Monday, July 9, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“ZEN UNDER FIRE – A New Zealand Woman’s Story of Love and War in Afghanistan” by  Marianne Elliott (Penguin, $NZ34:99)

            Marianne Elliott is a New Zealand lawyer who went to Afghanistan in 2006 as part of the United Nations Assistance Mission. Her role was to investigate and report on human rights abuse and to contribute to the process of reconciliation between communities. She had already been part of a Middle East mission in Gaza. She tells us candidly that when she arrived in Afghanistan, she had been looking unsuccessfully for a boyfriend and had an unsatisfactory emotional life, in which she tended to bury herself in work:

            My romantic history to date had taught me to be wary of placing too much value on a relationship. My work had generally been a more reliable source of fulfilment and passion than my boyfriends.” (Pg.47)

            Zen Under Fire is her story of some of her time in Afghanistan and of her official role. But it is also about her emotional life there and her relationship with an American. Out of tact and delicacy, she identifies him by the pseudonym “Joel”.

            After six months in the capital Kabul, Elliott was sent to the provincial UN office in Afghanistan’s third largest town, Herat. An anecdote in the opening pages tells us that, upon her arrival, the senior site officer took off on a vacation and left her in charge, saying blithely “You’ll be fine… so long as no one kills Amanallah Khan.” Whereupon, of course,  somebody did kill this particular village leader and Elliott was thrown into the painful and painstaking process of negotiating with village elders and trying to reconcile feuding tribal and ethnic factions.

            She rapidly discovered that more people have died in tribal feuds in Afghanistan than in the Taliban insurgency. As a human rights lawyer, she at first wanted to make her top priority prosecuting those who violated human rights. It took her some time to accept that reconciliation was her major role, and that ensuring continuing peace between groups sometimes meant allowing malefactors to remain unpunished. The lesser evil had to contribute to the greater good.

            Implicit in much of what Elliott writes there is a strong sense of personal values. She is anti-materialistic, declaring of her legal career in New Zealand: “Working on cases in which business partners fought ferociously over financial losses taught me the perils of coveting money.” (Pg.21) She had high hopes for improving the world by means of an essentially pacifist creed, but she admits that her ideals were sometimes dashed. When offered work elsewhere, she was momentarily tempted to toss in her job in Afghanistan. She writes:

            I am reluctant to leave Afghanistan just yet. Why? Because what brought me to Afghanistan in the first place was my belief in the possibility of a safer, fairer world, and in my ability to play a role in bringing that world about. Somewhere in that muddy courtyard in Shindand, or in the weeks of sadness that followed, I lost that belief in myself and in the possibility of a better world. I want to recover it. I need to. I’m not willing to leave Afghanistan until I have. I’m determined to find a real way to be of service to Afghanistan, despite the challenges of the past weeks.” (Pg.79)

            She does find satisfaction in such service, but there is throughout the book a sense of unease about how well the civilian (UN) and military (NATO) components of the peacekeeping mission work together in Afghanistan. Elliott sometimes openly expresses scepticism about the quality of military “intelligence” (she usually puts the word in inverted commas – see Pg.238). She tells an anecdote of a macho US intelligence officer asking about “Hezbollah” (rather than Taliban) activity in the area where she is working, apparently not caring that Hezbollah is a Lebanese Muslim group which has nothing to do with Afghanistan. She also notes the major difficulty that, in the minds of many Afghans, humanitarian aid is paired with military action, especially as US forces use humanitarian aid as a means of pacifying villages. Hence those are the very villages that the Taliban target. Elliott argues with a colleague in the UN Political Affairs unit who says that human rights can wait until there is stability in Afghanistan. Elliott ripostes that there can be no stability for Afghans who continue to suffer from crooked or violent political leaders (pp.172-173).

            In spite of all this, most of her stories about colleagues (military or civilian) are positive, with some people showing special fortitude. After diplomatic pressure, a French aid worker is released, frail and starved, by his Taliban  captors. Despite his condition, he still insists on telling TV cameras surrounding his stretcher that his chief concern is with his Afghan fellow-workers who are still captives (Pg.157).

            It is inevitable that there is a certain feminist angle to this book. Especially in her encounters with abused women and children, Elliott confirms that sexism is built into such a patriarchal society. There are frequent reports of rape and other atrocities practised against women; of women and girls kept in slavery by tribal leaders; and of routine intimidation. Elliott interviews a young woman who has burnt herself after being jailed for the crime of zinna [adultery], which really means running away with her boyfriend rather than undergoing a forced marriage. She also reports on an Afghan woman official being investigated for [petty] corruption when it is clear that her male superiors are more on the take than she is. Elliott’s view is that the woman is really being  targeted for her independence, unorthodox dress standards etc.

