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Saira Shah: Straddling the East/West Divide

The Storyteller's Daughter by Saira Shah (Alfred A. Knopf).

The Storyteller's Daughter by Saira Shah (Alfred A. Knopf).

NEW YORK, September 22, 2003 - Saira Shah first visited Afghanistan at age twenty-one and worked there for three years as a freelance journalist, covering the guerilla war against the Soviet occupation.

Later, working for Britain’s Channel 4 News, she covered some of the world’s most troubled spots, including Algeria, Kosovo, and Kinshasa, as well as Baghdad and other parts of the Middle East. Her documentary Beneath the Veil, which she made with producer/director Cassian Harrison and cinematographer James Miller, was broadcast on CNN.

Shah lives in London and is a freelance journalist. She was born in Britain of an Afghan family, the daughter of Idries Shah, a writer of Sufi fables. The Storyteller's Daughter is her first book.

Ms Shah read at the Asia Society in New York on September 22, 2003, and was interviewed by Asia Society shortly before her reading. Here she discusses, among other things, the different media she has worked with, her experiences in Afghanistan, and the themes that appear in The Storyteller's Daughter.

You have worked primarily with news and documentary films, but with the publication of The Storyteller's Daughter you have established yourself in an entirely new medium. Which would you say you are more comfortable in, and will you focus your future projects in one more than the other?

The strange thing is that when I did start writing, I actually found it in some ways the hardest thing I have ever done. But in other ways, it felt like this magical, exciting new thing that was just right for me. So the answer is that I would love to write more. I would even like to leap further and perhaps write novels. I have just got the bug!

As far as documentaries are concerned, I would have liked to carry on doing them half time, and then writing half time, but a really tragic thing happened, which is that my friend and business partner, James Miller, was killed earlier this year. Now I feel that it is not that I have ended my television career, but that it has ended me. I do not feel that I want to work with anyone else, and in television, you have to work with other people. So I would just like to try and write for the moment.

That said, I do intend to finish the documentary about children in the Gaza Strip that I was making with James. It was a grueling decision to make, that I would finish it, but I think it is the right thing to do. We are not filming anymore, we are editing it, and it is really his film, so it is a little tribute to him. It has been quite tough working on it in his absence, but I know it is the right thing to do.

In many ways though, I actually feel like just crawling under a rock, to be honest, and disappearing for a while. At the moment, I am a bit crazy, and I feel I need to get my head a bit together, and eventually return to writing.

Although your book confronts what you view as the frequently irreconcilable differences between East and West, it seems that you are pitching your story to an audience only in the West. Is that the audience you had in mind when you were writing?

Yes I guess it is. But let me say as well that I use the East/West dichotomy playfully as a metaphor in a way. So when I talk about my Eastern side and my Western side, in a way it is a metaphor for the kind of fact-finding literal part of your brain and the storytelling, creative part of your brain. Of course it would be a sweeping statement to say, "The West is like this" or "The East is like that." I suppose it is slightly playful as well because the book is about myths and stories, and the role of myths and stories, and the use of metaphor.

As far as audience is concerned, certainly most of the audience is Western and I did have them in mind since I was writing after the US-led military invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. All of a sudden the Taliban were out, and there was massive Western involvement in Afghanistan, a place they did not really know very much about. So the book was in a part a response to that.

I really feel quite passionately that the Americans have the wrong assumptions about what they should be doing there. It is almost as though they are solving the wrong problems in Afghanistan (for instance, chasing endlessly after the Taliban, or Osama bin Laden). These, it seems to me, are the wrong sorts of problems to be trying to sort out in Afghanistan.

I suppose as well that I was writing The Storyteller's Daughter after Beneath the Veil, which was made while the Taliban were still in power. When Beneath the Veil came out, it seemed fine, but then suddenly after September 11th, it was shown again and again on American television. I realized very quickly as I was watching it that while it was a good piece of work, I would have changed things in it if I had made it after September 11th.

In some ways, then, I really did feel that in this book I was trying to write to the West, almost like a letter to the West. On the other hand, I hope people in the East will enjoy it as well.

You mention, several times in the book, what you describe as the essential traits of "Afghanness," or "Afghaniyat," and these frequently consist of things like valor and honor, but also hospitality and generosity, all of which exist in what you alternately describe as patriarchal or martial Afghan society. To what extent do you think your experience in Afghanistan confirmed certain stereotypes of the place and its people?

It depends partly on what you want to see and I think the experience definitely opened a number of new things to me. Hopefully that is there in the book as well.

Initially, I went out looking for the myth: I wanted to find that the Afghans were a certain way, I wanted to find that they were martial, noble, generous, courageous, macho (the machismo that I had previously been exposed to was in a very acceptable form, although when I actually went there, I also saw it in its rather unacceptable form). Of course, this is a cartoon, if you like, which is probably one of the functions of a myth: to hold up these values so that people can aspire to them (or not).

My father was also, of course, just drawing me a crude cartoon map in a way. So when I went out there, I could compare it to the image I had, and the two images sort of merged together. I always saw the myth as a medieval map where sometimes it says, "Here be monsters" and sometimes the shape of the country is completely wrong, and occasionally, all of a sudden, it is absolutely right! So these myths did help me in a lot of ways, although in some ways they made things harder for me because I was trying to make this country conform to the shape of the myth (which is not really what myths are about now in any case).

How much did Afghanistan fit in with the myth? As much as a medieval map with "Here be monsters" and mountains and so on accords with the real world; in some ways, helpful, in some ways, completely different. When you encounter the real thing, you get increasing layers of subtlety; in fact, one of the things I had to let go off reasonably early was the myth and the romance that goes with it, so that I could experience a different kind of romance, perhaps of a more grown-up variety.

To be fair to my father, I don't think he ever intended me to take the myth literally. I think that was entirely my doing. I wanted this kind of romantic vision. This is the exile's condition, though, isn't it? If you grow up outside the place that you think of as your home, you want it to be impossibly marvelous.

There is also the question of how Afghan I am. When I was growing up, I had this secret doubt -- which I couldn't even admit to myself -- that I was not at all an Afghan because I was born in Britain to a mixed family. I would think, "I have grown up in Britain, maybe I am not really an Afghan, but if I am not really an Afghan, then maybe I'm a traitor!"

I had to work through all this nonsense, and soon realized that in some ways I am not Afghan, and in some ways - if loving a place and understanding some things about it count at all - I am an Afghan. It is much more subtle; reality is much more subtle than the myth.

Next: "There was basically a complete lack of interest in Afghanistan. Nobody wanted to know about the Taliban."