A House White With Sorrow: Ballad for Afghanistan
On Christmas Eve, 1979, the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan with tanks and aircraft that entered by roads and airports built with Soviet and U.S. aid, dragging the country into desperate conflicts that continue today.
A House White with Sorrow opens in the early months of that invasion, with Alauddin Sayyid, educated in the West and compelled by blood and custom to join his countrymen in the remote mountains, where he faces the horrors of war: children blown to shreds by bombs and mines; families torn apart by ideologies; the harrowing night raids and terrible battles of men in turbans and sandals with CIA-supplied rocket launchers against Soviet military might from the air.
Alauddin has left his American wife, Carey Crowell, in a refugee camp surrounded by drug- and gunrunners in Peshawar, Pakistan, where she tries to teach exiled children increasingly battered by ignorance and fundamentalism, and communicates with her husband by a process the couple calls the Trauma Express, a courier system in which letters are transported through the bodies of the slain or wounded.
How have they come this? How did they become pawns in the adventures of competing superpowers?
A House White with Sorrow navigates a period from the early Cold War into the 1990s, through the lives of two highly placed diplomatic families: the Crowells, from the United States, and the Sayyids, from Afghanistan, seamlessly revealed through journal entries, letters, folktales and poetry. The journals and letters frame the novel’s chronology, juxtaposing the rich, magical land of Darius, Alexander, Babur and Genghis Khan with increasing cynicism as the U.S. and USSR exploit Afghanistan, a perfect listening post for spying on one another. Struggling under international tensions, espionage that infects her daily life and heavy expectations about the behavior of a diplomat’s wife, Jeanette Crowell is by turns irreverent, shrewish, comic, giddily drunk and finally heroic, the moral pivot at the center of all the characters’ allegiances.
Her strongest alliance is with Anique Sayyid, Akbar’s French-born wife, who occasionally wears a burqa and serves baguettes, English preserves and sometimes cognac from a locked embassy cabinet. The profound connection between Jeanette and Anique brings their children, Carey and Alauddin, together in friendship and then in love. Carey, restless, unsettled, is “Mort Crowell’s gypsy girl,” seeking connection with her father and place while taunting her mother by adopting the rituals and garb of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Alauddin and his brother Shaer are expected to bring Western progress to their homeland, even as they live strictly by ancient tribal codes of honor.
With the onset of the jihad, holy war against the Soviets, Alauddin and Shaer take separate, hostile paths: Alauddin as a doctor in the field; Shaer a Marxist and eventual political prisoner.
Through revolutions, assassinations and invasion, through jihad, escape and painful exile are woven the actual and fascinating characters who drove Afghanistan’s fate. Alive on these pages are Zahir Shah, “the king who reigned but would not rule”; his cousin and nemesis, Da’ud Khan, playing the superpowers against one another; the Soviet collaborators, Karmal, Taraki and Amin; the Soviet operatives; the Shah of Iran; the American agents whose activities led to Islamic blowback, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, which in turn led to the tragedy of 9/11, then to this moment, nations and people forever altered in a war now in its third decade.
- Jennifer Heath, February 2011
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