Where Colorful Birds Sing

The moment Saira Shah and her camera crew glimpsed the small mud house in northern Afghanistan, they knew something awful had happened there. "We all felt it," she writes in her new memoir, "The Storyteller's Daughter" (272 pages. Knopf). "It had left a residue, as tangible as a smell you can't get rid of--a kick of ammonia." In the courtyard sat three little girls dressed in colorful veils, who told Shah their story: a group of Taliban soldiers had ordered the family to leave so the troops could use the house as their headquarters. When the girls' mother resisted, the soldiers shot her before her children's eyes and then stayed with the girls for two days. "I was sure that something had happened to them after their mother was killed," writes Shah. "But I couldn't bring myself to broach the subject."

Shah, a British-Afghan journalist, captured her interview with Fawzia, Fairuza and Amina in her spring 2001 documentary "Beneath the Veil," which examined the Taliban's oppression and mistreatment of women. But in "The Storyteller's Daughter," Shah steps back to put such events in a broader context. She takes readers on a sweeping journey through several less familiar Afghanistans: the idyllic land described by her father, an Afghan writer; the war-ravaged country of her adult travels and the Afghanistan evoked in ancient parables and tales, which Shah deftly weaves through her own narrative. The result is an engrossing, elegantly written work that's part personal journey--"to reconcile my incompatible worlds of East and West"--part literary adventure and part insightful political history.

Shah, who was born in Kent, England, grew up mesmerized by her father's tales of Paghman, his aristocratic family's seat in Afghanistan for 900 years. He described fountains that flung diamonds into mosaic pools, pomegranates bursting with rubies and colorful birds singing from fruit-laden trees. Though Shah's mother was Indian, her culture was entirely subsumed by her husband's. "As far as my father was concerned, his offspring were pure Afghan," Shah writes.

Gripped with curiosity, Shah made her first trip to Afghanistan as a journalist when she was 21. Dressed as a boy, in a black shalwar kameez, she sneaked into the Soviet-occupied country and hiked the Hindu Kush with a band of mujahedin, who knew all along she was female. She paints a picture of skilled warriors who nevertheless lose their way in the country's unnavigable mountains--the same mountains where some believe Osama bin Laden is now hiding.

Despite their sophistication in battle, the fighters are hopelessly uneducated, even boyish, victims of their country's gross underdevelopment. The sight of Shah removing her contact lenses inspires awe: "See? She can take her eyes out. That is a truly wondrous thing." One day she and her fellow travelers break for lunch near the remains of a Soviet convoy. "The sight of destroyed tanks all along the road clearly made the mujahedin feel good--as if the reminder of this local victory vindicated their mad expectation that they would win the war," she writes. "I had to pinch myself to remember that this was the front line of a superpower conflict... Halfway across the world, sharp-suited CIA men were working overtime, funneling weapons to the mujahedin, sponsoring people like this: a shaggy bunch of men, giggling like children in the sunshine."

In the late 1980s, Shah sees the first signs of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan but doesn't recognize the extent of the danger. She compares the situation to a Sufi fable in which people feel different parts of an elephant in the dark--its trunk, its tail, its legs--but are unable to identify it. "As in Rumi's fable of the elephant in the dark," she writes, "we called its trunk a hosepipe and its ear a fan, but we missed the elephant itself." In 1988 she makes a trip to Kandahar, where the Taliban movement would later emerge, "combining the unpredictability of the local tribesmen with the zealotry of purist Islam." She visits a local mullah who speaks no Arabic--the language of the Qur'an--and seems to understand even less about Islamic law. Nevertheless, he persists in his anti-Western teachings. "Did you know that in America women are permitted to marry dogs?" he asks Shah. "They take the dog to their church and the priest will marry them. The next day, perhaps they wish to divorce the dog, and the priest will allow that, too."

In the end, writes Shah, she is unable to fully reconcile her inner Brit and Afghan. When she returns to Afghanistan to film a second documentary, a follow-up to "Beneath the Veil," she tracks down the three girls once more. Her mission is to enroll them in a nearby school. But her plan is stymied by their father, who says he needs them to take care of the household. "I had failed," writes Shah. "Afghanistan had confounded me just as it has always confounded the West." She succeeds wonderfully, however, in unmasking the country for the rest of us.

Join the Discussion