June issue 2009
Chronicles from a Wasteland
Afghanistan has historically been a tortured land. Even before the Cold War, the hardy and resilient Afghans were battling British colonisers intent on conquering the land in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In fact, the modern history of this much-storied land has become a byword for tragedy and destruction. Much of the blame for this must lie with outsiders who have always treated the country as a happy hunting ground for their own ends. In recent times, much of this tortured history has spilled over into neighboring countries like Pakistan and as horrible blowback on American shores in the form of 9/11. Yet Afghanistan’s new imperial masters and its local Afghan satraps continue to ignore their history and treat it with utter contempt.
Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil can be described as the definitive Afghan novel, on account of the fact that the mesmerising work of fiction elegantly speaks for the millions of nameless victims of the Afghan tragedy of modern times and also traces its socio-political history. There have been notable attempts by novelists of Afghan origin to chronicle the pain of their people, like Atiq Rahimi’s two beautiful, albeit short novels, Earth and Ashes and A Thousand Rooms of Dreams and Fear, as well as the pop-schlock attempts by now Hollywood darling Khaled Hosseini’sThe Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. The distinguished Pakistani activist Feryal Gauhar has also made the American occupation of Afghanistan a theme in her recent novel, No Room for Further Burials. However, Nadeem Aslam’s novel overtakes all of these attempts in its sheer stylistic beauty, broad scope and historical approach. In his inspection of the last two decades of Afghan history, Aslam creates a number of protagonists who are given their respective responsibilities which culminate in the wasteland that is Afghanistan today.
There is the Englishman Marcus, a doctor of advanced age, settled in the village of Usha, who shares an intrinsic adoration for Afghanistan’s rich culture and is married to a progressive and outspoken Afghan woman, Qatrina. He eventually pays a heavy price in post-communist Afghanistan for nurturing this love for the land in the form of having his hand amputated as well as the execution his of wife, the kidnapping of his daughter Zameen, as well as the semi-obliteration of his house, which was built as an ode to beauty.
The novel’s most important character is Casa, who is a metaphor for the woeful state of contemporary Muslim societies, enmeshed between modernity and medievalism. Casa is the quintessential fundamentalist, ensconced in his own worldview of the dichotomy between Dar-ul-Harb (Land of Disbelievers) and Dar-ul-Islam (Land of Muslims). He scorns the West’s secular values and women’s rights, yet Aslam’s success is in showing Casa to be very much human, sensitive to the pleasures of passion and unafraid to accept the latest technology and its appended benefits for the propagation of al-Jihad.
Zameen, Marcus’ daughter, is another tortured but courageous woman who survives Soviet captivity, the assaults of a Soviet soldier and the travails of childbirth. Despite being dependent on the whims of Afghan warlords — she is forced to work as a spy for one — she is able to carve out a self-made life. She falls in love with an ex-CIA agent, David Town, who originally came to Afghanistan in the 1980s on a civilising mission to defeat the Soviets. Town subsequently turns away from the horrors perpetrated by his erstwhile employers in the name of democracy and civilisation.
Another integral character in the novel is Lara, married to a Soviet communist. She has come in search of her brother who went missing during the Soviet invasion, but who actually was the father of Zameen’s child and was executed by one of the Afghan warlords after being captured while defecting from his camp.
Marcus’s house is where all of these characters come together with their differing personal ideologies and quests. However, where they ultimately find their paths entwined is in their sense of loss and this connects them to each other and opens up avenues of hope; an apt metaphor for Afghanistan in the throes of Jihad Inc. during the 1980s, involving a multitude of countries like the Soviet Union, the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan.
The Wasted Vigil is a work of suppressed anguish under the various forces which have turned Afghanistan into a wasteland. The writer does so with a remarkable eye for not only Afghan history but the history of Muslim civilisation, beset as it has been with civil war and dissent, the enthronement of blind orthodoxy and faith over healthy skepticism, reason and logic. The two most potent symbols the writer has used throughout the novel are the underground perfume factory, a testament to Marcus’s affinity for fragrances, and the figure of the reclining Buddha, both hopeful reminders of everything the Taliban are against: most of all, the aesthetic pleasures of smell and sight, as well as remnants of Afghanistan’s ancient syncretic history which was shared by Greek and Muslim conquests and by its Buddhist heritage.
The brutality of Afghanistan’s Taliban enforcers is painfully brought out in the novel: whether it is their philistine attitude towards learning and art — a powerful example is their vandalism of paintings, ancient artefacts and sculptures. Much more painful is the way they brutalised women and children. The real heroes of Aslam’s novel are the tortured Afghan women, three generations of them — Qatrina, Zameen and Dunia. Their benighted fates in the novel are a testament and tribute to Afghanistan’s valiant women, many of whom dot recent Afghan history, from the courageous Queen Sorayya who drew the ire of Lawrence of Arabia, to Meena Keshwar Kamal, the martyred founder of the Revolutionary Afghan Women’s Association (RAWA) and Malalai Joya, the Afghan legislator who faced up to corrupt Afghan warlords in post-occupation Afghanistan and has been forced into exile.
Nadeem Aslam’s novel clearly pins the blame for Afghanistan’s tragedy of external interference in Afghan affairs: be it the British, the Soviets, the Pakistani intelligence agencies or its latest masters — the Americans. The sad truth is that whenever the Afghans themselves wanted to emancipate and modernise their society — there is a distinguished lineage from the 19th century King Amanullah and his enlightened wife Sorayya, an advocate of women’s emancipation, to some of the communist leaders of the PDPA regime, like Nur Muhammad Taraki, Hafizullah Amin and Najeebullah, who modernised major Afghan cities, decreed free education and health for ordinary Afghans, emancipated women and curbed the power of the oppressive landlords and mullahs — it was always the outsiders who put paid to these attempts and bathed the country in blood. The writer also makes a sharp critique of institutionalised religion, which currently dominates most Muslim countries and prevents these societies from advancing, fettering independent thought, democratic rights and the rights of women. The ‘wasted vigil’ alluded to in the novel’s title refers to the vigil in search of the Messiah in many Muslim societies which many devout Muslims think will lead them out of the impasse they are in. However, there the novel holds a warning that unless Muslims rediscover their syncretic traditions and question and analyse their past and current mistakes, such a vigil is likely to be a useless exercise, unable to combat the perils of imperialism and fundamentalism.
The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.