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I can’t say why I’m so fascinated with Pashtun culture.
Never mind Ukraine, COVID’s seesaw, red-state-blue blatherings, fire season right around the corner this dry winter, eye-popping gas prices.
I’m obsessed like some folks can’t get enough of the Civil War or tying the perfect fishing lure, like Jonathan Franzen and his bird watching, Wikipedia editors overwriting one another, certain family members with their geneaology putting the rest of us through endless spit tests. (Not that I mind. Ancestry.com fished out an uncle I didn’t know I had.)
I mention Franzen because the novelist captures the inarticulate pull of such fascinations in an interview with Audobon — “Love is a hard thing to explain, right? … I’m sure if I were into bacteria, I would feel that about bacteria” — and he gets at the core: “This whole dimension to the world that I’d never been aware of.”
That is to say, revelation. The sense of discovery that the world is a much different place than you had thought.
String theory has that quality, for sure, and I wonder especially at quantum mechanics. But I’m not sucked in, hours vanishing, like I am looking for insights into a people who live along the vaguest boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the opposite end of the world from mine in all ways.
Birds and bird watchers make incidental appearances in Franzen’s novels. They don’t get in the way. My obsession is more consuming, a protagonist in the form of a young Pashtun woman who lives in the highest reaches of the Hindu Kush. She and her village are entirely fictional, bordering on fantasy (the genre) as well as the Durand Line.
Oh, I’ll pay for breaking cardinal rules concerning writing what you know and staying in one’s ethnic lane, a biggie today. There is no market for an older white dude presuming like this, only scorn, and publishers know that.
I’m out of my mind here, and yet I persist. This must at least nudge at a definition for insanity. But also freedom, I think.
Still, my manuscript readers gravitate most to Helai (Pashto for swan). Excerpts that have allowed me to slip into competitive workshops above my level include her, an individual influenced by her culture but very much her own person.
I’m with Abraham Maslow theorizing that human nature binds us much closer than differences in culture distance us. The distancing comes mainly from ignorance, I believe now.
From my writing I learn my own prejudices, smug American assumptions heavily leavened in privilege, that stale crust.
The realizations, especially when pointed out, can be painful. That’s not me. But it is. Oh, but it is. Writing is nothing so much as an exercise in humility.
My obsession manifests most in reading, though. I’m about 100 books in with a list of 120-130 in the bookshelf, nightstand, bathroom countertops, Kindle library, Scribd lineup of mostly audio versions.
The books vary. Borderland folk tales, thick histories, a thin Army guide a friend loaned me from when she embedded. Memoirs and novels by native writers, translated. Travelogues from before the Russians, war stories across centuries, poetry called landays, Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick Dr. Watson, biographies. Orientalist tomes, Edwin Said’s famous takedown of Orientalism among Western scholars and political leaders, geopolitical white papers. Lots of love stories and escape tales.
Lately, I’ve begun to focus more on the American diaspora. Ayad Akhtar’s “Homeland Elegies” and “American Dervish,” and Wajahat Ali’s just out “Go Back to Where You Came From.” He’s from Fremont.
Weirdly, I haven’t visited Fremont yet, home of Little Kabul. My wife’s eyes bug when I talk about traveling to someplace like Chitral or Nuristan. I tell her the Swat Valley, where Malala grew up, has got to be fairly safe now.
I have a theory contrary to the best advice about learning by visiting a place, though that’s true enough as far as it goes. But I’m seeking the inside, behind the doors locked to me as Western visitor full of notions about those people, whether sympathetic or hostile.
I want to understand them as they understand themselves, see as they see. I can’t do that as tourist or even welcomed guest. But I can read my way in through their own stories, which is really, really cool. So I guess I’m holding off on visiting until I can see.
I mentioned Ancestry.com and a genetic revelation, my uncle. But there’s another, thanks to my wife’s own fascination with the family tree.
National Geographic’s DNA test results recently rang me up as 1% Pashtun myself. Isn’t that interesting? More Pashtun than Elizabeth Warren is native American. The rest of my Irish/Welsh/English bloodline — predating those latecomers, the Celts — suggests the Raj, ominously.
But maybe there is some mysticism involved here, too. Maybe my interest at heart really is genealogical. Look deeply enough, and we’re all related.
Note: Community of Writers at Palisades Tahoe, is accepting applications up to March 28, by the way. It’s worth your while if serious about your writing.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299
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