MARCH 3, 2014
“Late afternoon, when I opened my eyes, I looked through the window of our small room; everywhere a fog crept, thick as fur.”
THUS BEGINS the title story of The Gifts of the State: New Writing from Afghanistan, an anthology of short fiction from emerging Afghan writers. Author Sorosh Hayati’s surreal imagery is a powerful metaphor for a generation in limbo, uneasily surrounded by ghosts from the past as they navigate the present.
From a war-torn country most Americans know only from headlines, The Gifts of the State is a revelation. Culled from the ranks of editor Adam Klein’s open creative writing workshops in Kabul, the 18 writers represented are remarkably gifted at crafting potent imagery — a young woman in flames, a city of ghosts — and spare, dramatic prose, sterling feats for authors working in English when it is their second, and sometimes third, language. Though these stories have deep roots in Afghanistan’s violent and complicated history, they defy expectation. There are no easy answers; layers only reveal further layers once unpeeled. Alternately terrifying and heartbreaking, these stories of love and loss transcend the deadening news cycle and give a voice to a lost generation.
Akin to an eerily prescient horror film, Hayati’s title story gradually reveals a ghost world where the cumulative effects of war are ever-present. As the main character, Bahmeen, brings his dead parents their favorite treat — the sweet sheerpa candy — he observes a post-apocalyptic city:
One man, closing his shop, appeared to be rolling down the gate an infinite number of times, as though a short video loop of him were playing over and over. Even the woman driving me appeared to be traveling the same streets; the same thin, dark buildings reappearing.
Hayati skillfully imbues his work with tension and otherworldly, lush descriptions. When Bahmeen finally meets his parents, they are ghosts in a shelled Russian high-rise. Hayati writes, “Whistling, too, was the wind from the vast hole in the wall where a rocket had smashed its way through twenty-one years earlier. It whistled like a rotten tooth. It seemed like we had been drinking tea and eating candy our whole lives.”
In “Ten Shotguns,” author Najibullah Naqib uses gracefully straightforward language to write from the point of view of a matriarch as she looks back on the horrific events that compelled her to don men’s clothing and become a village fighter against the KHAD (secret police during the Russian occupation). Naqib’s spare style highlights the woman’s fortitude — her story begins and ends on the roof of her family’s home, where she still keeps watch, like a sentinel, for enemies on the horizon.
The story addresses gender wisely. In the present-day narration, the character, having sacrificed her femininity to become a fighter, wryly observes the current generation: “Most of the babies in our family who weren’t even born at that time have begun lecturing on a myriad of subjects, including the roles of men and women under Islam. They don’t lecture me, though.”
Gender is the jumping-off point for several stories in the anthology. Zahra Khawari’s “The Snow Over the Stones” is a short, haunting story passed from mother to daughter. Late for work, a young mother stumbles upon a woman on fire in a yard off the street. More shocking than the image of the woman — a “fireball” running back and forth in the snow — is that of a man watching from inside the house. Khawari writes, “He stepped back into the darkness, a figure that preferred shadows.” If a little extreme, this visual juxtaposition is gut-wrenching and shrewdly illuminates the violent gender politics and poverty that govern a large swath of Afghan society. But if Khawari uses her best writing to describe the visual world, she falls short at drawing me close to her narrator’s internal workings. When a car arrives to pick up the burned woman, the young mother narrates in staccato, distancing sentences: “When I heard the ambulance, I ran toward the gate to direct them. I suspect I could no longer bear seeing her. I showed them the way.” The “suspect” the young mother senses negates the space between past and present, making supposedly real-time observations feel measured and hollow. Additionally, as with a few of the writers in the anthology, Khawari’s use of the first-person, meant to feel immediate, lacks the nuances of spoken English and ultimately creates distance.
Other stories suffer from minor ills as well: passive language, formality, and explanatory remarks best removed. Still, the use of English is impressive in general, and the lack of translation infuses the anthology with intention and vigor. And if some of the writers need time to further hone their craft, all are uniquely skilled in weaving the political into the personal. For example, “The Snow Over the Stones” ends when the young mother learns that the woman was burned for not earning enough money, which reminds her that she is late for work. She must leave the woman at the hospital to suffer alone. Here Khawari skirts melodrama and clichés, opting instead for a quiet character study. Even amidst chaos and brutality, the young mother recognizes that bills must be paid, food must be served, and that life goes on.
If we only read about Afghanistan through the news cycle, we’re stuck within an information and problem-solving framework. Even first-person essays meant to give contextual meaning often seem manufactured to elicit the only acceptable response to tragedy: gravitas. This anthology allows us to enter Afghanistan through its people, not its events, and this makes for a far more lively, subtle, and human connection to the place where we wage war. Though some stories are born from rural, tribal life while others originate in urban centers, each one is character-driven, grounded in specificity, and takes its cues from daily experience.
