From ancient times to our modern era, Afghanistan has always been a country dotted with walls. Traditional family compounds known as qalas (“forts”), especially in Pashtun areas, are almost impassable because of massive mud or brick walls. When someone purchases property nowadays, the new owner makes certain that solid walls surround the property before he begins building a home. Each wall must be high enough to keep outsiders from looking inside the courtyard. Life inside the courtyard is for the family and a few relatives and confidants.
The wall serves as a metaphor of heavy curtains that hang over people’s lives and their personal feelings. For the Pashtuns especially, inner thoughts and feelings of aspiration and despondency are private, not meant for others.
Society does not encourage self-expression. So how can someone who lives behind such heavy walls reflect his or her thoughts and emotions to outsiders? Moreover, how can someone from the outside learn about life behind these walls? Although anthropologists have tried to reflect the thoughts and emotions of Pashtun people, such studies have tended to be academic and over-generalized.
How much better when we can listen to a Pashtun tell his own story, his experiences from his own village and the ebb and flow of urban life, the frustrations of political turmoil, frequent regime change and government corruption. Such stories, emerging from behind the walls of an enclosed culture, unveil the muffled voices of a hidden and almost unknown world. Similar to other forms of art such as music, film and traditional crafts, the short story becomes a window into a culture.
In the seventeen short stories published in this edition of Pashto short stories, Mohammad Zarin Anzor has drawn back the curtains of Afghan culture and allowed us to glimpse inside. Anzor’s Pashtun village and urban settings reflect stereotypical honor-killings and the plight of women and girls in Pashtun society. Yet, in some of the stories, we step inside a Pashtun who struggles with his or her own conscience and hypocrisy.
A number of the selections are conventional memoirs and personal reflections rather than stories with a structure of plot, challenge, character development and climax. Some of the stories have a strange feel for a non-Afghan reader, but as satirical memoirs, they portray the inconsistencies between practice and religion, the demands of tribal expectations and the typical deprivations and plight of ordinary Afghans.
In the stories of Pashtun village life such as “Memoirs of Our Village,” “Goluna and the Springs,” and “On the Edge of Spinghar Mountain,” Anzor portrays both the ease and horror of honor-killings from different perspectives. Another village story, “Dark Clouds,” reveals the inconsistency of conventional male dominance.
Usually an assassin kills for money. But in “Blind Spots,” Anzor draws the reader into the killer’s mind who struggles with his conscience in a new way. “Loss,” another assassin story, is much more predictable. Money supersedes all other values, as it does in “Robbery.”
Stories such as “The Target,” The Palace,” “Last Decree” and “Room Number 1358” are political and satirical memoirs, reflecting the writer’s disgust with foreign intervention and despotic regimes. Continuing in the vein of satire, Anzor echoes his personal aversion at the senseless and bloody civil strife and destruction of the 1990s in “Jewels,” “Tired Steps,” “Bones” and “Our Honor.” In only one story are we offered a pleasant and positive surprise—in the short memoir “Hallway Seven.”
I congratulate Mr. Anzor for using his pen to reflect both the struggles and aspirations of ordinary Afghan Pashtuns.
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