Five Myths about ‘The Afghan People’

Angie Chuang

Angie Chuang

I was one of thousands of “embedded” reporters in Afghanistan during the post-9/11 years—only I didn’t embed with a military unit, I lived with a family in Kabul (and traveled with them to their rural village in Ghazni) for nearly a month. This family and my experiences in Afghanistan with them formed the central narrative of my hybrid memoir, The Four Words for Home.

We’ve officially withdrawn U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, and we’re left with a vague feeling that though the Taliban were overthrown from official leadership, our understanding of this complex nation is more tenuous than ever. Perhaps it was easier for the U.S. government and the American Mind to perceive “The Afghan People” as mysterious and inscrutable. That way, we could throw up our hands and chalk up any nation-building failures to the inherent fierceness and ungovernable nature of the Afghan people. Just ask Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. or the Soviet Army in 1988 A.D.

So in honor of Little Patuxent Review’s forthcoming theme issue on Myth, I offer my personal debunking of five myths about Afghanistan and Afghans I’ve commonly heard.

  1. There is such a thing as “The Afghan people.” The country is home to at least half a dozen ethnic groups, each with its distinct roots, traditions, interpretations of Sunni or Shia Islam, and, in many cases, language. The family I traveled with, the Shirzais, were proudly Pashtun, and would speak of their ethnic group before their national identity, though they didn’t consider nationalism and tribal loyalty in conflict with each other. Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbek, Turkmen, and others expressed similar patriotism. But it’s nearly impossible to generalize about one people, because there simply isn’t.
  2. Being a woman in Afghanistan: It’s about the burqa. No one I met in Afghanistan, male or female, denied that the Taliban era was terrible for women. But Amina, the matriarch of the Kabul household in which I stayed, told me when she went out, she preferred to wear a burqa over the headscarf most women adopted after the Taliban overthrow. “It’s easier to carry things on my head because I don’t have to keep adjusting the scarf,” she said. “And if I don’t wear it, the women in the neighborhood might talk.” Women were more concerned about infrastructure (running water and electricity across the country), education, and safety than what they wore or didn’t wear.
  3. Afghan women are either blatantly challenging gender oppression at great cost to themselves, a la Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, or they have been silenced into obedient submission by husbands and fathers. Many women, especially middle-class women in major cities, are finding their own ways to challenge convention and live their own lives. An excerpted chapter of The Four Words for Home, “Learning to Pray” (online as a Gold Medal Solas Travel Writing Award winner), focuses on two Afghan women—one married, one single—who are each navigating their lives, their sexuality, and their partnerships in their own ways. They don’t have the apparent freedom American women do, but they have a sense of sisterhood, community, and extended family they feel is even more important. I don’t for a minute believe that things are all good for Afghan women, especially the poor and those in more-restrictive families and marriages than those of the women with whom I stayed. But I wanted to shed some light on the complexities of the matter.
  4. The Afghan People resent the U.S. presence and are anti-American. Amina, who was in her sixties and illiterate, reflected the mixed feelings of most Afghans best: “The British. The Soviets. The Americans. The warlords. The Taliban. The Americans again. We didn’t ask for any of them. All we ask of the Americans is that maybe, this time, you don’t leave things the way the others did.”
  5. The Afghan People are passionately extreme, and have no capacity for contradiction. Afghans revel in contradiction. They are proud of and ashamed of their country. They are grateful to and distrusting of the Americans. They embrace progress but fear the loss of traditional values. Americans may have trouble fathoming such oxymoronic thinking, but it is written into the culture of Afghanistan. Rumi, the 13th-century poet often claimed by Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey alike, said it best: The cure for pain is the pain. / Good and bad are mixed. If you don’t have both, / you don’t belong with us.
A kuchi, or nomad, girl in the shelter her family built in a vacant Kabul lot. Afghan nomads have increasingly had to resort to makeshift dwellings in the city, because much of the countryside they depended on to raise animals and survive has been rendered unsafe by landmines or insurgents. Photo credit: Stephanie Yao Long

A kuchi, or nomad, girl in the shelter her family built in a vacant Kabul lot. Afghan nomads have increasingly had to resort to makeshift dwellings in the city, because much of the countryside they depended on to raise animals and survive has been rendered unsafe by landmines or insurgents. Photo credit: Stephanie Yao Long.

Online Editor’s Notes: I met Angie Chuang in November 2014 at the Baltimore Writers’ Conference held at Towson University and purchased The Four Words for Home after hearing her read. At that time, I wasn’t yet LPR’s Online Editor. Worlds sometimes collide as they did for me when in January as I browsed through the LPR website, I saw Angie’s name. An excerpt of The Four Words for Home, “Thanksgiving with the Shirzais,” had been published 2012 in LPR’s Audacity issue. Her story resonated strongly with me, so I took the chance she’d be willing to share once again with our readers. The Four Words for Home just became available on Kindle in July. Published in 2014 as the winner of the Willow Books Literature Awards Grand Prize in Prose, it is also available in paperback. The book recently won the Independent Publisher Book Award Bronze Medal in Multicultural Nonfiction. 

