Afghanistan Unveiled In Three Eye-Opening Accounts Afghanistan is not an easy country to fully grasp. Author Nadeem Aslam recommends three books that help make the United States' involvement there — both before and after Sept. 11 — a little easier to understand.


Afghanistan Unveiled In Three Eye-Opening Accounts

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

With all the news about the war in Afghanistan, we have some recommendations for books about that country. These suggestions come from Nadeem Aslam whose latest novel, "The Wasted Vigil," takes place in post 9/11 Afghanistan. Here are three other books on Afghanistan.

Mr. NADEEM ASLAM (Author, "The Wasted Vigil"): Time's as complex as always. Present us with huge moral dilemmas and require minds that need to be sharp. The following three books deepen our understanding of the news reports from Afghanistan.

When the United States was attacked on 9/11, the reaction of many was: Who are these people? Why did they do this?

"The Looming Tower" by Lawrence Wright takes us back 30 years. It was 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The United States and other Western countries decided that billions of dollars would be funneled into Afghanistan to help the mujahedeen defeat the Soviets.

When the Soviets were defeated a decade later, the West turned its gaze away from the region and Afghan warlords plunged Afghanistan into a bloody civil war. And then 9/11 happened.

"The Looming Tower" is a very important book about consequences. This book charts it all: the Cold War years and how they were cold only for the privileged places of the planet, how the Cold War was actually a hot war in places like Afghanistan.

The book explains the creation of the Taliban and the gradual coming together of al-Qaida. If you have ever wondered who the suicide bombers are, where they came from, this is the book for you.

My next choice is "The Punishment of Virtue." Its author, Sarah Chayes, reported from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001. After decades of war, most of Afghanistan was like a shipwreck - in the words of W.H. Auden, a preserved disaster. And after the Taliban fell, she decided to stay, to see what could be salvaged from the wreck, to see if she could help with the rebuilding of that nation. She dressed like a man, met warlords, opium dealers, had meetings with President Karzai. And the result is this clear-eyed and extraordinary book.

My last selection is "Earth and Ashes" by Atiq Rahimi. This is a brilliant novel from a brilliant Afghanistani poet who now lives in Paris. "Earth and Ashes" tells the story of the years of the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. In it, an old man and his little grandson take a journey across the war-torn landscape to bring a piece of news to the boy's father who is a coal miner.

It is a tragic book, and it is a book about nobility. And I use these words in a sense that George Orwell used them when he said: A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph, but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.

The point of art and literature is to reduce the distance between two human beings. When I look at a beautiful mountain in Yellowstone Park, or a river in China, I don't say to myself, how beautiful the United States or China is. I say how beautiful this planet is. And similarly, these books help us see Afghanistan's problems as our own.

SIEGEL: That's Nadeem Aslam. His latest novel is called "The Wasted Vigil." The three books he recommended are "Earth and Ashes" by Atiq Rahimi, "The Punishment of Virtue" by Sarah Chayes, who once reported from Afghanistan for NPR, and "The Looming Tower" by Lawrence Wright. You can find more reading suggestions and end of the year lists of the best books of 2009 at

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.