Sunday, April 22, 2012

THE SEWING CIRCLES OF HERAT by Christina Lamb ✰✰✰✰


As a young woman, Christina Lamb traveled to Afghanistan, and through a mix of persistence, courage, connections, and writing talent managed to document the final two years of the struggle for Afghan freedom against the Soviets.  Over the years she kept her finger on the pulse of the region, wrote a couple of books, and ultimately returned again at be on the ground as the Taliban breathed its last in the early months of 2002.
Christina Lamb is a wonderful writer with a knack for interweaving just the right amount of her own personal narrative in with the current events about which she is writing.  In addition, she casts back into the past and gives a whole lot of background information on Afghan history, politics, monarchy, trade, and agriculture.  I especially loved sections of the book where she discussed the architecture of the city of Herat during the height of its beauty, juxtaposing it against its current state.  While Herat may be in the title of the book, many cities are given equal coverage, among them the more conservative stronghold of Kandahar and the capital city of Kabul.  The book is fairly accurately titled in that women’s issues are very prominently featured in the narrative, and she discusses the history of different areas of Afghanistan with regards to women, education, and the arts, both before and after the Taliban.
Lamb does an excellent job bringing the reader’s senses to life and into her environment; readers feel the ruts beneath the airplane wheels and the grit of the dust storms-you smell the pine trees and taste the mutton.  Hearts ache for the children who lack for the most basic things-she heads one of her chapters with a quote that I love from the Persian poet Rumi: “Look at your eyes.  They are small but they see enormous things.”  The things that these children have seen and survived defy comprehension.  Indeed, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography was awarded to Massoud Hossaini for his horrific shot of a twelve year old girl screaming in fear amidst a mass of bodies moments after a suicide bomb detonated in Kabul. (I have linked it here-I warn you, it is graphic.)  That same sense of place and culture comes through in the tenor of Christina Lamb’s writing; she spent a lot of time among the people, not sitting in the hotel with her western journalist coworkers, and it shows.
My one complaint, and the single factor that kept me from giving the book a fifth star, is that at times her timeline can get rather discombobulated as she tries to focus on specific people or places.  I would have preferred that she take a more chronological approach; obviously those places where she goes back to the Mongols that is not possible, but a stricter chronology from the late 1970’s to the 2000s would have made for a much tighter narrative.  My preference would have been to provide a listing of people at the beginning of the book, to help readers who have difficulty keeping all of the similar sounding Middle Eastern names straight, and then travel chronologically through the story, letting readers refer back to the list to refresh their memories as players come up again.
There are a lot of books out there on this topic.  This is a very good one for people without a lot of background, as the author does an excellent job giving the reader everything needed.  It was published in 2002, so many of the players have since been apprehended, but that doesn’t in any way take away from the history of it.  Overall, I highly recommend this energetically written, informative account.

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