Saira Shah grew up in Britain, but she was always told she came from somewhere else: a fairytale land of orchards and gardens, a place where even the water had magical qualities.
The country was Afghanistan, the storyteller her father and the tales were embellished with every telling. Then, at the age of twenty-one - with her father's tales as her guide - Saira set out to find the truth about her family's homeland.
Instead of finding a paradise, she was plunged into a country at war. It was the beginning of a journey spanning more than fifteen years. Whether extricating herself from an arranged marriage, walking through minefields with the mujahidin, or slipping clandestinely into the Taliban's Kabul, Saira learnt the bitter limits of the stories she loved. But, in the process, she discovered the reality of a country more complex and challenging than anything she could have imagined.
I don't read a lot of non-fiction but I do love to read books about other times, places and cultures. I know of a group where they are trying to go "Around the World in 80 books", and when this was their first book I was sufficiently interested to go and get it from the library and read along with them. There are several other books on their journey that I am hoping to read along with as well.
Saira Shah was been heavily involved with a couple of documentaries (Beneath the Veil and Unholy War) that went into Afghanistan and showed life as it really was in the Afghanistan that was ruled by the Taliban. These were not, however, her first journeys into this strife torn land. Her first harrowing journeys had been made years before by foot through the mountains during the time that the mujahadeen had been fighting against the Soviets.
As Saira travels into and out of Aghanistan, living in the volatile border town of Peshawar in Pakistan, she strives to try and work out her identity - is she an Afghanistani who has grown up in Britain, or is she British of Afghanistani heritage? Is she more Easterner than Westerner, and if so how can she make her life meaningful and help the women and children in her homeland. She is also trying to reconcile the men of the mujahadeen for whom honour means everything, with the same men who would sell Stinger missiles on to Iran, and for whom the fact that she questions them is more dishonourable than the actual deed itself.
There are moments of good humour within this book, so it is not all gloom of doom. There are times when it appears that the order of the stories is not quite right, and it sometimes seems like we have got a little off track, but for the most part this is quite an eye opening and entertaining look at the life of a woman who has taken quite amazing risks to bring the story of life in Afghanistan into our living rooms.
Because I don't normally read non-fiction, there were some questions that I did want more information on. For example, when she left Peshawar under threat of death for revealing some details that several sides of the conflict did not want revealed, how was she able to reestablish her life with her husband, is she still drawn to Afghanistan etc...but I think that that is because I like to have a happy ever after and know that the story is over. Having done a little googling, it seems that she has gone on to cover stories in more trouble spots including Gaza.
Overall, this was a very interesting read about a fascinating subject, and I am glad that I read it!