Thursday, October 23, 2003

water, water....

Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, by Tom Bissell. Pantheon Books. $25.95

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2003).

A COLOURFUL WORLD ATLAS, produced in association with Britain's Royal Geographical Society in 2000, still shows the Aral Sea as a pale blue teardrop, perhaps a hundred miles across, between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in what was once the far-flung hinterland of the Soviet Union. As writer Tom Bissell shows, it is a misleading colour. Once a vast inland sea, today the Aral Sea represents one of the modern world's worst ecological disasters. Poisoned and destroyed in less than a generation, it has shrunk by 75% of its volume and half of its surface area since 1960. Soon it will have dried up and disappeared.

Bissell first went to Uzbekistan in the mid-1990s with the American Peace Corps, but a mix of culture shock and home-sickness led to his "early termination of service." In April 2001, he returned, hoping to catalogue the disaster and come to grips with his failure to stick it out the first time. In Moynaq, once the seaside home of fishermen who contributed a tenth of the Soviet Union's total catch, he discovered the title for his book. "For years after the sea abandoned Moynaq's shoreline," he writes, "some of the town's more desperate fishermen dug canals out to meet it . . . 'Chasing the sea,' they called it."

The dust storms, and the poisoning of the land can be traced directly to the Soviets' forced march toward modernization, though Bissell suggests the groundwork for the destruction was put in place by Tsarist Russia. The weapon was cotton. Soviet planners in the 1950s decided to drain the Aral Sea to increase the country's cotton yield, ushering in five decades of abuse that pumped pesticides into the water table at the same time that its diluting volume was reduced, and replaced soil-saving vegetation with ever-growing cotton fields. The results were nothing short of disastrous.

Bissell's descriptions of the region surrounding the sea are harrowing. In Nukus, a town that is home to a few hundred thousand, he experiences what is called a "small" dust storm, now too commonplace to be monitored. "Dust gathered in the gutters of my leaky eyes. I could barely see the sun, though through the dusty brown-out I could discern a weak, urine-coloured glow." This is nothing. At least five times a year Nukus is struck by a "cloud of howling sand" that carries off the area's "poisonous dust" to as far away west as Georgia and the Black Sea.

Residents of the Aral Sea region suffer from one of the world's highest rates of tuberculosis. Anaemia rates are among the highest in the world. The infant mortality rate is startling, and respiratory infections are the main cause of death among children. Kidney disease linked to the high salinity of the water is widespread.

Though Bissell's avowed purpose is to investigate the Aral Sea disaster and his visit to the region makes for a powerful and informed portrait of this ecological nightmare, he aspires to a greater canvas. Chasing the Sea is a travel narrative that, like its inevitable model, Robert Byron's 1937 classic Road to Oxiana, seeks to capture the historical grandeur of Samarkand and Tashkent, as well as what life is like in Uzbekistan today. In this effort Bissell is less successful, sometimes losing the thread as he tries to bring together ancient history, modern politics, his exorcism of his personal demon of "failure" and a kind of rogue's journey across the country. He pins long historical digressions onto visits to famous monuments with clumsy and sometimes hackneyed devices. A visit to the site of the execution of two British spies by the tyrant Nasrullah Khan in the 19th century, for example, prompts him to express a corny "kinship": "They were travellers. They had toiled in these vicinities of suffering, bled upon this soil . . . This was hallowed ground."

A first-time author must be excused a fit of enthusiasm now and again. But banal summations also mar some of Bissell's more analytical passages. When his "breath was nearly taken away" by the sight of a woman and her daughter dressed in purdah, he indulges in some, one supposes, admirable cultural relativism, concluding: "I also knew that body-conscious American girls were gagging themselves and barfing over toilets from sea to shining sea. Muslim culture was not alone in having its dark edges." This simple-minded observation is a mere substitute for the more complex conclusion needed to complete a train of thought.

These flaws, like off-key notes in a well-played piece of music, are frustrating because the book holds such promise. Overall, Bissell offers a sensitive and erudite picture of this fascinating country, ambitiously engaging a broad sweep of history that encompasses Genghis Khan in the 13th century, Timur in the 14th century, and the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. If his authorial voice sometimes seems callow, his earnestness nevertheless achieves an engaging honesty. And this absence of posturing and performance is, in the end, enough to excuse him.

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad (translated by Ingrid Christopherson), Little, Brown, Agust 2003. ISBN: 0316726052. Price US$19.95, pages 256.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in October 2003).

