Reviewed by Amanda Simms
Suraya Sadeed’s memoirs begin with a dramatic recollection of smuggling $35,000 across the Afghanistan border beneath a burkha in 1998. What follows is a blend of autobiography, the history of the post-Soviet Afghanistan, as well as the development of her charity, Help the Afghan Children.
Fleeing to the US after the Afghan communists seized power, Sadeed eventually lands the ‘American Dream’ with a successful property business and makes a small fortune. The sudden death of her husband several years later plunges her into a period of depression and self-reflection over her immersion in materialism, Sadeed shuts down her business and withdraws from the world. However, through a chance witnessing of a CNN report showing the plight of Afghan people in civil-war Kabul, our protagonist is inspired to act, raise money and help alleviate suffering in her homeland.
Sadeed immerses herself completely with her new found passion and we see the charity grow from handing out blankets to creating free clinics and funding underground schools for girls. Through her travels during these aid missions, we are exposed to what is almost always lost in news reporting of war, namely individual cases of loss – it is in this aspect that the book flourishes. Some of the most haunting passages arise through her conversations with the individuals she meets along her way.
We are told of an orphanage where children, both boys and girls, are taken away for a few days by anyone who pays, to be raped and abused. There are also the ‘widow camps’, where women who have lost all the male members of their family are temporarily sold in the same way. We see the most vulnerable being taken advantage of in sickening ways. We’re not just shown that something terrible has happened; we are given faces, expressions and glimpses of the victims.
Mainstream news reports of war feel so clinical in comparison, it’s just “x many people died today in this region”, obviously it would be impossible to represent each case, plus graphic depictions and photographs are rarely shown or even allowed. Our disconnection with what’s going on increases the more we hear these reports as they increasingly have little effect. That’s the reason why books like this are vitally important, we are brought square into the face of suffering and horror we find difficult to imagine otherwise, let alone emphasise with.
The vast ideological bridge between Sadeed’s two homes induces a mass of conflicting emotions; her anger and emotion at the injustice the US inflicts upon Afghanistan creates powerfully eloquent passages and interesting viewpoints. None are more succinct than when she discusses the time around 9/11. “Those were American bombs falling, paid for by my tax dollars. For the cost of one of those bombing runs I doubtless could have fed and clothed and cared for those 100,000 displaced people. For the cost of another bombing run I could have educated their children. And that would have done so much more to defeat the blind prejudice and hatred spawned by the Taliban and bin Laden”.
We are also introduced to Yar Mohammed in this section, a young teenager who is reputed to have killed an American troop. While his community heralds him as a hero, Sadeed is repulsed, this young man represents her fears for the future and she muses over what would have happened if the situation was reversed. In fact, it’s easy to imagine, especially with the gun-toting American culture, that many individuals would want to protect and their families and their way of life. “History was repeating itself, and a new generation was coming up that was proud to kill foreigners… I didn’t think that a 14 year old kid in America would necessarily would have done any different. If Afghan soldiers marched through America’s streets, would he also kill the invaders? Quite possibly”. It also seems especially poignant when we are reminded that a lot of Afghan people had no knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, they saw their homeland being attacked for no just reason.
It feels difficult to criticise someone who has undoubtedly achieved so much, yet there are sections of these memoirs that seem unbelievable or embellished. For instance, her sassy attitude getting our heroine haphazardly through so many situations that could have easily turned incredibly sour – especially given the standing of women in Afghan society. Or when she is constantly saved in the nick of time, like when she is just about to close down the charity fearing a hate-fuelled backlash following 9/11 – but a phone call comes from a benevolent stranger with kind and encouraging words… in these instances it smells like some exaggerated plot devices have been slipped in here and there to help with its flow and stop the plot from sagging.
Sadeed’s inane naivety fits in this same bracket – she is enchanted by a field of beautiful flowers until someone tells her they are opium poppies, asking a destitute woman why she doesn’t try getting a job, demanding to be taken to Kabul during shelling and conflict despite several warnings from people that have actually been there. The sad thing is that this didn’t need to veer towards becoming some self-confessional pop tripe, although thankfully it doesn’t for the most part, it just stands out so much when it does.
At the end, Sadeed calls this a ‘humanitarian album’, which is apt – this is the focus and where its importance for readers lies. It seems much more than just her memoirs though, it also charts the stories and lives of the victims she came across that would have otherwise blended into the mass of statistics. The Guardian review terming these memoirs “adventures in charityland” seems a little harsh – it’s no literary treasure and while the writing may be clunky and the clichés dull, there are also some heavily emotional and thought-provoking passages. There’s no doubt that she has helped improve the lives of so many Afghan people, especially girls and women who were the most vulnerable and least cared about and it’s inspirational to see how much can be accomplished in this kind of adversity.