An Interview with Rebekah Remington

Rebekah Remington

Rebekah Remington (Photo: Stephen Jonke)

I find it hard to believe Rebekah Remington when she tells me that she’s dealt with failure. Rebekah is the winner of the 2013 Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize for her chapbook Asphalt. It is a solid collection, marked by eloquence and vision. I believe it to be a success but am sympathetic to her remarks.

Of course she has dealt with failure. We all have. Just the process of writing this blog post, my first for Little Patuxent Review, has me pulling out my hair over possible failure. And when I read through “Little Invocation” and “I Call Her Inez,” the chapbook’s first and sixth poems, I think of the first rejection letter that I received. Like the speaker, I, too, “feel enough failure as it is.” I remember thinking, what do I do now?

When I ask Rebekah about the character Inez and the idea behind the piece, she replies that she once watched a video of the Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame speaking about artistic inspiration. What did Remington take away from the video?

I think Gilbert’s main point was to put in your writing time. Don’t get too stuck on the idea of success or the idea of failure. When things don’t work out, blame it on the muse. I had experienced a lot of failure, so I decided to write about my love-hate relationship with my muse.

But who does she see in a positive light? To whom does she turn for inspiration?

“Mainly other poets,” Rebekah says. Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück and CD Wright are named. In particular, she mentions the recent collection Space, In Chains by Laura Kasischke, which earned the 2011 National Book Critics Circle poetry award. I have to look up Kasischke but immediately understand why Rebekah is drawn to her work. Kasischke has been hailed by critics for her honest but respectful portrayals of domestic life and the different stages of adolescence and adulthood.

There is a definite presence of the domestic life in Asphalt. And while Remington admits that she is unsure whether the book as a whole has a narrative arc, I can see recurring themes. Remington calls them “obsessions.” Those obsessions include motherhood, childhood, time and death. I thought that I saw some Asian references, particularly in “School Morning,” “Wanting” and the title poem. That is new to Remington.

It’s interesting that you noticed that. I really don’t know that much about Asian cultures. Before I had children, I saw a lot of foreign films. Probably some of the images stuck. I’m thinking of Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, To Live. I love the way film can transport.

More failure on my part? I would like to think of it more as subjective interpretation.

And, yes, a powerful film can transport the viewer. The same way a that powerful poem can transport the reader. For me, it was the beauty of the last two lines of the simple but earnest poem “Goat.” I mouthed the words over and over, loving how they came out.

The sky had taken on a shapeliness like
a flood plain
in an aftermath, an eerie pinkish

Of course, I laugh when I learn that the ending of that poem did not come easily to Rebekah. She says that she rewrote it many times before coming to the above.

There is no mistaking the speaker’s role as a mother. Bits of train track and LEGO pieces, piano lessons and the pivotal moment of learning to ride a bike are strewn across the chapbook. And isn’t there an interesting relevance to those previous feelings of failure when it comes to motherhood?

One of the challenges of parenting is getting your children out in the world and exposing them to things. I’m not sure I’m good at that, but I’m trying.

When we place the mundane aspects of domestic life in the context of such serious contemplations, it is no wonder that poetic expressions about the domestic life can be so emotional and riveting.

The concept of time changes as well. Mothers such as the one in “In Praise of the Last Hour of the Afternoon” would “trade pearls for quiet” and cherish just a few more minutes in bed with the bedroom door locked in “January Morning.”

I find it understandable, if not comical, that in more than one poem we find Rebekah’s speaker thinking about how much she wants a drink.

Rebekah is far from being the only mother or writer who has doubts about herself. But, a perk to being creative types is that we have the benefit of blaming the self-doubts and feelings of failure on our muses. Blame it on Inez, Rebekah.

Rebekah Remington received her bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, taking classes taught by David St. John and Peter Sacks. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan. She is currently an adjunct professor at Towson University, where she teaches Introduction to Poetry. (I am sorry that we never crossed paths.) Her work has been published in RattleNinth Letter and The Missouri Review. Once in 4th grade, she won a prize for a patriotic poem that she wrote in honor of the nation’s bicentennial celebration. She lives in Catonsville, MD with her husband and children.

The Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize, sponsored by City Lit Project, was established in 2009 by poet and neurosurgeon Michael Salcman. He wanted to honor the poet, publisher and teacher Clarinda Harriss and her lifetime of service dedicated to the literary arts. Clarinda is the founder, director and editor BrickHouse Books, established in 1970 and, as such, Maryland’s oldest continuously operating literary press.

Michael is also the Little Patuxent Review Art Consultant and Clarinda a regular contributor to both LPR print issues and our blog, so there are connections. What’s more, the judge for the 2013 prize was poet Marie Howe, who happens to be featured in the upcoming LPR Summer 2013 Music issue. And previous prize winners include LPR print and blog contributor Bruce Sager (2011) and LPR Editor Laura Shovan (2010).

Blue Versus Blue

Carolyn Case’s 2012 Blue Versus Blue, oil on panel.

I know Clarinda as a poetry professor and BhB editor. After taking her poetry class at Towson, I interned for a year at BhB as an assistant editor. She has worked with Ogden Nash, partied with Michael Stipe and taught one of the best poetry classes that I have ever taken. My time spent with her is invaluable to me as a young writer, and I completely get why such a dynamic and delightful individual has a prize in her name.

Rebekah’s book will be published by CityLit Press. A painting by Carolyn Case, an artist teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), will be used for the cover design.