Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mystery in Afghanistan

by Susan Froetschel

Leave a comment for Susan this weekend and you'll have a chance to win a free signed copy of Fear of Beauty.

Why a mystery novel set in Afghanistan? 

It’s the first question from so many friends and readers. The old advice is write what you know, but I’d say write what you care about, especially when you’re surprised by how much you care.

Afghanistan tugged at my imagination long before the US invaded in late 2001. Before news emerged of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist-training camps or the Taliban government blew up the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan

I had thoughts of traveling to the country years before. During an early job in New York, my husband was good friends with a young man who had hiked and hitchhiked throughout Asia. His descriptions decades ago of Afghanistan -- productive farms, delicious food, stunning scenery and hospitable people always ready to provide assistance to a stranger, even an impulsive young man from the United States -- were rhapsodic.

Then many years later, we had dinner with good friends from Bangladesh, soon to become American citizens. Our boys had fallen asleep, and the conversation took a turn to travel plans for the following summer. Why couldn’t the four of us take our boys and go on a road trip across Asia, following old Silk Road routes from Istanbul and detour off to Dhaka? We gathered around the atlas with excitement, calculating mileages -- a little more than 100 hours of driving -- and selecting cities for stops in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Our imaginations and plans ran wild late into the night.

The conversation seemed silly the next day, war broke out not long afterward, and I never got to travel to Afghanistan. 

But that didn’t stop my curiosity about a country with numerous layers and years of conflict. Afghanistan is the setting for our country’s longest war, now winding down, but still in its 12th year. The place is home to 30 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook. Most troubling is a literacy rate described as 43 percent among males and 13 percent among females.
Perhaps it was such a handful of facts combined with my own dreams of travel that made it difficult to understand others’ fear about Muslims.

On March 8, 2009, President Barack Obama admitted that the US was not handily winning the war in Afghanistan and that a reconciliation process might be useful, similar to reconciliation with Sunni insurgents in Iraq.  "The situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex," Obama said, as reported by The New York Times. "You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, and so figuring all that out is going to be much more of a challenge."

A flurry of articles attacked the plan, and many shared a theme: There is no such thing as a moderate Taliban. 

My reaction was visceral. Half the people are women. Half the people are under the age of 18. Languages are many, with half speaking Dari and the rest relying on other languages and dialects. About a quarter of the population lives in urban areas, and education is minimal elsewhere.  How could most Afghan people know of plots underway within their borders against targets on the other side of the world? How could families react to an invasion, while fighting extremism and many other pressures? I knew there had to be some moderates, especially in a country where politics and allegiances are so fluid.

I also wondered exactly how many Taliban are there? Working for YaleGlobal Online, I realized that articles rarely include such a statistic. One 2009 report warned that the Taliban had a significant presence across the nation. Another report suggested that only 20 percent of the Taliban could be described as hard-core. And a 2012 report suggested that the Taliban has 25,000 fighters.

Again, this is in a country of 30 million people.

For this avid reader, illiteracy and bullying are the stuff of nightmares. Sometimes the illiterate do the bullying, but more often they are the victims. Education opened doors in my life, the ability to become a freelance writer and adjunct college instructor. As a writing teacher, I've witnessed how writing empowers students -- the absolute joy at presenting ideas -- whether the purpose is for essays in applying for fellowships, graduate school or scholarships; opinion essays on political or business topics; analysis for framing arguments or planning life; or letters that comfort family and friends.

I had so many strong ideas in 2009 about religion, extremism, women's rights, literacy, parenting, our troops -- how could I not set a book in Afghanistan? And as a writer, I realized that I didn’t need that many details other than the gut feeling that the parallels and connections between my country and Afghanistan are many. 

I can’t say it enough. Literacy is about power. And those who belittle education and reading would deny others power.  

Leave a comment for Susan this weekend and you'll have a chance to win a free signed copy of Fear of Beauty.

By USAF Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse
Susan Froetschel is the author of Fear of Beauty and three earlier mysteries, and co-author with Nayan Chanda of A World Connected: Globalization in the 21st Century. Set in Afghanistan, Fear of Beauty is the story of a woman who is desperate to learn how to read in secret and discover the truth behind the suspicious death of her young son. Froetschel taught writing at Yale University and literary journalism and magazine writing at Southern Connecticut State University for a decade before joining YaleGlobal Online, a cyber magazine that explores globalization, in 2005. 


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

How true that literacy is about power. Besides what's being done to women, the two most egregious examples of forbidding literacy and then calling the illiterate stupid that I can think of are America with the slaves and England with the Irish. Happy St Patrick's Day! And Happy Black History Month!

Katreader said...

Literacy is so important...and so is travel; understanding different cultures by exploring their land. I loved watching Michael Palin's travels adventures for those very reasons (he did travel some routes of the Silk Road!).

Leslie Budewitz said...

A powerful essay. Thank you, Susan. Emily Dickinson wrote that "a book is a frigate / that takes us lands away." And the best books show us the hearts and minds of the people we meet there. Sounds like you hit that on the proverbial nose!

Nancy Hahn said...

Love reading what you think about and the way that you express it. Your thoughtfulness is for me thought provoking! I agree especially with your feelings about literacy, it is essential for people to be able to read and share written word, it opens doors of understanding and advancement not available in any other way.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I've been fascinated by Afghanistan and its history for a long time...and appalled by the treatment of women and girls there. A country this complex is an intriguing setting for novels. I look forward to reading "Fear of Beauty" (even if I don't win this giveaway).

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for this--an enlightening essay and one that focuses us on the danger of summing up a country with a few adjectives, allowing a sort of sinful neglect of real problems and issues.

Susan Froetschel said...

Thank you to all of you for reading the essay and the warm response. Everyone in these kinds of forums shares a deep appreciation for literacy and realizes how entire communities benefit from open reading and debate. New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that future security in Afghanistan is up to the Afghans. And that's true for every society. We must be wary of any who would deny even a few an education, and hope the people of Afghanistan can resist the dangerous forces of ignorance. Fear of Beauty explores a village in Afghanistan and one woman's evolution from blind hatred of outsiders to curiosity and eventual cooperation - and this only comes with literacy and free thought.

Charlotte said...

I think it would be very helpful to read this book. We don't have a clear picture of how women have such a hard time in other country's . We have been so blessed in the US.

Liz V. said...

Caravans by James A. Michener (1963) was my introduction to Afghanistan. What worlds books have opened to all readers.

Sandra Parshall said...

Susan is a wonderful writer and FEAR OF BEAUTY is a lovely book that will take you to a world unlike any you've ever known. I recommend it highly.

Susan said...

Thank you for having me and the wonderful comments!

Unknown said...

Wonderful! I love reading books set in unusual places like James Church's books set in North Korea and Colin Coterill's books set in Laos. Can't wait to pick this one up!