In “Exiles in the Lands of Faith,” Hamid Azizi begins at a crisis point between typical college roommates. Anxious Mustafa is a complement to womanizing Hussain, who declares “Pussy is God” and refuses to be cowed by a hegemonic culture that equates acts of faith with faith itself. As he tells Mustafa, “Don’t you get it? This is a country of fakers. If you don’t believe, you keep it to yourself. You tell everyone else that you’re unshaken in your faith. That’s you how survive. Remember survival?”
When a group of zealous students beat Hussain because his mother is Jewish (even though she converted to Islam), Mustafa is confronted with how easily he gives up on Hussain in order to save himself. He joins the zealous in their prayers, all the while thinking, “[…] in a world of weakness, I also couldn’t convince myself that I should exhibit strength. It would not be recognized as such.”
Azizi uses the first-person here to great effect. His Mustafa tries to move through life with purpose but is admittedly numb. He flirts with defending Hussain but eventually succumbs to a sense of futility, perhaps an analogy for a country at a standstill. “Really, I didn’t know much of anything,” he says, “except that I wanted to be away from this stifling dorm room and the empty job and the blank, but potentially violent, future that awaited us all.” Azizi’s remarkable tenderness towards both Mustafa and Hussain illuminate the limiting future for young people in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, most characters in this anthology do not believe in a better tomorrow…or a tomorrow at all. As Klein notes in the introduction, these young authors publish in the US. at great risk, and definitely do not publish in their own country. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the anthology feels so original. These writers are exploring the possibilities of their writing and the possibilities of what they can write about. The subjects for The Gifts of the State’ s dramas are diverse and unique: from a lesbian fantasy in “The Pleasure of Judgment,” to a comic noir titled “Hardboiled,” in which a Mickey Spillane–obsessed bookshop owner fantasizes about poisoning his lover’s husband, who just happens to be a powerful mullah. And despite varying degrees of merit, their grouping feels fresh and organic, though some stories are not for the faint of heart.
Khalid Ahmad Atif’s “The Sea Floor” is a tense, gruesome piece about a massacre in a remote, tribal region and it’s easily the most accomplished work in the anthology. Punishing at first, the story opens up into an unsparing study of the trauma in living amongst incomprehensible violence. Atif is skilled at building a state of suspended horror. Javid, the piece’s central character and an Afghan translator embedded with Marines, wakes up to an alarm. A false alarm. Still, Javid panics, thinking, “I did not know what to do, which direction to run, whether to crouch, where the attack might be coming from.” From there, his corps is sent to deliver supplies to an isolated area that may have suffered a massacre. Apprehensive, the group collectively calls this a “Mission to Mars.”
Here Atif switches gears. Moving into the omniscient voice, he follows Naem, a recently married shoe salesman traveling by bus with his family and new bride. Happy, raucous, normal, the wedding party is, of course, doomed. When the bus is attacked, the specifics, though well-drawn, are gratuitous, like a laundry list of all the horrific things a saw can do to the bodies of men, women, and children.
The story’s narrative paths join when the reader understands that the massacre Javid and the Marines are tracking is actually this very attack on the wedding bus. As they follow in the bus’s path, moody details build tension, like the image of the Marine’s hulking Hummer slowly descending the mountain, its headlights barely illuminating the road, and the description of a horn echoing back from the mountains — “It was mournful, like the sound of human moaning, as it returned to us.” These build until Javid and the Marines finally see the bus abandoned on the side of the road. Aping the brutality of the massacre, Atif forces the reader to revisit the events through the Marines. Slowly, Javid comes upon – “a pile, like sea anemones, the boys’ penises were dusted with sand and, in the starlight, bluish. The fingers, a few meters away, rested on each other, like many hands patiently folded over.” Atif’s fiction, dense and layered, is infused with such harrowing images, most of which are still with me; I fear they always will be.
The Marines expect Javid, being Afghan, to explain the massacre. But, echoing the false alarm scene, Javid is at a loss. Barbaric, senseless violence has no logical root, yet Javid is forced to live in its orbit, and Atif’s laundry list of brutalities forces the reader to live in it as well. In the end, Javid asks the still-living Naem, “Who did this to you? Were they Taliban, Hakani, insurgents?” Naem replies, “They weren’t people; they had no identities. They weren’t animals. They were like shadows that pass across the mountains.”
It is no wonder that so many of these authors write about characters at a precipice; they must move forward, but towards what? The day after I finished reading The Gifts of the State: New Writing from Afghanistan, 21 people were killed in a terrorist attack at a Kabul restaurant popular with foreign workers. As I read the paper, I thought of the characters I’d come to know — how would this affect them? Then I realized that in a seemingly hopeless place, there is optimism in the act of writing fiction itself, in creating characters and communicating ideas that could reach an audience halfway around the world. These stories speak for a lost generation. Read them.