Adventure-filled account of an intrepid young British-Afghan woman’s search for cultural identity.
Shah, whose 2001 television documentary Beneath the Veil examined the realities of Afghan women’s lives under the Taliban, asserts that she has within her two incompatible people: a middle-class liberal pacifist and a “rapacious robber baron” who “glories in risk.” She was raised in England on her father’s stories about a romantic Afghanistan and its brave, noble people. At 17, visiting her extended Afghan family in Peshawar, she saw that her father’s stories represented a male vision; for Afghan women there was a different reality. She returned to the region at age 21 after studying Persian and Arabic, intent on becoming a journalist. Her Western side determined to discover the truth about Afghanistan, Shah recalls; her Afghan side still yearned after her father’s myths. With the Soviet Union backing the Afghanistan communist government and the US supporting the mujahideen, Shah found no romantic fairyland, but a war-torn outpost of Cold War conflict. Eye-opening experiences traveling with the mujahideen led her to question whether their fabled concept of honor was not more about appearance than principle. When, as a freelance journalist, she investigated stories that the rebels were selling Iran their US-supplied Stingers, hand-held anti-aircraft missiles capable of taking down Soviet jets, she came to doubt her father’s faith in the noble mujahideen and other long-held beliefs. Then her mentor, a gentle professor who personified the fairytale Afghanistan she longed to believe in, was murdered; soon afterward, she returned to the West. In a later chapter, Shah recounts her recent trip to a small Afghan village in a fruitless attempt to help three girls featured in Beneath the Veil. This failure sharpened her realization that her two incompatible halves may never be reconciled. “Afghan has confounded me,” she concludes, “just as it has always confounded the West.”
A powerful memoir and an unforgettable portrait of a land and a people.