Saturday, March 16, 2013

Risks, Danger, and Welcome in Afghanistan

My ex took Uzbek the first summer we were dating. He was never that good at it (at least not that I could tell), which isn't super surprising, considering it was an eight-week class. But once he met my uncle and they bonded over a fascination with that region of the world, my presents from my uncle took a particular bent. A mask, an antique rice steamer.

Between the two of them, I began to develop a fascination with the region, as did my mom (who was planning on taking a fabric trip to Uzbekistan, and who I believe is still obsessed with yurts). A fascination that was only strengthened by this week's book, An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot, which is part travel memoir, part history book.

I tend not to be good at reading these type of books. I start them with grand expectations. Hopes that I can live vicariously through the author, get a glimpse into a different world. And then I start. And I get bogged down, and I lose motivation, and I never finish.

BUT that is part of what this project is about. So when I felt like putting down the book, I plugged through. There is a lot of history included in this book, and while I enjoy history, at times, it turns into "and then so-and-so did x," and my eyes start to glaze over. That is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. There are some truly beautiful scenes, and I long for the day that the region is peaceful enough that I can go without giving my parents a heart attack. The people, their culture. There were moments in the book that made me wish that we could be more like that. Elliot receives so much welcome; he shows up in strange towns, knowing no one, at most having a letter of introduction. And the only occasion where he is not welcome is because of westerners and their culture and lack of trust. The thought of a place where guests are revered, where someone showing up unexpectedly is not a problem or an inconvenience, but a gift, is alluring. A place where people have no reservations about giving others the best.

Throughout, the danger is prevalent. It is a part of the narrative, almost becoming a character in the story. Kabul is under constant attack while Elliot is living there. Driving around the city at night, they go through checkpoints which include having guns pointed at your head. Everyone seems armed. Rockets hit around the city, destroying buildings and lives. There are parts of the city he cannot go, there are limits to where he can travel in the countryside. At one point, he attempts to travel through the center of the country, and while he makes it further than many recommended, he stops when he is told that the next part of the journey would result in his death. "Even a chicken would be shot going through there." (Approximate quote, since I am too lazy to try and find the real one.)

And the danger leads to something in the book that really struck me. Sometimes I feel like I'm coasting through life, waiting to meet someone, get married, have kids. Then my real life will start. I've talked to other people who feel the same way. And Elliot addresses this, saying during his time in Afghanistan, he felt truly alive. Whether it's because of the risks of driving on perilous roads through the mountains, the knowledge of possible death, the lack of material goods, he seems to live every moment in a way that is difficult from a cushy, but stressed-out western perspective. What can we learn from both his experiences and the Afghan way of life, and how can we translate that into something that works for our culture?

Myself, I will try and be more open to surprises, and more generous with the guests in my life. And possibly, push my self to live as though I am "sucking the marrow from the bones of life."

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Hanna's Daughters: A Mother's (Lack of) Voice

This week's book was Hanna's Daughters. The most interesting thing about this one was not the plot; it focused on three Swedish women, and to be honest, at times the characters were kind of flat and the plot trudged along.

What interested me, though, was what the book seemed to be saying about mother-daughter relationships. By the time you were 2/3rds of the way through the book, you realized that all of the plot, all of the descriptions of Hanna and her daughter Johanna came from Anna, Johanna's daughter. You see Anna involved in writing the very text you've already read, and you come to realize that she is an unreliable narrator; nothing that you've already read had came from the women it directly involved. At the time it's written, Hanna has passed away and Johanna is suffering from either Alzheimer's or something similar, and has no way to communicate. Both have lost their voices and are only capable of speaking of their histories through their relative.

This implies that Anna has inherited her mother and grandmother's voice. There are pieces of the text that only either woman would know, tied together with pieces that clearly could be family legend. How Hanna felt being raped would be a perfect example of the first (we learn that Johanna didn't realize this piece of her mother's history until she was an adult), and the fact that Hanna could only cry from joy for much of her life seems like a legend.

Yet how accurate can a daughter or granddaughter's interpretation be? We are so tied in by our own definitions of our relatives and the roles they have played regarding us. Anna remains bitter about her mother's acceptance of her father's treatment;given this, how can she provide a clear view? Her grandmother, she admits, she hardly knew and didn't particularly like, and her portion of the novel seems based on letters and those family legends.

What, then, is Frederickkson trying to say? The title defines the younger generations by their relation to the older, but the youngest is the only one with a voice. Do we, as a society, as daughters and sons, define how our parents and grandparents are remembered? Are we rewriting their lives simply because we outlive them? And by becoming parents, do we lose our own voices to those of the later generations?

The book ends after Johanna and her husband die, and when Anna finishes her book about her family. Only then, is she allowed to leave the bonds they had wrapped around her behind, and move on. Yet we see scenes of her with her daughters, suggesting that the cycle is continuing. Suggesting, in fact, that a new series is beginning, one that could leave her voiceless, defined by her daughters and granddaughters.