            As a Westerner used to more gender equity, Elliott knows she enjoys more rights than some of her “cases”. Investigating human rights, she comes to see the necessary interview process as often being an intrusion on women who have already suffered rape and/or humiliation. This line of thought also leads her to express some annoyance at those male UN officers have difficulty accepting her leadership position, or see her as too emotional in her reactions to things.

            As inevitable as the feminist angle, there is a degree of “First World Guilt”. Working among people who live in the most wretched conditions, the New Zealander remarks “I have seen Afghan homes that make New Zealand prisons look lavish.”  (Pg.85). Of one interview subject, she writes:

            The woman tells me she is thirty-four years old. We are the same age. I am shocked. It is not the first time I realise how my privileged life has protected me from the ageing process. Once, in a salon in Kabul, a beautician quizzed me for an hour about my secrets to youthfulness after she learned my age. I didn’t know how to tell her my secret was to have all the food and drink I have ever needed, free health care and protection from the environment in the form of a warm, dry home and gallons of sunblock. Apart from the sunblock, they weren’t exactly things I could bring back from New Zealand for her in a bottle.” (Pg.65)

            Allied with this sense of guilt, there is an awareness that too often Western news media present a simplified view of Afghanistan and its troubles. Toward the end of Zen Under Fire, Elliott tells of giving an interview to a New Zealand journalist in the hope that he would report accurately on the travails of the people among whom she was working. Instead, the chap merely cranked out the type of clich├ęs about Afghanistan that Western readers want to hear. It would appear that this dispiriting experience was one of her reasons for writing this book.

            The reality, as she sees it, is that there are many signs of communal hope in Afghanistan. One is the receptivity of elders and Afghan officials to ideas on the proper and correct enforcement of the law, without prejudice. Elliott records her delight in running, with her friend Kate, workshops on this:

            I watch intrigued as the buzz spreads through the room. The participants embrace the exercise wholeheartedly and I hear voices rise in friendly debate. I wish that more people could see the Afghanistan that I am seeing. This is such a contrast to the version of this country shown in the Western media: images of a country filled with ruthless terrorists, corrupt leaders and helpless victims. Instead, here is a room filled with public servants enthusiastic about learning all they can to do their best for their country and for the people they serve.” (Pg.108)

            As my trundling and just-the-facts-ma’am review should so far have shown you, I find much of interest in this book, especially in its reportage and clear sense of what life is like in a country under much stress. At the risk of seeming to question a work of such high ideals, however, there are some things on the debit side.

            Although the book is called Zen Under Fire, I’m not sure that there is enough Zen here to justify the title.

            Elliott expresses her philosophic convictions clearly once:

 I find extraordinary power in Pema Chodrin’s simple yet profound Buddhist practices and teachings and I’ve begun to read other Buddhist writing as well. Perhaps Afghanistan is the right setting to be introduced to the Buddha’s teachings on the four noble truths. There is certainly no avoiding the first of them  - that life is suffering. But I have been struggling to accept the second noble truth – that suffering is caused by attachments or craving and aversion. I have no problem seeing how my suffering is caused by these two tendencies. But I struggle to see how the suffering of a mother who can’t feed her child might be caused by her own attachments.” (Pg.204)

            Elliott makes frequent references to her yoga instructor and the yoga that helps her relax tense nerves and centre herself, especially in a dangerous country where she can’t take the jogs she is used to. In the last pages, she expresses sorrow that in the four years since she left Afghanistan, the situation there has degenerated. But she now teaches yoga and learns can now live better with herself.

            Even so, the book’s title suggests more of a conflict between ideals and reality than is actually delivered.

            Likewise, I’m not sure I like that subtitle “A New Zealand Woman’s Story of Love and War in Afghanistan”. It suggests a novelette, or at least give rise to novelettish expectations. Maybe this is because I’m not as sympathetic as I could have been to Elliott’s account of her on-again, off-again (and finally off-permanently) relationship with “Joel”. She eventually goes completely cold on him (Chapter 38) when he doesn’t even phone to enquire how she is faring after the Taliban fires rockets at the compound where she is living. I am sure this was very important in Elliott’s own life. But as it ends up amounting to nothing, it comes across as a short-term affair rather than a story of any particular commitment. For this reader at any rate, the “Joel” passages were unwelcome interruptions to the more important story, no matter how truthful they may be.

            Finally, there is a odd lack of style and structure to this book. The tentative tone doesn’t disturb me. The whole book is written in the present tense which (as every journalist knows) not only creates a sense of immediacy but also creates a sense of uncertainty about what’s coming next. But I am disturbed by the lack of dramatic emphasis which a more experienced write may have been able to create. Zen Under Fire has clearly been worked up from the diaries and notes kept at the time, and it could have benefited from more editorial trimming.

            Rather than end on that sour note, however, I emphasize that Zen Under Fire tells us much about Afghanistan that simply doesn’t appear on the news.

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