Critic’s Choice List Curated by Mahvesh Murad

What is Critic’s Choice?

We’ve been working for months on a special new category, ‘Critic’s Choice’. We understand that it’s not always easy to decide which book to buy when there is just so much to choose from. We have tried to make life a little bit easier for you. This list has been curated by Mahvesh Murad. 

Who is Mahvesh Murad?

Mahvesh Murad is a book critic. She hosted a radio show about books for 7 years and writes for Books & Authors, Strange Horizons &, amongst other publications. She is the editor of the Apex Book of World SF 4 & co-editor of a forthcoming anthology of jinn stories to be published by Solaris UK in 2017.

So look out for our ‘yellow’ critic’s choice sticker when you visit us next. 🙂 The collection is available in store and online. You can browse through and order here:

This Month’s Picks

SM CriticsChoice All 10_Pinterest


Review of Poetry of the Taliban

Book Review: Poetry of Taliban

Will the Taliban’s war poetry be accepted as a literary find, lending voice to a deeply conflicted movement?

Reviewed by Razeshta Sethna

IN the 1980s, the Afghan mujahideen were photographed as bearded, rugged fighters with Kalashnikovs and Stinger missiles, surrounded by mountains. They made

romantic subjects under the caption ‘freedom’. I vaguely remember an American photographer from that time, recuperating in Karachi after travelling with these fighters as they attacked Russian convoys. Mesmerised with their ‘heroism’ and desire for freedom, their passion for reciting poetry and singing at night, he had taken hundreds of photographs.

Those years were witness to few reports on the mujahideen’s brutal hold on power, the infighting among warlords surviving on CIA dollars, the rape of Afghan women. Their Western benefactors ignored all of that — until the rise of the Taliban, when Mullah Omar’s regime was severely ostracised for its medievalist rule and treatment of women. Under the Taliban (1996-2001), severe punishments were the norm for daring to go against their edicts

banning music and dance.

Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the editors of an English-language anthology of 235 poems titled Poetry of the Taliban, try to

provide a window into this ‘other’ world known only for its violent insurgency. With translations of Pashtu and Dari poems written by the Afghan Taliban, the book has stirred the emotions of many, with some decrying it as “self-satisfying propaganda”. In their introduction, the editors claim that these are uncensored voices allowing the reader to “appreciate those who comprise the Taliban as human beings (regardless of what actions they might have taken)”. Mostly poems selected from the Taliban’s official website, this anthology also comprises older verses taken from magazines, newspapers and recordings dating back to the 1980s and 1990s; some are not written by those associated with the Taliban and only one poem is by a woman.

As much as one might want to agree that this is not a political undertaking but a lyrical project, the often dark and desperate outpourings of sorrow, anger and accusations (directed at the West) and the expressions of love, war, nationalism and religious zeal contradict that reading. It is also hard to forget that the poetry (or at least some of the poems) belongs to Taliban insurgents who continue to pose a longstanding threat to secularism and democracy with their version of Islam.

The introductory note points to an interesting contradiction between official Taliban

edicts preventing the playing of music, except taranas or ballads, on Afghan radio stations between 1996 and 2001 and Mullah Omar’s

personal preference for playing songs by Saraji, his favourite Taliban singer, while riding in his SUV. Neither this preference, nor the centuries-old heritage of poetry and music, eased the ban on musicians until after 2001. But the editors remind us that hosting poetry and music sessions in the southern provinces is welcomed, adding that Mullah Omar would “sing after battle during the 1980s jihad”.

Focused on the conflicts that have shaped Afghanistan for the past three decades, these poems would have been recited to motivate fighters. With diverse themes and emotional appeal, they instantly draw the reader. The use of pastoral imagery and references to Afghan warriors from history are common to most of them. Political messages couched in repetitive verses urge Afghans to expel foreign occupiers in the religious and nationalistic poems mostly written after 2006. Others are love poems where the grieved poet talks of bombs, graves and revenge. Written as classic war poems for the most part, using regional poetic forms, they talk about modern war tactics.

