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Letters from Afghanistan


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Success Stories

by Eloise Hanner

afghanistan.jpg

ISBN 0 8283 2083 7
Published by Branden Books, 2003
175pp, paperback
Retail price $14.95
 

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

Travel writing has always been a favourite genre of mine, the more exotic the location the better. Millions of people worldwide share my interest. There are, however, tens of thousands of travel books on the market, competing for the attention of the publishers and agents, not to mention the reader. Many books these days have to be published privately simply because they are not considered sufficiently commercial by large publishers (in other words, they are never going to bring in the big bucks); so perhaps Eloise Hanner was fortunate to be able to find a publisher for this, her second major work. Although Branden Books is a long-established firm, their output is not huge, and they specialise in non-fiction. Their cover designs betray the low-budget nature of the enterprise (and I mean no offence by that). Maybe Letters from Afghanistan isn't commercially that strong -- but it is an absolutely fascinating book.

The world is getting smaller by the day, but Afghanistan is still one of its great unknown quantities. In 1971, before the worst excesses of the Taliban, it was an uncomfortable place to live, geographically inhospitable and culturally isolated. When Eloise and her husband Chuck volunteered for service there with the Peace Corps (the US equivalent of Voluntary Service Overseas), they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. Their advantage was that they possessed the resilience of the young. You can tell that Mrs Hanner, looking back on it as a mature woman, wonders how she ever coped. Diarrhoea attacks, the threat of tapeworm, the lack of proper kitchen and bathroom facilities, and the horror of public transport, seem to have made little impact on the young couple. Maybe, coming straight from student accommodation as they did, it's not so surprising that they were only mildly alarmed by the perils and ordeals that faced them.

The decision to use the letter format for this book is a purely practical one, as it is based on the letters Eloise Hanner sent home to her parents in the USA. Not very frequently, since the Afghan postal service was less than regular, but full of little anecdotes about her new way of life -- the servant's methods of wasp extermination, the difficulty of finding one's way around the bazaar, the makeshift bathroom arrangements, and the four-hour visits to the post office to dispatch a parcel which would probably never arrive.

My suspicion, although there is no hint of this in the foreword, is that the original letters have been heavily edited. Either that or their author is a more eloquent correspondent than most of us. As a teacher of English, she might well be; that being so, I could have wished that more of the errors (mainly punctuation) had been eliminated before publication. However, the selection of material in itself reveals something about her understanding of what the reader requires. She includes only those trivia that she knows will be of interest to her audience, and does so simply and with a sense of humour that I envy. I'm sure I wouldn't have lasted long in those conditions. Forget I'm a Celebrity -- Get me out of here! This lifestyle is the stuff of a horror movie.

Mrs Hanner attributes her staying power to sheer bloody-mindedness. The more warnings she and her husband received about what awaited them in Afghanistan, the more determined they were to go through with it. Naturally, once they had started, they simply had to finish. So did I. When reading a novel, one might find oneself anxious to discover the next plot twist; in this case, I wanted to know what new domestic horrors awaited the characters in their next encounter with native Afghan life. As time went on, and they began to look forward to leaving, it became possible to see how increased familiarity with the conditions made them less, not more, tolerable. When their successors arrived, and chickened out after three weeks of the hand-over period, it was no big surprise.

Intriguingly, she chooses to include accounts of the "vacations" she took with her husband away from Kabul: in India, Pakistan and Nepal. At first I thought this was simply padding, but soon I saw how the contrast between differing Asian lifestyles shed new light on the Hanners' experiences, ignorant as they were at the beginning of their travels. Pakistan, despite having the same religion as Afghanistan and a better standard of living, turned out to be less tolerant and more hostile. India, by contrast, offered Western comforts and the opportunity to recuperate from an extended period in a country where not only were living conditions primitive, but theft, murder and rape were just as common as in the more sophisticated, secular, society they had grown up with.

What is, to me, most interesting of all about this book is the fact that, despite having been written before the Russian invasion and the war against terrorism, it presents a picture of a nation that is clearly on the verge of disaster. You get the impression that Afghanistan had to get worse - much worse - before it could get better. In her brief epilogue, Mrs Hanner comments on the events and changes of the years since she left the country. A particular source of frustration to her is that she was unable to discover what had happened to her former students and Afghan friends. I was equally frustrated, since I felt I had come to know them -- particularly Dad Ali, the servant, with his annoying yet endearing little ways. In spite of the hardships faced by the Hanners during their two-year stay in Afghanistan, Eloise Hanner claims to spend much of her time thinking about those days and wanting to re-live them. I find that very easy to believe.

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