Excerpted from The Storyteller's Daughter by Saira Shah. Copyright © 2003 by Saira Shah. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Saira Shah
Q: Tell us about your father, the writer Idries Shah, and his influence upon you to become a storyteller yourself.
A: My father was a writer and thinker, who happened to be a Sufi. Part of his work dealt with making traditional Eastern stories accessible to the West. Stories were a part of my childhood–and never considered just for children. This was a family tradition and a very Afghan one. Nobody apologized for telling stories–even now my father is dead, my aunt continues the same way–you can be talking to her about her chilblains, and the next minute she will be telling you a fairy tale, say, or an anecdote about the tenth century Afghan king Mahmud of Ghazna.
Q: Talk about what it was like to grow up as an Afgan-in-exile in Britain.
A: We weren't exactly exiles–a return trip seemed to be always around the corner–until the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, when I was 15. I grew up with two self-contained worlds, which rarely met–my sedate middle class existence in Kent, and a sort of virtual homeland, woven from stories.
Q: Why did you become a journalist?
A: I wanted to travel to Afghanistan, and the country was at war. I also felt (but didn't really realize it at the time) a need to reconcile my Eastern–myth-making–side with my Western love of factual truth. I told myself I wanted to uncover the truth behind the myth–but probably, more likely, I wanted to discover that the myth WAS literal truth.
Q: Please talk about your search for personal and cultural identity. How have the facts informed you? How about the ancestral myth that has been your inheritance? Which gets you closer to truth–fact or mythology?
A: A lot of the book deals with the question of how to approach truth. There is a Persian
saying: ‘the question about the sky, the answer about a rope’. Facts try to build a ladder, rung by rung, to approach the sky, while stories and myths try to provide an overarching rainbow of metaphor, which can give you a taste of what the sky is like, though not necessarily physically reach it! In my quest for Afghanistan, I used both. Both were helpful–and I suppose you could argue that neither could be really useful without the other.
Q: Your film "Beneath the Veil" was widely viewed and had tremendous impact on the world's understanding of what was going on in Afghanistan in the lives of women. How do you feel about your role in telling this story?
A: I was, and am, very proud of how the film turned out. It was teamwork–between me, the director Cassian Harrison, and the cameraman on that project (later to become an Emmy-winning director) James Miller. The timing was astounding–and not always to the good. If we had known that September 11th was going to happen, followed by a US-led bombardment of Afghanistan, we would have done some things in the film very differently.
Q: How did the culture of the Taliban come to take over Afghanistan–a country that had a cultural elite and that educated its women? Where does that conservative impulse come from?
A: The cultural elite was miniscule. Women educated only in towns. The Taliban–as has been very well documented–are a hybrid of impulses: Pushtun tribal values, conservative village mullahs with a very narrow view of Islam and the West (one once told me that in the West women are allowed to marry dogs), an influx of mainly-wahhabi Muslims (known as Arabs) who came to fight alongside the mujahidin against the Soviet Union.
Q: Talk about the difference between film making and writing a book. Which medium do you prefer for telling a story?
A: I've loved writing, although I found it difficult. It seemed like it was the thing I should always have been doing. You can be much subtler in a book, explore many more ideas. TV is a linear medium. I'd like to write novels.
Q: Do you think things have changed in Afghanistan since the most recent war?
A: Of course they've changed–nothing stays still. But there are still overwhelming problems. The main one, I think, being that the West picked the wrong problem to solve–getting rid of the Taliban and chasing Osama. There needs to be much more emphasis from the West on rebuilding Afghanistan, rather than destroying perceived enemies. That will take at least a generation and require cash and care.
Q: Do you think Osama Bin Laden is alive or dead?
A: I have no clue–and I think Osama Bin Laden is a huge red herring. The West needs to concentrate on the factors which created Osama and helped him to flourish, not on the man himself. There can be any number of Osamas.
Q: How often do you get to Afghanistan these days? When were you last there?
A: I was last there in October 2001–at the ending of the book. I was supposed to go this spring, but the tragic death of my friend and business partner James Miller made it impossible. I hope to go and spend proper time there when I have finished the film I was working on with James.
In the meantime, I am campaigning for Israel to hold a proper, independent and open
investigation into how he was killed.
Q: Please talk about your most recent project–the film you made in Israel.
A: It was a film for Home Box Office about the impact of violence on children in the Gaza strip. I am interested in the concept of things, which appear to be in opposition, actually having the effect of working together–and in Gaza, you can see how violence on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides drive these kids in the same direction–further militancy, desire for martyrdom, a culture of despair.
Q: You’ve often covered the world's hot spots–Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Africa, etc. Why do you think you are drawn to these places?
A: I'm not. Ninety per cent of my war experience was Afghanistan. The rest I have done as part of being a professional news reporter, or else for a specific project. I'm not drawn to war at all. I am drawn to places where you can witness human beings living in extremities of various kinds. Then you see the full gamut of which humans are capable–their capacity for good and evil, dignity and horror.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. What does the title, The Storyteller’s Daughter, reveal about the perspective Shah brings to her memoir? How does it encompass the various themes she explores?