“The Trench” draws on Taliban war songs. Fighters write about experiences from the frontlines, saying goodbye to families, descriptions of the enemy, of night raids, drone attacks on weddings, the loss of comrades. Most poets are critical of the changes brought through the sociopolitical structure supported by the international community. They critique the dollar inflated economy: “This is the land of Muslims/This is the land of great Afghans/This has the mark of the paradise/This is the land of the holy Quran/Don’t sell yourselves to the Americans”; condemn the role of non-governmental organisations: “Most people who broke with the government move to NGOs/ The reason is, salaries are in dollars/How many are the NGOs!”; decry the ‘Western’ influence on Afghan women and their dress. They deride the corruption of the Karzai government, often making direct references: “Don’t spread your dollars around/I have a revolutionary religion/You best be leaving now/I have sons born of Malalai”.

Written in December 2008, in the poem “Good News”, the young mujahideen is

advised to take revenge for night raids that ‘disgrace’ Afghan families. Other poems — with descriptive titles such as “The Message of Devoted Mujahid”, “O Eid of the Trench”, “The Cries of Forty-One Countries Reach the Sky” — confirm the Taliban’s conservative worldview while glorifying nationalism and bravery in war. They make direct references to suicide bombers, RPGs and jihad as a legal obligation: “We are happy when we are martyred for our extreme zeal and honour/That is the reason we strap bombs around our waists/ We have properly identified the puppets and servants of the foreigners/We circle their names in red on our lists.”

The poems express determination that the most recent foreign invaders — referred to as 41 countries — will be sent packing, just like the Russians and British occupiers before them. A chilling compliment in an undated poem that reveres the mujahid for “playing football with the heads of infidels” and for “[sounding] out the Islamic kalima to the world” could be a reminder about the beheading and stoning of alleged spies and those accused of ‘immorality’ in Kabul’s Ghazi stadium between 1996-2001.

Today, the official face of the Taliban does not openly reflect its anti-culture, anti-women, anti-West past, with ‘reformed’ members occupying key ministerial positions. But the reality is not much different from what happened during their regime. Earlier in the summer, a young woman was shot by Taliban commanders in Parwan province on the outskirts of Kabul on the pretext that she had committed ‘immoral’ crimes. Spectators gathered to witness the execution. And as recently as last week, Taliban insurgents beheaded 17 civilians, including two women, in Helmand province, a long-time Taliban stronghold; some reports state they were part of a music and dance evening while others explain the men were informers for the government.

Such incidents reflect that the Taliban’s ideology remains unchanged. Poet Nasery laments that, “We did all of this to ourselves”. But his is a solitary line in a collection where those “Heroes of the Maiwand battles/Those strict Pashtuns” are eulogized as fighters on a religious mission.

Poetry of the Taliban is full of admonitions, complaints against ‘infidels’, disgust at Afghans earning dollars, descriptions of suffering at the frontlines and the loneliness of widows, orphans and mothers, but without reference to engaging meaningfully with the outside world or even with the government to find a peaceful solution to the future. The solution for most lies in fighting the invaders until they leave. The poem “Slave” satirises the Karzai-Bush

alliance, accusing the former: “Karzai! You sold the country for a few dollars.”

As much as these poems may explain the reasons behind the Taliban’s unrelenting ideology and their resentment towards foreign occupiers, there is  still that lingering question of whether they merit the space accorded to them. Should the Taliban’s political ideology of violence, perpetuated under the guise of religious belief, be circulated? Moreover, when a shooting or a beheading is recorded to the soundtrack of a tarana and that same tarana is used for propaganda

videos showing attacks on American and Afghan forces, one is left wondering about the contradiction: violence to the tune of music. Has their ban on cultural activities and music always been selective to suit political purposes and to show the world their dogmatic façade?

Last year it was reported that the Taliban have about 40 singers on their payroll, each producing an album a month. These songs, explains a Taliban spokesperson, “give a lesson in bravery, manliness and protecting the country from the invaders”, a familiar theme in this collection. Today, most Afghans travelling out of Kabul have insurgent songs about suicide bombers and teenage martyrs on their cell phones because if stopped at a Taliban check post with Indian or Afghan ring tones, their phones would be smashed and they would be beaten. If the Taliban privately recite poetry, listen to music and even resolve to change — “We are not animals/I say this with certainty/But/Humanity has been forgotten by us/I don’t know when it will come back” — is there space for that? Or is Poetry of the Taliban another publication revealing more of what we know about a resilient insurgent movement?

