Monday, June 20, 2005

Asne Seierstad, in Baghdad and Kabul

Asne Seierstad is a journalistic superstar. Her Bookseller of Kabul is a runaway bestseller, and has been translated into a zillion languages. And her latest, A Hundred & One Days: A Baghdad Journal, will probably do pretty well too. Seierstad is a smart journalist with a literary sensibility; both of these books are structured a little bit like novels. As she says in an interview, describing her method:

I believe in literature. I wish I could have written a novel about this, because again I think the more human stories you tell, the more you can put the reader inside someone else’s head and be insightful. In order to achieve that, you can’t just use the very straightforward language of the newspaper. You have to try to find other ways. I always try to describe the situation just as it is. I try to find sentences that I believe tell the story best. Even my articles are more literary than ordinary news stories.

I'm getting interested in this crossover between literary non-fiction (or creative non-fiction) and journalism. I've talked about it a fair bit recently with writers like Amitav Ghosh, Suketu Mehta, and Amitava Kumar. But it's not just an Indian phenomenon, as Asne Seierstad's books show.

* * *

The Bookseller of Kabul was anthropological and reflected a really committed immersion into Afghan life, to such an extent that the narrator's own experience was was deeply buried. There are long stretches in the book -- such as the detailed accounts of marriages in an urban (but still highly tribal/patriarchal) Afghan family -- where it seemed hard to imagine that the interchanges described could have taken place with a blond Norwegian journalist looking on. Did she have a translator? Was she just sitting in the corner with a notebook while the family was negotiating the marriage of their daughter?

While the level of detail was impressive, I was somewhat annoyed by The Bookseller of Kabul for its anthropological turn. Much of the book seemed like it was written to explain aspects of Afghan culture -- especially the arranged marriage system -- to westerners. As an Indian who knows roughly how this system works, I couldn't get too horrified by the accounts of the "traffic in women" on the "marriage market." It's not a great thing, but it's a reality in many place in the world, including those parts where women are neither forced to wear Burqas in public nor stoned to death for adultery. And Seierstad's emphasis on the everyday evils of life in a patriarchal society, though carefully done, is part of a broad, almost generic, western feminist critique of the Taliban's repression of women. It's a critique of real repression, but we've seen so much of it that it's hard to get excited about yet another contribution. And Seierstad's observations on this aspect of Pashtun culture are ultimately less interesting than the much more mundane material on censorship and bookselling that she gets from "Sultan Khan" -- before, during, and after the Taliban.

In short, an impressive work, but it suffers from too much company: there have now been too many books about Afghanistan.

Though it also has a little too much company, Seierstad's A Hundred & One Days benefits from being a lighter and less calculated book. It's as if she is aware, this time around, that her audience knows the factual background already, so she just dives right into the story.

Up to and during the Iraq war in 2003, Seierstad stayed with the rest of the European journalists at the Hotel Palestine in downtown Baghdad, and as a result her perspective is similar to that of other (non-'embedded') western journalists' reports of the war. If the persona of Asne Seierstad was curiously excised from The Bookseller of Kabul she is all too present in this book. There are many pages detailing her struggle with the government bureaucracy under Saddam -- to maintain and extend her visa, to get access to non-approved subjects, and so on. These accounts weren't so exciting to me, along the principle of "don't write a book about the obstacles that prevented you from writing a better book." But they do lend a kind of authenticity to the book: this is the crap she had to deal with.

Once Seierstad begins to find ways to get access to the real story, One Hundred & One Days becomes a much more interesting book, mainly as a source of perspectives from ordinary Iraqis, up to the end of the 'official' war two years ago. (The real war in Iraq, of course, continues, as the Insurgents refuse to quit.) Seierstad gets many good interviews with ordinary people, assisted by her translator, 'Aliya,' who plays a major role in the narrative. Seierstad is especially good at getting the voices of Iraqi children, and through them she presents a genuinely complex picture of Iraqi sentiments. Children in oppressive regimes are the most interesting subjects: they are the most easily misled by propaganda, but they are also the only members of those societies who are still pretty much innocent or honest about their perceptions. Many adults become too terrified by political violence and jaded by the propaganda to be very responsive to events in the present.

Best for last. The passages of A Hundred & One Days that were most moving to me were the moments where Seierstad conveyed some second-hand accounts of the U.S. army's behavior during the course of the initial invasion. She reports what a journalist named 'Laurent', who seems as if he may have been embedded, tells us about the U.S. interpretation of the rules of Engagement:

They [the U.S. infantry] are petrified and shoot before they think. One day they killed two little boys who were walking on the roadside. Suddenly they were lying on the ground. One time an old man was crossing the road. The Americans shot a warning shot but he did not react. They shot again but he continued to walk on. Then they picked him off and left him lying in the road. When we arrive at a village they shoot in the air to warn people, a sign that they must go inside. If people don't react they shoot to kill. One day when we approached a village we spied several men standing next to a cluster of houses. American logic runs along these lines: 'If we shoot and they run, they are civilians.' So if they don't hide they are soldiers. Hence they shot and killed a woman in a field on the outskirts of the village. Everyone ran for cover. In other words: they were civilians. The Americans claim that fewer people are killed in this way. It is better to kill someone at once, in order to make people understand that they must stay inside, than to drive through an unknown village where someone might be a suicide bomber.

And there are more passages like this, mostly second-hand accounts via Seierstad's debriefing of embedded reporters who eventually landed up at the Hotel Palestine.

I realize the rules of engagement must be different when an army is facing the possibility of suicide bombers, and given that the Iraqis placed military assets in the midst of civilian homes and markets. But Laurent's account of the U.S. military's approach to civilians it encountered suggests a really egregious kind of stupidity. It's as if the soldiers are specifically unable to judge for themselves the potential risk of a person just walking down the street.

One more story along these lines. It's Laurent again, embedded with U.S. troops:

Today they shot at a father who was leading his son and daughter by the hand. The father was not hit but both the children were mortally wounded. The Americans just wanted to drive on, but I couldn't take it any loger. I screamed at the driver. --What the hell! You can't just drive on and let them bleed to death. I was so angry he had to stop. I got one of the cars to turn round and we drove them to a field hospital. I don't know any more -- we had to leave. I'm quite sure the little girl died, she had lost so much blood, was nearly unconscious when we got there.

And we wonder where the Insurgents are coming from...


Blogger Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

The last story is horrible. I have two little boys. But for some twist of fate that father could be me.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Afonso Henrique said...

I would like to talk direct to miss Asne, I am Afonso (doctor in medicine) here in Brasil

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Istvan Kovacs said...

With Their Backs to the World; very insightful perspective view of Serbians during and after Milosevic...Kept her detached point of view but still cut to the quick.

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished "The Bookseller of Kabul". Powerful, insightful writing. Men using religion as a cover for brutality and misogyny is evil. No religion or culture should tolerate such abuse. That is hardly American feminism speaking. That is humanity.

11:49 PM  

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