Unputdownable, nifty narrative
Reviewed by Shalini Rawat

Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse 
by Suraya Sadeed
Virago Press. Pages 280. Rs 375

First the similarities: The title of the book sounds eerily similar to Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir In Books, where lovers of English literature surreptitiously meet up, the plot where a "now-well-settled-Afghan-immigrant-in-America-comes-home-to-recount-the-tale-of-humanitarian- effort-in-the-war-ravaged-home-country" too resonates with Khaled Hosseini's reason for picking up the pen for catharsis.

So when we assess the literary value of Suraya Sadeed’s account does it come across as a self-serving portrait of glory? An attempt to firmly foreground a woman as a hero-saint in the background of a war-torn country? Or a stab at donation hoarding? Suraya Sadeed, the daughter of the erstwhile Governor of Kabul, fled Afghanistan upon Soviet occupation and earned her dollars and the good life as a realtor in America.

But life took a turn and she lost interest in making money and pretty much her reason for living after her husband passed away. In her own words, "After losing Dastagir, I needed to go to a land of pain and learn how people survived their losses — and by doing so I might learn how to deal with my own trauma and mend my own hurt." What she discovered in the heart of darkness was overwhelming, to say the least. The wretched war and infighting had washed over her land of birth like a terrible tsunami. People and places had become empty shells of their former selves.

None, except those with the right "connections" had been spared. All structure had broken down. And although international agencies worked hard to darn the tattered fabric of humanity, they had their limits. They were but "foreigners" with a different perspective and hence gullible enough to be "cheated" by those claiming to represent the recipients.

Also they couldn't go where the "native" could — which meant that Suraya could bypass or shrewdly cut through the militia network and deliver aid where none had gone before. Also, being a woman, she quite ingenuously perceived and met the needs of the communities at the end of the receiving chain, viz the women and children. Her story unfolds compellingly, with bright nuggets of observation that challenge one's views of war in Afghanistan altogether — for example the honesty and chivalry of the otherwise "women-hating" Taliban, the naïveté (bordering on stupidity) of the "helpful Westerners" and her own simplicity in not perceiving the true purpose of the poppy fields, called "devil's flowers" that finance the drug-runners and warlords' economy alike.

Her divided loyalties (the country of her adoption bombing her country of birth) are assimilated as the tale moves forward and Suraya lets her inner voice guide her. For all her disjointed but intuitive endeavours, Suraya Sadeed's well-meaning work and the nifty narrative shine through and make it a book that is difficult to put down.

Her work, through her organisation 'Help the Afghan Children,' makes one want to believe in the Afghani proverb, "quatra quatra, darya mesha" — drop by drop, a river forms.