The reviewer is a staffer at the monthly Herald

Poetry of the Taliban


Edited by Alex Strick Van Linschoten

and Felix Kuehn

Translated by Mirwais Rahmany and

Hamid Stanikzai

Hurst & Company, London

ISBN 1849041113

247pp. Rs1,595


Book Review Manhunt: The Ten – Year Search for Bin Laden – From 9/11 to Abbotabad

Books and Authors | 26th August, 2012

Reviewed by Nadir Hassan 

If there is one subject on which Peter Bergen is a specialist it is Osama bin Laden. In 1997, he interviewed the Al Qaeda leader for CNN, becoming the first Western journalist to do so. Since then, working for both CNN and the New America Foundation, Bergen has become known as one of the few people who were sounding early and consistent alarms about bin Laden and for being extremely knowledgeable about the terrorist leader.

Perhaps it is Bergen’s outsized reputation that makes his new book Manhunt, an account of the decade-plus search for OBL, a triumph of access. In researching this book, Bergen was allowed to view US government files about the OBL hunt before they were declassified and he was given unprecedented access by authorities in Pakistan to bin Laden’s final home in Abbottabad before it was razed to the ground. This exclusivity lends an air of atmosphere and authenticity to many scenes in Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad.

This access on its own, however, is not enough to paper over some holes in the book. The portion which covers the actual US Navy SEAL’s attack on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad relies heavily, and almost exclusively, on an account reported by Nicholas Schmidle in The New Yorker. Many questions were raised about the veracity of Schmidle’s reporting, including the fact that his breathless, minute-by-minute descriptions of what the SEALs were thinking, doing and feeling were not actually based on any interviews with the SEALs themselves.

Part of the problem with Manhunt is something over which the author had no control. The search for Osama bin Laden lasted for well over a decade and, for much of that time, there simply wasn’t much progress at all. This makes the first half of the book quite dull. Bergen might perhaps have been better off acknowledging the glacial pace of the hunt rather than trying to maintain an air of suspense and impending thrills. It might not have made for a book that was particularly lively but it would have rung far truer. About the only interesting revelation in these sections is the prevalent sexism in the CIA of the late 1990s and how that may have caused senior officers to dismiss breakthroughs by women analysts.

Bergen’s account also throws up some contradictions and assumptions that remain unanswered. Through his interaction with intelligence officials in Pakistan and US government figures we learn that OBL simply wasn’t much of a threat in his latter years. He was disconnected from the rest of Al Qaeda and was increasingly frustrated by his marginalised role. Bin Laden spent his days dreaming up pointless schemes, like rebranding Al Qaeda by giving it a new name and obsessively reviewing the resumes of the militant outfit’s commanders.

This is mirrored by the fixation of the Obama administration and the CIA on hunting down Osama. Obviously, at the time, it was not known just how impotent Osama had become but,

even in retrospect, Bergen doesn’t question whether the Bush administration might just have struck the right formula in not attaching too much importance to a lone, symbolic figure. For Bergen, it is a given that tracking down Osama was so vital that the cost and risks did not matter.

Bergen’s questionable assumptions also lead him to ignore other potential costs of the Abbottabad raid. He lays out, with painstaking detail, just how circumstantial the evidence of OBL being in the compound really was. Pretty much all the CIA had to go on was that a Pakistani courier for Al Qaeda, known as “Kuwaiti” because of where he was brought up, would deliver messages to the compound. They also knew that one of those living in the compound was a tall man, whom they nicknamed “the walker”. On the basis of these two facts, President Obama was told that there was, at best, a 50 per cent chance that “the walker” was Osama bin Laden.

That was enough for Obama to consider the options of either launching a drone attack in Abbottabad or sending in a team to kill him. As it happens, the story turned out well enough for the Americans. Imagine for a second, though, that the man inside had not been OBL. Bergen doesn’t ponder the question of how a US attack on Pakistani soil would have fatally undermined the war against militancy if the target had turned out to be the wrong one. It is easy now to praise Obama for his courage but there is a thin line separating courage from foolhardiness.

Bergen’s analysis of possible Pakistani collusion in hiding OBL is similarly superficial. He raises the question and then simply declares it unlikely and is done with the matter.

