During one controversy in 1959, after Queen Humaira and Princess Begum appeared in public with their faces uncovered – Ansary compares this to “the first lady attending the President’s State of the Union speech topless” – Prime Minister Daoud invited the country’s religious scholars to Kabul for a meeting. He wanted to do as they wished, he assured them, and follow the Sharia to the letter. He just couldn’t find the passage in the Koran that said a woman’s face must be covered in public. “They came,” writes Ansary. “They brought their books. They pored through them, fulminating and fuming. In the end they could not offer any indisputable scriptural support for the veiling practices traditional to Afghan society.”
These stories are heartbreaking because you know what didn’t happen next.
On one of the few occasions when he writes about his own experiences, he describes watching news coverage of Iran in 1978, just before the revolution. Women were shown wearing sombre dresses, long sleeves, black stockings and white headscarves. Ansary’s American friends “clucked” at the oppression. “I could not help remembering how,” he writes, “in Afghanistan, less than 20 years earlier, women who had dressed that way in public were making a shocking revolutionary gesture of feminist emancipation.”
These stories are important for anyone who still thinks that the Taliban are the only Afghans who want to keep women locked up and silent.
There are many such stories within the first 200 pages of this book, and I often felt that I was in the hands of a writer on a par with Peter Hopkirk or Barbara Tuchmann. I can’t think of another book that reveals as much about Afghanistan’s history while remaining such a pleasure to read.
Sadly that pleasure faded when I got to the 1980s, the Russian occupation, the mujahideen period and the rise of the Taliban. I was frustrated because, apart from a few passages – one a memorable account of life in Kabul when the mujahideen fractured, and started shelling each other indiscriminately, as told by Ansary’s own cousin, who was lucky to escape – these chapters felt like a simple catalogue of events, little different from the many I have read elsewhere. I was longing to know more about what this period was like for innocent Afghans trapped in the middle. I certainly didn’t need to read about Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones and the scandal-ridden President Clinton, just because the bombing of suspected al-Qaeda camps in Khost province, Afghanistan, in 1988 may have been a welcome distraction from all the bad headlines about a stained dress.
This is perhaps a criticism not of Ansary or his book but of his publisher’s description of it. “Games Without Rules tells this story from the inside looking out” is the promise on the dust cover, which left me expecting more than I got.
To be fair, Ansary never overplays his link to his country of birth and is honest enough to reveal, in the book’s closing pages, that he didn’t return until 2002, and then again in 2012. (When covering war, many writers are careful to leave the impression that they could have been there, witnessing the events they describe.) But he says almost nothing of either visit, which is disappointing. I suspect he did not write this book for Afghans, or dedicated Afghan watchers, who won’t learn much here. I suspect he wrote it for westerners who still believe that Afghanistan has never been conquered, that it has never left the Stone Age, that the Taliban are al-Qaeda and that Afghans will always fight, first foreigners, then each other, even if there is nothing to fight about. He is very good when debunking such myths.