Resisting Revenge

March 5, 2003

Atiq Rahimi, Earth and Ashes, London: Vintage, 2003.

Reviewed by Mike Heald

902332Earth and Ashes is a novella written by an Afghan writer, Atiq Rahimi, which is set during the Afghan-Soviet war: ‘a war ago’, as one review puts it.[1] Rahimi was born in Kabul, and, to cut a long and perilous story short, travelled to Pakistan in 1984, where he successfully applied to France for asylum. He has since completed a doctorate in audio-visual communications at the Sorbonne, and is a documentary film maker as well as a writer. Thus,  great benefit has flowed from France’s compassion towards this refugee.  One can’t help but ponder the squandering of talent, quite apart from the inflicting of misery, that is involved in Australia’s present approach to asylum seekers.

Earth and Ashes is Rahimi’s first book. It tells the story of Dastaguir, who is travelling, or rather, waiting to travel, to the mine where his son, Murad, works. Dastaguir has Murad’s  son with him, Yassin,  a young child who has been deafened by the exploding of Soviet bombs. Dastaguir is going to see Murad to tell him of some news about his village and his family, news which we understand is not good, but the exact nature of which takes time to emerge. At the opening of the novella, Dastaguir is waiting, in a bleak, dry landscape, for a vehicle to arrive at a checkpoint, so that he can get a lift to the mine five kilometres away. At the checkpoint are also a fairly incommunicative border guard,  Fateh, and a very kind, very well-educated and intriguing shopkeeper, Mirza Qadir.

What we get in this book is, if I can put it like this, micro action set against macro action: the minutiae of human life, both interior and exterior, and the vast machinations of war. This juxtaposition is perhaps well encapsulated in the following passage:

At your feet, your grandson is busy playing with an ant attracted by the naswar you have spat out onto the ground. Yassin mixes the naswar, the earth and the ant together with a jujube stone. The insect squirms in the green mud.

The soldier says goodbye to Mirza Qadir, and walks past you.

Yassin digs with his jujube stone at a footprint left by the soldier.

The ant is no longer there. Ant, mud and naswar are stuck to the boot of the departing soldier. (p17)

One might characterise the plot as slow-paced, therefore, but there is a constant sense of the enormous drag of great disruption. As Dastaguir rehearses his meeting with his son, with modulating degrees of foreboding, we become intensely curious about his news. When we find out the details of what has happened, we then anticipate the meeting with sharper awareness. If the plot thus far has availed itself of these fairly conventional incentives to read on, the ending avoids the conventional, and in doing so, I would argue, succeeds in projecting the central concern of the book beyond its final pages very powerfully indeed.

And the central concern of this work is revenge. Murad, we are told by Dastaguir,

Is not a man who listens to advice or thinks about the law or logic of war. To him, blood is the only answer for blood. He’ll take vengeance, even at the cost of his own neck. That’s all there is to it. And he won’t care too much if he has blood on his hands either. (p24)

Rahimi has spoken of his concern with the act of revenge, a concern which has a personal dimension, in an interview with Gerry Feehily. He relates that his brother, a communist, was murdered:

“My family, fearing I would try to avenge him, kept his murder a secret for two years,” he says. “It struck me that this culture of vengeance was the reason why, time and again, Afghanistan descends into new forms of violence. This refusal to mourn, always to seek vengeance without concession, meant that even as the Soviets withdrew, with one million dead behind them, we were fighting yet again.”[2]

Personally, I don’t believe that humanity is capable of avoiding the vicious circle which revenge perpetuates, without recourse to the profoundest repositories of traditional wisdom. Rahimi seems to be in sympathy with this view, and with the view that there are, in fact, universal principles in human behaviour, when he says ‘the only cause I am committed to is that of the defence of universal and human values.’[3] And in the book, the shopkeeper Mirza Qadir tellingly draws on traditional widom to advise Dastaguir when he is faltering in his resolve to tell his son what has happened:  “Don’t leave him alone. Make him understand that a man’s fate contains such things…” (p24)

Earth and Ashes is unusual in that it employs the second person point of view: ‘You take an apple from the scarf you’ve tied into a bundle…’ (p1) One reviewer, Rachel Aspden of The Guardian, has found this unsatisfactory:  ‘Their long wait at a dusty border post is narrated by Dastaguir in a strained second person, both inviting the reader to share his experiences and insisting on his own detachment from them.’[4] The last comment about detachment does not seem to me accurate, however. Aspden goes on to judge that ‘filtered through Dastaguir’s apathetic gaze, its [the novella’s] gathered fragments remain oddly unaffecting.’[5] Yet Dastaguir’s state does not strike me as at all apathetic: stunned, perhaps. Aspden also is dissatisfied with Rahimi’s allusions to the Persian Book of Kings, in particular the story of Sohrab and Rustum: ‘oblique references to Persian epic and Afghan codes of honour aim to transform his slight story into a parable of Afghan history; if these go unnoticed, most of its resonance is lost.’ I would say that if these references go unnoticed, that is negligent reading. Also, these allusions, I feel,  do succeed in amplifying the significance of Rahimi’s story, particularly in its violent, patriarchal, revenge-taking dimensions.

Rahimi’s novel has been translated from Dari, one of the many languages spoken in Afghanistan and in neighbouring regions. Again, Aspden is unhappy, remarking that the resultant language is ‘frequently florid or unidiomatic.’[6] In my view the spareness of the language is consonant with the deprivation which we witness.  Also, the novella has other forms of richness. There is the proverbial, for instance, where Mirza the shopkeeper enumerates the forms which sorrow might take: water, sword or bomb (or all three.) There is also the world of dreams, in which Dastaguir’s predicament is powerfully refigured. And the intense psychological pressure yields vision-like formulations for this agonised grandfather:

You are on one side of the river, Murad is on the other…

Then Murad starts to cross over to you.

‘Murad,’ you shout, ‘stay where you are child! It’s a river of fire. You’ll get burned! Don’t come!’…

You ask yourself who could believe such a thing: a river of flowing fire? Have you become a seer of visions? (p7-8)

Despite the brevity of the book, Rahimi has created characters of solidity and force. The child, Yassin, is breath-takingly realistic, especially in his undiminished recalcitrance and his way of understanding his deafness. Mirza Qadir’s engrossment in the mythico-religious also is plausible and intriguing. The main character and narrator, Dastaguir, has many compelling aspects, not the least of which is his very poignant wish, in the face of his unpleasant task,  that he was Murad’s son, not his father.

Atiq Rahimi, then, has composed, in exile, a work which succeeds in posing and suspending, as it were, a crucial question for the Afghan people. One hopes that, amidst their latest turmoil, there is the opportunity for them to read it. One also hopes that it will receive considered attention in those countries, apart from Afghanistan, where militarism and vengefulness may yet, despite an apparent milieu of tolerance and decency, dominate the national agenda.


[1] Susan Muaddi Darraj, Baltimore City Paper Online, November 13-19, 2002.

[2] Feehily Gerry, Interview with Atiq Rahimi in Independent Digital, 25.2.03.

[3] Tirthankar Chanda, “Afghani Writers in Exile”, The Daily Star Internet Edition, Vol 1, Number 70.

[4] Rachel Aspden, “Short and Bitter”in Guardian Unlimited, Saturday December 14th, 2002, p1.

[5] Ibid p2

[6] Ibid

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