Bergen’s Manhunt, then, is a mixed bag. It may prove to be the definitive account of the chase for Osama, mixing as it does unprecedented access and an amalgamation of other journalistic accounts. But its thoroughness should not distract from its analytical weaknesses. Future writers would do well to use his account as an initial source to explore more deeply the questions raised by the US obsession over this one man who came to be seen as the embodiment of evil.

Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad


By Peter Bergen

Crown Publishers, US

ISBN 0307955575

384pp. Rs1,995

Half the Sky: how the trafficking of women today is on a par with genocide – Reviewed By Ed Pilkington

Nicholas Kristof is not the kind of person you would expect to be a slave owner. As a columnist on that most august of newspapers, the New York Times, he belongs to an elite within an elite, the embodiment of journalistic seriousness. Yet there he was, in 2004, blithely forking out $150 (£96) for Srey Neth and $203 for another teenager, Srey Momm; handing over the money to a brothel keeper in exchange for a receipt and complete dispensation to do with the two girls as he would. Nick Kristof: double Pulitzer prize winner, bestselling author, slave owner. But that, as is made clear in his new book, written with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, is just the start of it.

At the time of his purchase, Kristof had been travelling to a wild and dangerous part of north-western Cambodia, and had checked into an $8-a-night hotel-cum-brothel in the town of Poipet. He arranged to see Neth, who had been in the brothel for a month, having been sold to its owner by her own cousin. Thin and fragile, she had no idea how old she was, but looked to Kristof about 14. Her virginity had been auctioned to a Thai casino manager who later died of Aids, and now she was on offer to local punters at a premium price by dint of her youth and light skin.

Kristof arranged to buy her, as well as Momm from a different brothel. Momm was a frail girl further down the line of misery, having been forced into prostitution five years previously. Amid floods of tears and rage, she pleaded with Kristof to be bought, freed and taken back to her village on the other side of Cambodia. He took both girls back to their villages and, with the help of an American charity, attempted to ease them back into society.

The story of Neth and Momm is just a small indication of the lengths Kristof and WuDunn are prepared to go to expose the injustices that they see in the modern world. Buying up child prostitutes is pretty extreme, but no more than the message they are seeking to deliver in their groundbreaking book, Half the Sky.

In it, they argue that the world is in the grip of a massive moral outrage no less egregious in scale or in the intensity of despair than the African slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries or the genocides of the 20th. They believe this outrage is a key factor behind many of the most pressing economic and political issues today, from famine in Africa to Islamist terrorism and climate change. Yet they say the phenomenon is largely hidden, invisible to most of us and passing relatively unreported. At worst it is actively tolerated; at best it is ignored.

The fodder of this latterday trade in human suffering is not African people, but women. Which is why they call it “gendercide”. If the supreme moral challenge of the 19th century was slavery, and of the 20th century the fight against totalitarianism, then, they write, “in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world”.

The contention is as startling as the idea of a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist buying up prostitutes. I put it to them that, to some people, the claim will seem overblown. After all, you don’t go lightly comparing the plight of women in developing countries today with slavery or, by implication, the Holocaust.

“This idea is a couple of decades in gestation,” Kristof says. “Over those years, we reluctantly came to the conclusion that this really is the greatest moral challenge of this century.”

Then WuDunn chimes in: “When you hear that 60 to 100 million females are missing in the current population, we thought that number compares in the scope and size. And then you compare the slave trade at its peek in the 1780s, when there were 80,000 slaves transported from Africa to the New World, and you see there are now 10 times that amount of women trafficked across international borders, so you start to think you are talking about comparable weight.”

Their disturbing conclusion seems all the more powerful for being reached at the end of what they call a “journey of awakening”, which began in such different places. Kristof is the product of the west coast who grew up on a sheep and cherry farm in Oregon, the son of liberal academics. WuDunn is east coast-cum-Orient; a third-generation Chinese American formed through the fusion of her family’s Chinese roots and the urbanity of New York City.

The hotch-potch of influences is reflected in their suburban New York home where we meet, a large house set in its own thick greenery in an area of real estate where residents are surely more familiar with hedge funds and stock fluctuations than fistulas or honour killings. It feels a little incongruous, the horror of what we’re discussing amid the tranquility of the setting. But the gulf is lessened by the fact that they have surrounded themselves with mementoes of their many travels: African wooden dolls, Asian carvings and a large box bed from China covered in furs that fills the living room.

WuDunn and Kristof date the start of their journey to Tiananmen Square, which they covered for the New York Times, having been sent to China by the paper as a young married couple shortly before the 1989 protests erupted (they won a joint Pulitzer for their troubles). “We were horrified by what we saw in Tiananmen,” WuDunn says. “But then we went roaming in the countryside a year or two afterwards and started finding all this stuff we had never heard about: the infanticide, with 30 million baby girls missing in the Chinese population.”

They realised with a jolt that, every week, as many infant girls were dying in China through lack of access to health care as the up-to-800 protesters who died in Tiananmen. Kristof received a further shock in 1996 when he came face-to-face with girls being trafficked for sex in Cambodia. “I went to a village outside Phnom Penh where a very young teenage girl was having her virginity auctioned. Instead of helping her, the police were there to ensure that, if she escaped, she would be returned to her owners. The main difference from 19th-century slavery was that all these girls would be dead of Aids by their twenties. I was really shaken by how open it was, how blatant. It wasn’t underground slavery, it was like what a cutting plantation would have been 150 years earlier.”

The discovery of such horrendous abuse got them wondering about the nature of the journalism they were engaged in. Here they were, along with the rest of the “serious” press, debating weighty geopolitical issues of the day. Yet this huge injustice was going on under their noses, largely unreported, dismissed as “women’s issues” by the mainstream media. “We’ve thought a lot about the failure to see this,” says WuDunn. “Partly, it’s because the news is defined by what happens on a particular day, and a lot of the most important things in the world don’t happen on a particular day . . .”

“And it’s partly that our definition of what constitutes news is a legacy of the perspective of middle-aged men,” adds Kristof. “It may well be that one major reason why high-school girls drop out of school around the world is that they have trouble managing menstruation, and probably one reason nobody has cottoned on to this is that people who run aid organisations and write about it have never menstruated.”

Gradually, they began to see this great global disaster more clearly, discovering that, every year, at least two million girls worldwide disappear because of discrimination. They began to investigate and chronicle its various forms, from sexual slavery to honour killings of women deemed to have disgraced the family, to rape as an extension of war, to genital mutilation, to the less violent but no less damaging exclusion of women from health services and education. They widened their net from China to India, Korea, Japan and then Africa.

“Over the years we began to think about the thread between all of this,” WuDunn says. “We realised there was a societal attitude that doesn’t allow women to be active members of society, that doesn’t treat them like human beings. That’s the link: the disregard of women as human beings.”

The dawning recognition that they were confronted by nothing less than a modern form of global slavery, with women as its victims, has had profound personal and professional implications for them both. Above all, it has demanded a rethinking of the function of their writing. If you are convinced you have stumbled across an enormous moral outrage, you cannot merely cast light on the subject. You have to do something to stop it. You have to effect change.

That is what makes their book – named after the Chinese saying that women hold up half the sky – so unusual, not just in its searing and heart-rending contents but in its steely determination and sense of purpose. As the Washington Post’s reviewer put it, this is a “call to arms, a call for help, a call for contributions, but also a call for volunteers”.

From the opening pages, WuDunn and Kristof make an unashamed pitch for the reader’s support and engagement. No on-the-one-hand-this and on-the-other-hand-that. “We hope to recruit you,” the authors write, “to join an incipient movement to emancipate women . . . Just open your heart and join in.”

At the end of the book, in similar vein, they give a list of action points that readers can take within 10 minutes to make a difference. And they set us a personal challenge: will we join a historical movement to eradicate sex slavery, honour killings and acid attacks, or are we content to remain detached bystanders? It is the 21st-century equivalent of that ultimately probing 20th-century question: “What did you do in the war, Daddy?”

The ambition to inspire us to action, to foment what they call a modern abolitionist movement, informs every page of the book. It’s not just evident in the direct appeals they make to readers; it is also subliminally present in the way they manage their information. Specifically, they wanted to avoid a numbing effect where readers would become so overwhelmed by the grimness and apparent hopelessness of the lives women lead that they would sink into depression, rather than leap into action.

So WuDunn and Kristof studied psychological papers on what gels people to participate, and discovered that statistics are particularly bad as motivational tools. By contrast, focus on individuals is key. In one experiment, research subjects were told to donate $5 to alleviate world hunger. They were offered the choice of giving the money to Rokia, a girl in Mali aged seven, or to reduce hunger among 21 million Africans. Most chose Rokia. In another study, people were asked to give $300,000 to fight cancer. One group was told the money would save the life of a single child, another that it would save eight children. Perversely, people gave almost twice as much to save just one child rather than eight.

The authors have followed the lessons of these psychological studies They do have statistics in the book, many of which are harrowing. The equivalent of five jumbo jets’ worth of women die in labour each day. Every 10 seconds a girl somewhere in the world is pinned down, her legs pulled apart and a part of her genitals cut off, mainly without anaesthetic.

But because the studies warn of the perils, they keep numbers in their place, and instead focus on individual stories. Such as that of Mukhtar Mai, who grew up in a peasant village in southern Punjab and was gang-raped as a child by members of a higher-status local clan. After that she was expected to commit suicide – that’s what women who have been gang-raped do. Instead, she went to the police, and with the $8,300 she received in compensation set up a village school.

Or Sunitha Krishnan, who stands just four-and-a-half-feet tall but who has become a legendary fighter in the war against sex trafficking. She set up an organisation in Hyderabad called Prajwala that has helped some 1,500 women escape from prostitution and into new careers such as carpentry or welding.

As well as focusing on the personal, the authors relentlessly accentuate the positive; constantly firing out examples where terrible wrongs have been overcome, proving that seemingly immutable problems can be shifted. The most powerful case for WuDunn is also the most personal: her grandmother’s feet were bound in the rural village where her family originates, yet today feet binding in China is unknown. “I’m so conscious of how lucky I am there was a movement in China and abroad that put a stop to a practice that was centuries old.” The authors also remind us that genital mutilation was practised regularly in England until the 1860s. It too was eradicated.

“The research stresses the importance of the positive,” says Kristof. “People want to be part of something that is successful, and that’s one reason why, even though a lot of the stories we profile plumb some really desperate moments, we also try and show it is possible to make a difference. We don’t want to sound manipulative – but we do want readers to care about these issues. We followed research in terms of writing in a way that would engage people, and Half the Sky was a kind of experiment in trying to use these approaches to reach a broader audience. From that regard, I think it worked remarkably.”

More than 300,000 copies have been sold in the US, a four-hour public broadcasting TV documentary is in the works, and a videogame version of the book will be launched in an attempt to reach a younger audience. More importantly, the authors’ call to arms has been heard, with people across the US who first engaged with Half the Sky through reading groups transforming their networks into mini-aid organisations, raising money and making contact with projects abroad. Some 580 book clubs, with 6,500 members, signed up to a Half the Sky project organised by the global aid agency Mercy Corps that raised $20,000. Beyond the money, book club members held speaking engagements, wrote to elected officials, placed opinion pieces in the local paper, and generally caused a stir that in turn inspired others to get involved.

Kristof and WuDunn hand me a letter. “I have a strong passion for helping women,” writes its female author. “After reading your book, I decided to take my passion and turn it into my life. I travelled to Uganda, where I saw first-hand how difficult life is for those living in extreme poverty.”

And here’s one from a woman in Ohio: “After reading your book I felt I had to do something, so I enlisted the members of my water aerobics class at the Cleveland Racquet Club. We now have $640 to foster girls’ education.” And another from Saratoga Springs: “This year, for the holidays, I gave 25 copies of your book Half the Sky. The result has been the enthusiastic desire of a group of us to establish a multi-generational women’s giving circle.”

It’s the kind of feedback any author or publisher would die for. “I think it’s truly taking off,” Kristof says.

As for his slaves, it hasn’t been easy for them. Momm slid back into prostitution to feed the methamphetamine addiction she had already acquired when Kristof “bought” her. But she eventually became free for a second time following a government crackdown on brothels, and married one of her customers. In 2008, Kristof went to Cambodia to see her again. She called herself a housewife, and said she had left her old life behind for ever.

Neth had her troubles too. She was diagnosed with HIV and thought her life was over, but found medical treatment and also eventually married and had a son. When Kristof last saw her, she told him she planned to set up a hairdressing salon. She said she would name it after him.

This article was published in The Guardian.

This book is available at Liberty Books.

Afrah Jamal: BOOK REVIEW: My Life With The Taliban Author: Abdul Salam Zaeef (Translation by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn) Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Afrah Jamal: BOOK REVIEW: My Life With The Taliban Author: Abdul Salam Zaeef (Translation by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn) Reviewed by Afrah Jamal.

Daily Times – Site Edition Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Afghan Taliban’s claim to fame: obliterating 6th century monuments at Bamian, reactivating a medieval code of conduct and hosting the US’s most wanted man. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has been lambasted for grooming this force of nature and further accused of aiding and abetting it after 2001, but if one founding member is to be believed, they have little to do with the set up. The Taliban were already in their gestation phase and simply moved in to fill the (moral) void left by outgoing invaders and incoming outlaws.

This is the story of the singing, dancing mujahideen that evolved into a dreaded inquisition squad which ran Afghanistan for five years, as told by Mullah Zaeef — who was once a high profile member of the said squad. But he is neither a defector nor an apologist and remains an ardent supporter of his former colleagues. Originally written in Pashto, his memoir has been translated by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn — permanent residents of Kandahar and apparently the only two westerners brave enough to live there sans elaborate security measures.

The man, who went from being a veteran and Talib to ambassador before ending up as Prisoner 306 at Guantanamo Bay prison, has a selective memory. “The Taliban had given beauty to the region,” he gushes, hastening to add some feel good stories and touching imagery to the terrifying mythology. He contrasts the world he inherited as a child raised under the shadow of the Soviets with the land he defended as a jihadist, and one he helped forge as a young Talib.

Though Zaeef will paint his movement in the brightest possible colours, casting the Taliban as saints and Pakistan as the sinner, the Afghan nation can testify to the Taliban’s bleak history after 1994.

Ironically, both Pakistan and the US are hauled over the coals for failing to uphold basic human rights. As for the Taliban’s appalling record, the only two instances included are intended to convey their open-mindedness and sense of fairplay. Where does the destruction of Buddhist statues fit in all this? He believes that act to be legally sound but unnecessary. And other atrocities? A heartening portrayal of “life returning to normal” is preceded by the casual observation that “women are no longer working and men are growing beards”. He did not issue these controversial edicts but continues to endorse them. The West’s fear of madrassas (which stems from a real enough place) invokes his ire. At one point, he argues that efforts at giving equal rights to men and women prove that Americans are the enemies of Islam. Such pronouncements merely demonstrate that, while the Taliban may not be seeking an al Qaeda-style new world order, they are also not the kind of people that sustain life as we know it.

Zaeef’s description of an Afghanistan under occupation is no paradise either and unnerving details of a common man’s plight have the power to widen the gulf between the Afghans and the rest of the world.

While the latest news about improvement in the quality of life at infamous ‘Gitmo’ may be reassuring — apparently they can now watch the World Cup, use Skype and read Twilight (!) — the sobering reality as seen through the inmates’ eyes will dismay many.

As ambassador, he had issues with Pakistan’s way of doing business. No doubt, some of these grievances will be legitimate — Pakistan’s law and order is nothing to be proud of. But, as far as the refugee crisis is concerned, Zaeef can barely contain his displeasure at Peshawar’s governor who rightfully points out that these people should not have been around in the first place, given that Afghanistan had a government and security. There is a portion where Zaeef is warned by the ISI against assassinating Musharraf and he, in turn, suggests that they were merely trying to find a scapegoat, but soon after mentions the fatwa he read out where assassination is the central idea and Musharraf appears to be the primary target. This man got burned by Pakistan, which explains away some, but not all, of the hostility towards his former mentors and benefactors.

Zaeef, when he is not monitoring the spin cycle or adjusting the lighting around this carefully crafted narrative, does have lucid moments as he speculates about the future of his country and the demerits of American-Afghan policies. The Taliban and al Qaeda are on the same wavelength but not necessarily the same (war) path. Have the Taliban been mislabelled? Not really. But have they been mishandled? Perhaps. A tribal leader famously asked the commander of British troops, “I can see how easy it was for you to get your troops in but what I do not understand is how you are planning to get them out.” That was 1892. The classic tale of ‘immovable object meets an unstoppable force’ is in its umpteenth season. Nine years into the war, the Taliban are not a spent force but an active threat. This book helps people understand what keeps them ticking.

Columbia University Press; Pp 360; Rs 995