Land of the High Flags: Afghanistan When the Going Was Good, by Rosanne Klass

by Joshua Foust on 11/11/2007 · 3 comments

What was lost could never be truly restored. The land had been depopulated, its people were dead, fled, or enslaved… The scholars were gone, the artists were gone, the poets, the heroes, the kings were gone, the land was stripped of life, the fields were ruined and barren. My horrors die with me, yours with you, but such horrors as these are ineffaceable, and heal, when they heal, like an amputation.

So writes Ms. Klass, one of the more vivid storytellers I’ve read, of Afghanistan’s curious architectural ineptitude during the 1950s. It was born, she says, from the unimagined horrors of Genghiz Khan, Tamerlane, and their hordes of destruction killing the very earth they rode upon. They evoked the same horror, she wrote, as the Nazis did to us—and that barely a decade after Germany’s defeat. Millions upon millions of people had their lives shattered, their very history burned away. The parallels to the 80s and 90s are, to be sure, startling, and depressing.

highflags.jpgBut Land of the High Flags is not about the civil wars, the Soviets, or the Taliban. When I met her at the Afghan Embassy last month, Ms. Klass wasn’t interested in discussing such things in too great detail. Rather, she was alight describing the Kabul that was, the one struggling with modernity and tradition, with the westerners slowly invading its spaces and the Pashtun nomads wandering its streets like they were never paved, the noble progressives desperately trying to lay the foundation of a modern state while the religious conservatives followed reluctantly behind. It was the story of her first trip to the Land, as the first female teacher at an all-boys school, at a time when most people couldn’t identify the place on a map.

What comes out the strongest, perhaps unintentionally, is grief. As the above passage indicates, Afghanistan has a particularly tragic past, an almost continuous record of horrendous loss and catastrophic destruction over the history of Man—what’s worse, such devastation was wrought by the hand of Man, and not Nature. It is the story of a land eternally torn back and forth by its more powerful neighbors (except for the brief, glorious Moghul empire), even if the first three-quarters of the 20th century were particularly calm.

Equally strong in Ms. Klass’ book, however, is the overwhelming sensation of beauty. Afghanistan is, she says, the face of the world—it’s people are of all colors and ethnicities (though, of course, Gul Baz Khan is worthy of particular merit). The landscape is unforgiving and painstakingly beautiful; at one point her endless commentaries upon the “glittering crystal landscape” of the mountains outside Jalalabad after a snowstorm prompt her husband to harshly rebuke her in recognition of the very real danger they were in of plummeting off a cliff to their deaths. Her description of the Buddhas of Bamiyan are of a similar ilk, as were the recordings of her trips into Paghman, Laghman, the Hazarajat, Charikar, and Bagram. Even in desolation, Afghanistan is a land of haunting beauty.

At heart, Ms. Klass is a feminist, though she would never admit as such. Doing her best to be keenly aware of and work within certain Afghan traditions and customs, she nevertheless pushes her students to think beyond the bounds of their culture, at least in minor and important ways: the formation of the reading room, and the committee to run it, was her crowning achievement. Learning to befriend the crusty old mullahs, or the curiosity that came from being one of the very few women in Kabul who could walk around unveiled (when the hospitality toward guests was not moderated by a feverish religious zealotry).

If nothing else, her account is worth reading for the sheer beauty of the prose: Ms. Klass has what can only be called a vivid tone, and the very ground she walks on seems to come alive in her able hands. The Afterword is perhaps the most lucid, as she describes her return to Kabul in the 60s. She was there to see the first stirrings of communist revolt in the Parliament, and was the unfortunate witness to further devastation from Islamabad. As she describes the country’s descent into madness, fostered by the Soviets, it is difficult not to feel the same wrench in the stomach she clearly does. Ms. Klass’ brush with Afghanistan profoundly changed her life, and to see that world she once knew vanish beneath the madness and horror of three decades of warfare and tragedy must have been deeply painful, though clearly not as much as for the Afghans themselves.

Yet Land of the High Flags is not a eulogy, it is a celebration—of what once was in Afghanistan, yes, and of the achievements of her students and friends (most of whom ascended into senior positions and, like Dr. Abdul Kayeum, were instrumental in tremendous acts of liberation like ending mandatory purdah and the forced veiling of women), but also of what Afghanistan is capable of. Underneath all the decades of misery and extremism lie a country still yearning to be a normal and boring country of the world, much like any other. In that sense, to get a feeling for what Afghanistan was like—back when there was a thriving Jewish community, before the Hazara were wantonly slaughtered by crazy-eyed Taliban, before the horrible exodus of Afghanistan’s greatest minds, only some of whom have filtered back.

Indeed, while her book cannot be called triumphant, it is that feeling of what is possible that makes Ms. Klass’ story bearable. Afghanistan used to be a land of tremendous promise, where the future was looked upon kindly. I wish it could become that way again. Perhaps, hopefully, one day it can be.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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AG November 13, 2007 at 1:07 pm

What is one to make of the Timurids inside Afghanistan as well? Shahrukh Khan rebuilt Herat as the center of culture and most of the glories of present day Herat go back to those days.

There might be slightly more to the story than blaming it all on the Mongols (not that they helped anything). Though I suspect this trope is necessary if you buy into the whole modernist Afghan nationalist project.

Rosanne Klass November 13, 2007 at 6:32 pm

I am certainly not going to take isue with such a complementary review, for which I most heartily thank you. I would, however, like to make a couple of corrections and one comment: the brilliant political figure who headed my school and later played a major role in the constitutional movement was Dr. Abdul Kayeum, not Mohammad Kayeum. Secondly, if you don’t mind, my name is spelled Rosanne. And finally, you can reassure AG that I did indeed give credit to Shahrukh, his wife, and his successors after recounting the depredations of Genghisi. But I am told that now, after the ruin inflicted by Soviet rockets, Herat is, alas, being rebuilt into a modern nonentity of concrete and tarmac.
I’m glad you liked the book. I hope that others will, too.
Rosanne Klass

Joshua Foust November 13, 2007 at 7:20 pm

Ms. Klass, thank you for the response and corrections. I will confess to having written the review at the end of a long day at work, and without the benefit of an editor to catch my frankly lazy mistakes (both are somewhat embarrassing). So I do apologize, and please note the errors were corrected.

And you’re right that Herat’s glorious architecture is being turned into something stale and lifeless. Some time ago, I mentioned in a post a story about Herat’s “narcotechiture,” or the hideous nouveau-riche buildings being erected by drug money. You may find it of interest.

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