When I knew everyone would be interested in Afghanistan, a country many prefer to turn away from most of the time, I decided to write a short “review” of the excellent novel I had been enchanted by a few years ago when I read it. It is by Zia Haider Rahman and is called In the Light of What we Know (2014).
I had intended to page through and quickly write a short essay on it, just to make you want to read it at the moment when you are still haunted by images of people falling off jet planes to their deaths on the tarmac of the Kabul airport, and perhaps asking yourself how you can better understand what is going on. I felt at the time that I had understood better one aspect of the occupation of Afghanistan – the strange social life that, like a sweaty boiler-room full of drinking young disco dancers in the ex-pat enclave, ran the "lights" of the occupation from Kabul – after I had read this novel.
But as I began to page through the novel, I got drawn into re-reading it – all 560 pages – word by word a second time. I found myself reading really thoroughly, as only a novelist perhaps does, unpicking the structure. The book was better still. It is a genius book. I was so taken in by it that I clean forgot my reason for reading it again. Incidentally, while reading it, I came across a reference to the novel that Ram, my husband was reading next to me in bed, Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, that I had just finished reading. But that is an aside.
Zia Haider Rahman’s novel is not really about Afghanistan. It was indeed centred around Kabul, as a hub, and this was in the years after the US-NATO occupation in retaliation for the Twin Towers being attacked, but its two protagonists also moved respectively from Bangladesh-when-it-was-Pakistan to Pakistan and to Bangladesh-when-it-wasn’t-Pakistan and back again, from Oxford with the Brize Norton US military base right there to London, from Boston to New York, from the peasantry and working class to the intellectual elites and aristocracy. And the sub-text, even the very the beginning and the awful end was or “is”, as it were, war and rape, and the absence of any easy redemption. The central social-class divide cuts deeper throughout the novel, and throughout life, than nationality, politics or ethnic divides. But, again, in the sub-text, there is the male-female divide that is somehow not quite “In the light” of “what we know”, but only dimly somewhere there in our peripheral vision. And when you, as reader, think what exactly Zafar went to Afghanistan for, and what he did there, you realize that you have unlocked the insight the novel gives you into the 20-year occupation from the 9/11 explosion of the Twin Towers to the deathly scramble of the USA and its hangers-on to leave Kabul last month, seven years after the book was published.
Zafar, the reader realizes afterwards, didn’t know who exactly called him to go to Kabul, nor why he actually did go, or who he was supposed to go work for there. Anyway, he ends up working for someone else. And he ends up doing the opposite of anything he might have intended. But what he did do does shed emotional light on how he, himself, was procreated. And it does shed light on how no-one occupying Afghanistan – in the military, the NGOs, the UN system, NATO – really knew why they went to Afghanistan nor who they worked for. Maybe the ISI men knew somewhat better what they were doing. But, for any one character, it is hard to know what you don’t know.
So, the novel moves from the individual to the social reality and back again, exploring all along how hard it is to know what you don’t know.
I was also fascinated by the characters in the novel’s interest in mathematics – having myself studied mathematics in a humanities degree and sharing their fascination with its internal beauty and even in the limits of its certainty. The novel is also about the 2008 crash of the bonds market that is as important a pole of the novel as the collapse of the Twin Towers. The novel takes place somewhere between these two “falls” and their fall-out.
All this to suggest you read it. But not only because of any light it might shed on what you might know about Afghanistan.
Two Essays to go look for
“The Other Afghan Women” by Anand Gopal in The New Yorker, 13 September 2021 is a gentle portrayal of rural Afghanistan at the time of the USA’s flight from Afghanistan, showing Afghan women in all their dignity and courage. It is about 20 pages long, but it reads beautifully, and is literary prose at its best.
For political background, and this essay when I re-read it this time, reminded me of the actual happenings in the news in the 1970s and 1980s, and it has the ring of truth that no other article I’ve read on Afghanistan has. It is called “Liberating Afghanistan”, a title only John Pilger could get away with, in the collection called Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire (2007). The collection includes Stealing a Nation on Diego Garcia and is the essay related to his 56-minute classic TV film of the same name which you may have watched.
Lindsey Collen, a personal view