2. Shah spends her childhood in two disparate cultures, living in middle-class Kent while identifying herself as an Afghan. As a teenager, she asks, “How could my father expect us to be truly Afghan when we had grown up outside an Afghan community?” [p.6] Does the question reflect a feeling common to immigrant families, or is her household an unusual one? What are the positive aspects of maintaining ethnic traditions in a new homeland? In what ways can it have a negative impact?
3. Shah’s father tells her, “In our tradition, stories can help you recognize the shape of an experience, to make sense of and deal with it” [p. 7]. How does this definition of storytelling, in addition to the actual stories she hears as a child, contribute to her sense that “Two people live inside me. . . . My Western side is a sensitive, liberal, middle-class pacifist. My Afghan side I can only describe as a rapacious robber baron.” [p. 14]?
4. Shah discusses the historical differences between the Islamic tradition in which she was raised and the teachings of the orthodox Muslim world [p. 10]. Why is it important to understand this distinction? What light does it shed on the repressive measures imposed by the Taliban and on the fundamentalist Islamic movement in other parts of the world? Does the distinction between a literal and a spiritual emphasis exist in other religions as well? If so, how has it manifested itself?
5. What do Shah’s descriptions of the little boy in the Afghan refugee camp [p. 28—29], Maryam, her guide in Kabul [p. 31], Halima and her family [p. 36], and others she meets during the filming of Beneath the Veil reveal about the importance of myth and legend in Afghan culture? What makes these portraits so effective in conveying the complex role these elements play in people’s lives?
6. In what ways does Shah’s visit with her extended family in Peshawar at age seventeen change her sense of self and her attitudes about Afghan culture? How does her uncle’s household differ from the one she grew up in? Do the women in this traditional Muslim family, for example, wield more power than her mother? Do the interactions within the family contradict or reinforce your previous beliefs about Muslim society?
7. Why does Shah find the idea of an arranged marriage “seductive” [p. 51]? Does it reflect her naïve eagerness to identify with her heritage? To what extent is the desire to marry “a family, a tribe, a way of life; somewhere to belong to” a universal one?
8. Shah first enters Afghanistan with the mujahidin in 1986 at the height of the war with the Soviets. Why does she take us into the home of one of their leaders, Zahir Shah? What is the purpose of depicting him as a husband, father, and son?
9. Why does Shah include the anecdotes of her conversations with Zahir Shah’s wife [pp. 76—77] and with Karima, the young woman she meets in a small village in the Valley of Song? What other examples are there in the book of why it is “practically impossible to convey concepts outside somebody’s cultural experience” [p. 94]. How, for instance, are Shah’s interactions with the mujahidin, her relationship with her extended family, and her position within the circle of Western journalists also attributable to a cultural gap?
10. At the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Shah writes, “One could read very little in the Western press about the mujahidin that was not tinged with politics of one shade or another” [p. 87]. Are war reporters always vulnerable to preconceived notions and political prejudices? What is your reaction to Shah’s analyses of the U.S. activities during the conflict [for example, pp. 111, 119, 133, and 149]? Do they influence your opinions about the recent investigation into U.S. efforts to combat terrorism before 9/11?
11. What new insights does Shah’s perspective provide into the rise of the Taliban following the Soviet withdrawal? Are the “trade-offs” and concessions by the West that permitted the establishment of the Taliban regime [p. 204] understandable or dangerously misplaced?
12. Shah re-creates the horrors of life under the Taliban in vivid detail. What particular passages show how the distortion of Islam devolved into the blatantly cruel repression of women? In what other ways did the Taliban regime betray Islamic principles and traditions?
13. How do the descriptions of the landscape [for example, pp. 43, 82—83, 95] mirror the portrait of the Afghan population in The Storyteller’s Daughter? Do they help you better understand the national characteristics that Shah admires?
14. Shah writes, “My father’s mythological homeland was a realm where I could live through the eyes of a storyteller. In my desire to experience the fairytale for myself, I had overlooked the staggeringly obvious: the storyteller was a man” [p. 57]. To what extent are the observations and opinions in The Storyteller’s Daughter colored by Shah’s viewpoint as a woman? What does she bring to light that a man might have overlooked? Does her gender affect the tone of the book? How does The Storyteller’s Daughter compare to other accounts of war and its impact on soldiers and civilians, either fiction or nonfiction, that you have read?
15. A generation of children in Afghanistan has grown up knowing nothing but war, and the conflict still rages today. Does The Storyteller’s Daughter provide possible approaches to ending the despair and devastation ravishing the country?
16. In an interview,* Shah said “A lot of the book deals with the question of how to approach the truth.” Why has she chosen to interweave such diverse elements as mythology, genealogy, and poetry in her chronicle? How do they help deepen and clarify the factual history and reportage she presents?
* Read the complete interview at www.anchorbooks.com