Yesterday’s massive avalanche in Afghanistan that as of early this morning had killed 157 people only added to that country’s considerable list of woes.
At 44 years, the nation in 2009 had the lowest life expectancy of all non-African nations in the world. Criminal and terrorist activity remain high in Kabul, according to the Overseas Security Advisory Council. And the war grinds on, with the surge of 30,000 American troops committed by President Obama scheduled to arrive by the summer.
The nation’s story is not one of unrelenting darkness, though.
I have written before about Loyn’s book In Afghanistan. A longtime correspondent for the BBC, Loyn has reported from the country since the 80s. During that time he has accumulated a collection of rare books about Afghanistan.
His book is a look at 200 years of ultimately unsuccessful colonial invasions by the British, Russian and American empires. Unsurprisingly for both historical and personal reasons, he focuses most extensively on the British presence in the country, which began exactly 200 years ago last year.
Lamb’s The Sewing Circles of Herat is a more personal account that interweaves lots of information about Afghan history and culture.
At base, the story is one of return.
As a young woman in her early 20s, Lamb set off for adventure as a fledgling journalist during the waning days of the war against the Soviet Union. Having continued to pursue her passion, and also become a wife and mother, she returns to the country more than a dozen years later after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
She discovers a very different country.
The Sewing Circles is a collection of Lamb’s impressions of the then-current scene in the country, her memories of her earlier travels there, and her meditation on her life’s choices and changes.
Some of the scenes she encounters are bone-chilling.
The Story of Abdullah was one such example. In this chapter, she writes about a young man who is cleaning the blood stains from the soccer stadium where the Taliban routinely held public executions. In some ways, the teenager’s acceptance of what for him is ordinary work is close to the act themselves in their disturbing nature.
Such brutality was not unique, as Lamb shows us that gang rapes and beheadings were also commonplace events.
Still, there are elements of hope and connection and light.
The book’s slightly misleading title refers to a group of women defied the Taliban’s order and read and discussed fine literature while pretending to sew in Herat. Many of the book’s characters display compassion, generosity and profound love for their blood-soaked land.
Lamb also includes letters throughout the book from a young woman who had written her during the Taliban era and who she seeks to find.
Their connection provides a brief moment of hope against the backdrop of ducking bullets for days, meeting the Taliban leaders and generally recounting the myriad struggles her friend Hamid Karzai and the people he governs confront.
That list only lengthened with yesterday’s avalanche. Lamb and Loyn’s books are useful resources for those looking to learn more about this troubled nation.