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Arts & Entertainment
10/01/06

By JOHN ROWEN, Staff Writer

"Kabul in Winter" paints a realistic picture of Afghanistan

"Kabul in Winter: Life without Peace in Afghanistan" by Ann Jones (Metropolitan Books, 224 pages, $23, ISBN 0-8050-7884-3)

In "Kabul in Winter," Ann Jones takes readers to the real Afghanistan - - as opposed to a nation in the imagination of Republicans, Democrats, international philanthropists and religious groups.

An authority on women and violence, Jones volunteered to help rebuild Afghanistan after "the bombing stopped," after the military campaign wound down. "I felt obliged," she continues "to help pick up the pieces," to deliver humanitarian aid.

The author, who will speak at the New York State Writer's Institute, lived in Afghanistan from December, 2002 through the winter of 2005.

She did not go to Afghanistan to write a book. Yet when she came home on visits, "I found people full of questions - - like 'Are things getting better?' - - to which the answers were invariably too complicated for conversation." During her third winter in Kabul, she began to write this book.

PANORAMIC VIEW

The first chapter, "In the Streets," opens by explaining how Jones decided to go to Afghanistan. From these details, she moves to a panoramic overview of Afghan history, contemporary Kabul and its society.

"In the Prisons" is an account of Jones' work with women prisoners. She explains the social factors and individual behaviors that land Afghani women behind bars.

"In the Schools" chronicles Jones' experience helping Afghani English teachers improve their skills and update their teaching techniques after decades of wars and isolation. In this chapter, Jones also offers a sharp analysis of what kind of international aid works and does not work.

I found the book confusing in places. For example, I quickly lost track of the chronology of Jones' time there. It appears she volunteered to help widows, women prisoners and teachers. At one point, I thought she first worked with teachers; later in the book I thought she first worked with widows.

In the chapter on women in prison, Jones offers a detailed account of how Afghani society and recent interpretations of Islam have resulted in women losing opportunities, becoming suicidally depressed and victims of violence. As she describes these problems over several dozen pages, I began thinking she was going to let Afghani society and conservative Islam "have it." But at the last moment, she swerves. She quotes a doctor who says, "This is not politics. This is not one regime - - Karzai, Taliban, Rabbani. This is patriarchy."

Despite these confusions, "Kabul in Winter" is compelling reading. Jones' unique writing style is at once concise, sharp and fact-packed. She describes the mountains beneath her plane as she approaches Kabul as "not the discrete picturesque peaks of Swiss postcards but a random snarl of jagged rocks." Of her response to the elevation and air pollution, she says "I got sick right away. . . Within days my chest feels bruised and aching from the job of staying alive and my head hurts through and through."

For many years, I wondered about the "Hindu Kush." Jones finally enlightened me - - describing the Kush as "the massive mountain chain that extends some seven hundred miles eastward across the heart of Afghanistan, climbing all the while to culminate in the heights of . . . the Himalayas."

INDIVIDUAL LIVES

This book is full of compelling biographical sketches of real Afghan men and women.

With overview narrative and the details of individual lives, Jones brings the reader into the country, at a level of understanding not experienced in listening to radio or watching television.

Afghanis have been through the whirlwind. They have experienced numerous governments: relatively enlightened ones inspired by western ideals, Soviet dictatorships, civil war under warlords, the brutality of the Taliban and a new, confused government supported by the West.

Politics changes violently and brutally. When guerrillas captured a Najibullah, a Soviet-backed leader, they tortured him, chased him through the streets and hung him. The United States bombing of Kabul before invading the country, killed 4,000 civilians and destroyed the institutions and capital assets of the country.

These conflicts have killed, wounded and mentally shattered many. The Afghan and American governments are publically committed to improving the lives of women. Yet, a noticeable number of Afghani men beat or kill their wives, sell their daughters in arranged marriages and jeer and heckle women in public.

Jones offers details about how American foreign policy has caused many problems faced by Afghanistan today. A small percentage of foreign aid from America and other western nations actually reaches citizens. We funded violence that made, in Jones' words, Afghanistan a "pre-destroyed country" before we invaded. Our support of the Afghan freedom fighters helped indirectly pump up the Afghan poppy crop - - the raw material for heroin.

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Despite these problems and setbacks, Afghani's have maintained some level of society and some have prevailed. Some women are making progress. Some teachers are educating students again.

While Jones is a progressive and a supporter of women's rights, her sharp and trenchant analysis of life in Kabul and the international community there spares no political, charitable or religious philosophies. She is hard on herself, too, for not being aware of cultural differences, for not helping enough.

Jones believes changing Afghanistan will take a long time. She explains how past leaders tried to make changes and how these went through cycles of progress and setbacks. She ends the book, frustrated that Westerners are likely not to devote the effort to understand Afghani society and are likely to leave if change does not progress at the pace of impatient expectations.

Ann Jones will make two appearances on Thursday at New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany in the Campus Center 375, 1400 Washington Avenue, Albany. The first will be a seminar at 4:15 p.m. That will be followed by an 8:00 p.m. reading. Both events are free. More information is available by calling 442-5620.

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