneath burqas, but their voices were being silenced. Even after the defeat of the Taliban regime, we rarely hear from Afghan women in their own words, without the filter of media or their men — and that is the mission of this project.

How do you find the women to take part?
In a variety of ways, primarily through direct contacts. The project is spread by word-of-mouth only in Afghanistan.

Most of the contributions from the women appear to be autobiographical or biographical, but do you see a time when they may branch into experimenting with fiction? We certainly need more novels written by Afghan women….
We do have a few women who fictionalize. But many Afghan women who write in our workshops are motivated by a desire to share their own stories, as this has been a path often closed to them and as little worth has been put on their views and experiences.

As a novelist you certainly seem to have a penchant for foreign lands for your settings – what are your thoughts on the contribution novels set in less accessible countries make to our understanding of the world? And will you be writing a book set in Afghanistan?
As a novelist, and as a journalist, I have been drawn to foreign locales for a variety of reasons. One is that I think it helps me understand my own life to view it through another lens. I am working on the next novel now, and yes, Afghanistan does play a small part.

I know you are always looking for donations to help buy women laptops on which to write, but what else are you raising money for?
AWWP’s fundraising at the moment is focused on the writers’ corner that our team is opening up in Kabul, in a safe neighborhood, and a non-descript, unmarked building with a live-in building guard. This is the first step to what we hope will eventually be AWWP support for Afghanistan’s first women-only Internet cafe, so that women in that country can continue to have a pipeline to the outside world, whatever happens on a political or security level. This site, opening this month, will be a place for our writers to read, send us their essays, stories and poems, and also share community along with chai. We are very excited about this step in the project.

I also asked Masha what drove the women to take the risk to write, and she urged me to read what the women themselves had to say. Here are some of their comments.

“The writing project gave me a voice, the project gave me courage to appear as a woman, to tell about my life, to share my pains and experiences. I wonder how big the change in my destiny is because of your work and this project. Who would trust an online class, a writing project, to change a destiny and a faith? AWWP gave me the power to feel I am not only a woman; it gave me a title, an Afghan woman “writer.” … I took the pen and I wrote and everything changed. I learned if I stand, everyone will stand, other women in my country will stand.” —Roya

“I am writing from Farah, a province in western Afghanistan with a low level of education, and still many men do not like that I write and don’t know why I write. They have tried to stop me from writing, but I never gave up. I will do it more and more and show what I’ve tolerated as a woman and how much Afghan people suffer in their lives. I have thousands of words in my heart to tell the world in thanks to the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.” —Seeta

“This project supports Afghan women by showing they are as important as other women in the world. It shows the world that even though Afghan women faced lots of problems, they didn’t lose their ability or courage. It shows the kindness of American women who spend their precious time working for the development of their Afghan sisters.” —Sabira

After realizing how important this project is, and how brave these women are, I knew that we had to somehow make a contribution. Please buy a book set in Afghanistan during October through Packabook. Not only will you be getting a great read – you will be doing your bit to help. Any commission earned from the sale of these books will be going to the project. It’s such an easy way to contribute, and it can make the world of difference.

And please spread the word – bookmark it, tweet it, facebook it and mention it on your own blogs – let’s see how much we can raise for these brave women of Afghanistan who are using laptops, secreted USB sticks, and trusted male relatives to reach out to the rest of us.

Suzi

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Disclosure Policy If you click on the links in the posts to buy books, then I will receive a tiny commission for referring you. This does not affect the price you pay for the books, and I am grateful for your support. Every little bit helps! Thank you. (Packabook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk)
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Please note - if you read our reviews and click on our links to buy books, we will receive a tiny commission for referring you. This does not affect the price you pay for the books, and we thank you for your support! Packabook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk