David Rohde’s ‘Rope and a Prayer’ – Review – NYTimes.com

Reporters go to war to document the human and humanitarian tragedies that otherwise would go largely unnoticed or misunderstood: concealed by the governments that commit them, eclipsed by the battles that perpetuate them, too complex to carry cable-news appeal. Determined to tell stories from extremity, we rely on our research, our guides and our gut assessment of what is safe and what is not. Most of the time we return from assignments in one piece, and on time.

“A Rope and a Prayer” is a firsthand account of one war-zone assignment gone devastatingly wrong.

In this book David Rohde, a correspondent for The New York Times, and his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, take turns recounting in meticulous detail his 7 months and 10 days in Taliban captivity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and her harrowing negotiations for his release. Their intertwined stories reflect two intensely personal consequences of myopic, lopsided international meddling in the brutalized and neglected region that straddles the border between Central and South Asia.

On Nov. 10, 2008, Mr. Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize winner, set off to interview a Taliban commander in Afghanistan for a book he was writing about the failing American war effort. It was a fraught move, he knew. But without a Taliban commander’s voice to illustrate the movement’s resurgence, Mr. Rohde, ever thorough, believed his book — a result of seven years spent chronicling the escalating war in Afghanistan and the radicalization of Pakistan’s tribal areas — would be incomplete.

The interview was a trap. The Taliban commander who had agreed to speak to Mr. Rohde had him kidnapped. After being marched, at night, across the mountainous frontier Mr. Rohde spent the rest of his captivity in Taliban safe houses in western Pakistan. At the time of the kidnapping he and Ms. Mulvihill had been married two months.

Three main narratives converge in “A Rope and a Prayer.” Mr. Rohde’s methodical reconstruction of his confinement and escape alternates with Ms. Mulvihill’s scrupulous and often surreal account of juggling her effort to free Mr. Rohde and her work as the photography director at Cosmopolitan magazine. In one chapter Ms. Mulvihill sets up a Malibu beach photo shoot for a vegetarian actress who will be chauffeured only in an environmentally friendly car — and on the next page she composes a letter to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the commander of her husband’s kidnappers. She addresses him, at the suggestion of one of her security advisers, “Dear Brother Mujahid.”

But by far the most valuable part of this volume, for foreign-policy watchers and the general public alike, is the book Mr. Rohde had set out to write before he was kidnapped. “A Rope and a Prayer” is, above all, an important and timely resource for anyone trying to understand the trajectory of violence during the last decade in a region that has been ravaged by war almost incessantly for millennia.

In his signature studious fashion Mr. Rohde explains how “the fundamentalist Taliban state the United States purportedly toppled in 2001 is alive and thriving” in Pakistan today. Among the reasons he gives are the shortsighted support Washington extended, during the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to religious fundamentalists who later helped form the Taliban; the United States’ role in the erosion of west Pakistan’s tribal system; and its failure to recognize early on the scope of Islamic militancy along the border.

Mr. Rohde’s story exhaustively demonstrates that Pakistan, the United States’ supposed ally, turns a blind eye to Islamic extremism on its western frontier, granting sanctuary to militants (including Mr. Rohde’s captors) and thereby handicapping the stabilization of Afghanistan. The book also offers glimpses into the rarely reported life of rank-and-file Taliban fighters, who attend bomb-making classes (taught by Uzbek fighters, who have found refuge in the area), watch pickup volleyball games before sundown, use sophisticated radio equipment to converse and listen to electronic gadgets to memorize Koran verses — all precious, granular peeks at Taliban life that are largely missing from Western coverage.

Some of these insights we never would have learned had it not been for Mr. Rohde’s ordeal. But the expected human story of two people in captivity — one physically imprisoned by the Taliban, the other held emotional hostage to her husband’s kidnapping — mostly gets lost in the couple’s effort to document the minutiae of their experience.

Mr. Rohde is such an impeccable journalist that we never really find out what it is like, in trenchant psychological detail, to be a prisoner of the Taliban. His commitment to abide by the traditional newspaper rule of rigid impartiality is so rigorous that he delivers his blow-by-blow account of what probably was one of the pivotal periods of his life in an incongruously detached, impersonal manner. He relies on journalistic shorthand to describe his surroundings (“we drive through a barren mountainous area”), his physical state (“after spending nearly 24 hours straight lying in the back of the car, I am exhausted”), even his deep remorse for jeopardizing his marriage (“I have betrayed my wife and family”). It seems as though the reporter is embarrassed that he has become the subject of his own story.

(Determined that his work not inflict further trauma on his family, Mr. Rohde, who had spent 10 days in Bosnian Serb detention during the war in Bosnia in 1995, disavowed war reporting after his escape from the Taliban.)

Ms. Mulvihill’s account of navigating the strange world of the F.B.I., the State Department and security firms, and taking calls from Mr. Rohde’s kidnappers while retaining her job at a glossy lifestyle magazine injects the narrative with the kind of dark humor war reporters often use to get through emotionally taxing assignments. But these interludes are written in the same restrained, inelegant prose and read like a series of news updates, a body of text that was rushed to print on stringent newspaper deadline.

Then again, kidnappings and war are inelegant. Underwhelming delivery does not negate the urgent significance of this unprecedented examination of the Taliban, obtained at a tremendous personal cost, as Afghanistan and western Pakistan plunge deeper into bloodshed, trapping millions of civilians in mass violence.

Mr. Rohde may be stingy about sharing his emotions. But he generously uses everything he has learned to inform us with the distinctive evenhandedness and honesty we have learned to expect from his journalism.

This review is written by Anna Badkhen and is published in The New York Times.

A Rope and A Prayer is available at Liberty Books.


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Cover Boy by Jennifer Schuessler – NYTimes.com

As you’ve probably heard by now, Jonathan Franzen is on the cover of this week’s Time magazine, the first living novelist in a decade to be so honored.

“He’s not the richest or most famous,” runs the teaser copy for Lev Grossman’s profile. “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future. But in his new novel, ‘Freedom,’ Jonathan Franzen shows us the way we live now.”

As it turns out, Franzen himself has had some salty words to say about the role of money and fame in Time’s selection of literary cover boys (and, occasionally, girls). One commenter to the Arts Beat blog noted this passage from Franzen’s 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream,” commonly known as “the Harper’s essay”:

“The only mainstream American household I know well is the one I grew up in, and I can report that my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover and Time, for my father, was the ultimate cultural authority. In the last decade, the magazine whose red border twice enclosed the face of James Joyce has devoted covers to Scott Turow and Stephen King. These are honorable writers; but no one doubts it was the size of their contracts that won them covers. The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority, and an organ like Time, which not long ago aspired to shape the national taste, now serves mainly to reflect it.”

(For a wonderfully comprehensive look at the 83 literary figures to appear on the cover of Time, check out Craig Fehrman’s article for The Millions.)

This article was published on The New York Times Blog.

Burkas and bikinis | Priyamvada Gopal | Comment is free | The Guardian

Reprising a legendary 1985 National Geographic cover, this week’s Time magazine cover girl is another beautiful young Afghan woman. But this time there is a gaping hole where her nose used to be before it was cut off under Taliban direction. A stark caption reads: “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan”. A careful editorial insists that the image is not shown “either in support of the US war effort or in opposition to it”. The stated intention is to counterbalance damaging the WikiLeaks revelations – 91,000 documents that, Time believes, cannot provide “emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land”.

Feminists have long argued that invoking the condition of women to justify occupation is a cynical ploy, and the Time cover already stands accused of it. Interestingly, the WikiLeaks documents reveal CIA advice to use the plight of Afghan women as “pressure points”, an emotive way to rally flagging public support for the war.

Misogynist violence is unacceptable, but we must also be concerned by the continued insistence that the complexities of war, occupation and reality itself can be reduced to bedtime stories. Consultation with child psychologists apparently preceded Time’s decision to run the image, but the magazine decided that in the end it was more important for children (and us) to understand that “bad things do happen to people” and we must feel sorry for them. The WikiLeaks revelations of atrocities and civilian deaths are evidence of some rather terrible things that are done to people but are bizarrely judged not to provide a “window into the reality of what is happening”.

Time is not alone in condensing Afghan reality into simplistic morality tales. A deplorable number of recent works habituate us to thinking about Afghanistan as what Liam Fox, Britain’s defence secretary, called a “broken 13th-century country“, defined solely by pathologically violent men and silently brutalised women.

While Afghans have been silenced and further disempowered by being reduced to objects of western chastisement, a recent judgment against Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul has raised the possibility of challenging their depictions. Based on her stay in the eponymous protagonist’s home, Seierstad’s memoir uses offensive commercial language to describe ordinary marital negotiations and refers to female characters as “the burka”. The tone implies even the most anti-Taliban Afghan men are irredeemably vicious patriarchs. Predictably, some critical reaction deemed Afghanistan a “horrible society”.

While there exists a colonial tradition of relegating the non-west to the past of the west – and some suggest leaving it to rot in hopelessness – the trendier option involves incorporating Afghans into modernity by teaching them to live in a globalised present. In non-fiction bestsellers such as Deborah Rodriguez’s Kabul Beauty School, an American woman teaches Afghan women the intricacies of hair colour, sexiness, and resisting oppression. “To all appearances, there is no sex life in Afghanistan,” writes Rodriguez, obsessed – like Seierstad – with the nuptial habits of Afghans. Sex and the City in the Middle East may have tanked as a movie, but as ideology it has displaced meaningful global feminism.

Acceptable Afghan-American voices such as Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) and Awista Ayub (Kabul Girls Soccer Club) reiterate the notion that suburban America can “infuse” Afghans with freedom. Formulaic narratives are populated by tireless Western humanitarians, sex-crazed polygamous paedophiles (most Afghan men) and burka-clad “child-women” who are broken in body and spirit or have just enough doughtiness to be scripted into a triumphal Hollywood narrative. The real effects of the Nato occupation, including the worsening of many women’s lives under the lethally violent combination of old patriarchal feudalism and new corporate militarism are rarely discussed.

The mutilated Afghan woman ultimately fills a symbolic void where there should be ideas for real change. The truth is that the US and allied regimes do not have anything substantial to offer Afghanistan beyond feeding the gargantuan war machine they have unleashed.

And how could they? In the affluent west itself, modernity is now about dismantling welfare systems, increasing inequality (disproportionately disenfranchising women in the process), and subsidising corporate profits. Other ideas once associated with modernity – social justice, economic fairness, peace, all of which would enfranchise Afghan women – have been relegated to the past in the name of progress. This bankrupt version of modernity has little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators. A radical people’s modernity is called for – and not only for the embattled denizens of Afghanistan.

This article was published The Guardian.