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STYLE & CULTURE | BOOK REVIEW

Journalist faces conflicting myths in her war-torn land

The Storyteller's Daughter; Saira Shah; Alfred A. Knopf: 272 pp., $24

November 10, 2003|Merle Rubin | Special to The Times

The daughter of Idries Shah, a writer of Sufi fables, Saira Shah was born and raised in England but nurtured on a diet of her father's enthralling stories of the homeland she had never seen: a land of snowcapped mountains, flowing streams, splendid gardens and jewel-like cities where her father's family had lived for 900 years. This lost Eden was called Afghanistan.

The fact that her mother had a different background (she was a Parsee from India) did not matter much: The family that counted was that of her father and his forebears, who traced their line back to the Prophet Muhammad. The Islam in which Shah was raised was the mystical, tolerant Sufi tradition, a far cry from the bigoted, literal-minded fanaticism of the fundamentalist strain.

Saira Shah, a teenager at the time of the Soviet invasion, felt a burning desire to go there -- much to the alarm of her father, who had perhaps succeeded a little too well in imbuing her with a love of her heritage.

In 1986, at age 21, she went as a journalist to cover the moujahedeen resistance to the Soviets. On a later visit, Shah made an acclaimed documentary, "Beneath the Veil," about the Taliban's oppression of women. She was also there in autumn 2001 during the first U.S. airstrikes.

"The Storyteller's Daughter" is the absorbing account of her hair-raising, eye-opening, sometimes heartbreaking experiences in Afghanistan and its turbulent and intrigue-filled neighbor, Pakistan. But it is also a book about myths and their double-edged power to inspire and delude.

Myths are the stories we tell to lend meaning to our lives, to provide us with a way of understanding the world and our identity. The myth can be especially important to exiles: one thing that can be transported when much else must remain behind.

But as Shah learned in the course of her impassioned quest to know her ancestral homeland, myths can be dangerous. Shah herself was blinded by the myth of the noble moujahedeen. Most of the fighting men she met were as courageous and bold as she'd imagined. As she trudged across miles of rugged terrain in their company, being shelled and shot at, enduring altitude sickness, flea bites, frostbite and more, Shah felt a sense of pride, closeness and belonging.

But she also encountered arrant foolishness, mild lechery and male chauvinism, along with other forms of ignoble behavior, culminating in her discovery that some of the moujahedeen were selling to Iran the Stinger missiles that the U.S. had given them.

The need for myths, Shah feels, also clouded the thinking of the Reagan administration, which supported the moujahedeen. An American in Peshawar whom she calls Hank exemplifies this: "Just as he needed the Soviets to be evil, Hank required the moujahedeen to be noble. They had to be good and, what was more, they had to be good in a way that he could understand. He had no patience with an increasingly factionalized conflict in a country with a delicate religious and ethnic balance. He wanted to believe that the moujahedeen were fighting because they detested Communism, just like him."

Shah contends that the myth of the anti-Communist freedom fighter blinded the United States to the danger posed by Islamic extremists. At one point, she recalls coming across a military installation "sponsored by the CIA, funded by Saudi Arabia and engineered by an idealistic young Islamist firebrand. His name was Osama bin Laden."

"The U.S.," she remarks, "thought that compared to the battle between Communism and the free world, petty rivalries among the moujahedeen were irrelevant."

But these "petty rivalries" led to a bloody civil war, culminating in the victory of the Taliban. Shah even got the feeling that the Americans seemed to prefer the fundamentalists to other moujahedeen, perhaps, she suggests, because the fanatics, lacking a sense of humor, seemed more "serious."

After Sept. 11, the U.S. woke up to reality, which Shah considers fortunate for most Afghans, as American military intervention helped put an end to the hated Taliban. Shah recalls the horrors reported in the 1990s by Amnesty International, including a container filled with the gouged-out eyes of Taliban victims.

Working for a "serious and liberal" British television program, Shah proposed covering the story: "[T]he honest, good eyes of one of my editors said silently what he put into words a few seconds later: 'Is any of this our fault? Can you convince me that we should care?' " She thus opens a larger question: Are too many well-intentioned Westerners more interested in blaming all evil on their own countries than in alleviating suffering whatever its roots?

As a journalist, Shah found that the media were also susceptible to mythologizing. During the U.S. airstrikes in 2001, she witnessed a demonstration in Islamabad, Pakistan. She was struck by the rage of one protester, who was thrusting his face into the camera and howling anti-American imprecations: "The force of his hatred was mesmerizing; he was utterly consumed by it. But then he turned it off like a tap, and asked the camera: 'Was that enough?' " Filled with memorable sounds, sights and insights, "The Storyteller's Daughter" is a gallant attempt to find meaning without imposing it.

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