When Norwegian war correspondent Asne Seierstad (pronounced Ossna Sairshta) landed in Afghanistan, the country was full of journalists there to writ e about the return of music, the rehabilitation of the Kabul soccer stadium - used by the Taliban as an execution ground - and of course the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The veteran reporter soon concluded that those stories were dead horses. And then, in a chance encounter in a bookshop, she found her subject: Sultan Khan, a bookseller who defied the edicts of the Russians and the Taliban for 20 years, risking his life and spending time in jail, to save Afghanistan's literature.

Seierstad convinced Khan to let her move in with his large family, where the 33-year-old Norwegian lived for the spring after the fall of the Taliban. This close association gave Seierstad an incredible opportunity to learn about the inner life of Afghanistan. As a foreign woman, she enjoyed a liminal status that allowed her to befriend not only the aging patriarch Sultan and his son Mansur, but also Sultan's daughter Leila, his wives Sharifa and Sonya and his ancient mother Bibi Gul. The result of her labors is a remarkably intelligent and sensitive portrait that goes beyond the simple narratives of repression and liberation and the alarmist tales of bearded, hair-trigger fanatics that filled bookshelves last year. Before picking up the Bookseller of Kabul, I would have been quite happy never to read another sentence about Afghanistan. After reading it, I feel there's much more to learn.

One of the reasons for the book's success is Seierstad's decision to write in what she calls in her foreword the "literary form". By that, she means simply that she turned her voluminous research into a novel, opting not to include herself as a character in a glorified travelogue and restricting her pronouncements on Afghan history and culture to a minimum. That choice allows her to focus on the interior lives of her subjects - their thoughts and feelings - in a way that would elude a journalist focused only on "observations".

Though it is (fortunately) no geopolitical treatise, the Bookseller of Kabul is hardly a book of small incidents. Rather, Seierstad captures the family dilemmas that any novelist would seize on - conflicts fraught with repressed emotion. The book begins with Sultan Khan's decision to take a second wife, a heartbreaking humiliation for the woman who supported him for so many years. Seierstad evokes the fear and excitement of Sultan's young bride, the resignation of Sultan's old wife and Sultan's own pride and determination with an equally deft grace.

She describes not only the pain of the second wedding, but also the first wife's gradual acceptance of the new bride. And when Sharifa and Sultan tell baudy jokes and gossip about the sex lives of their relatives, we see that a second marriage does not mark the end of love and the burka (veil)and daily prayer do not mean the end of sex.

In the context of the postwar press coverage, replete with images of faceless, voiceless women, the Norwegian author's description of life behind the veil is particularly valuable. Drawing on personal experience (she reveals in her introduction), Seierstad shows how the concealing garment can be restricting and disorienting - like the blinders worn by a horse - but yet how it remains possible to look beautiful and even to flirt while hidden beneath it. Then again, she also reveals how in a town where the sun shines nearly every day of the year, a young woman, her skin pale and gray, may be weak and dizzy, suffering from lack of vitamin D.

Seierstad's method - so unlike the self-important riffing of Mailer and Wolfe's "new journalism" - might be called anti-journalism. And though in her introduction she confesses that she chased the Northern Alliance around herself for six weeks, Seierstad has little patience for the oversimplifications of her chosen profession. It's not surprisingly, therefore, that the funniest character in the Bookseller of Kabul is a reporter named Bob who works for "an American magazine" (Time). Given to eloquent Americanisms like "wow!" and "yeah", Bob drags his interpreter Tajmir on what he doubtless described as a thrilling chase after bin Laden.

"Tajmir and Bob disagree fundamentally about what constitutes a successful trip," Seierstad writes. "Tajmir wants to return home as quickly as possible ... Bob wants violent action in print; like a few weeks ago when he and Tajmir were nearly killed by a grenade." With the same deadpan delivery the author hilariously skewers the journo's characteristic nonchalance about the culture he's observing.

As Tajmir tries to find somebody who has seen bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, or someone who "thinks they have seen someone who resembles them", he reads and hopes against hope that he and his journalist buddies find nothing at all and return home safely. Bob interrupts with typical simplicity: "What are you reading, Tajmir?" "The holy Koran," answers the interpreter. "Yes, so I see, but anything special? I mean, like a travel section or something like that?" pursues Bob, perhaps looking for "color" for his story.

That's parachute journalism in a nutshell. And in the Bookseller of Kabul, Seierstad has found the antidote.