Kabul Expat is back! Inspired in part by Christian Bleuer’s 29 Tips for Bad Writing on Afghanistan, and most especially by Binyavanga Wainaina’s brilliantly sarcastic “How to Write about Africa,” Registan.net’s most favoritest anonymous expatriate has created a mad-lib anti-guide for how to write an article about Afghanistan. We all wonder: who’s up for How to Write About Kyrgyzstan (or Central Asia?) –eds.
How to Write About Afghanistan
Always use the word ‘war-torn’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘tribal,’ ‘Taliban,’ ‘corrupt,’ and ‘Sharia.’ Also useful are words such as ‘shuras,’ ‘fighters,’ ‘refugees’ and ‘insurgency.’ Do not distinguish between different ethnic groups with different languages, religions and histories, or regions with different landscapes and livelihoods. If people in Kandahar tell you something, assume people in Kabul feel the same way, and vice versa. Whenever possible, mention Pashtunwali. (Note: you do not need to understand what Pashtunwali is. You get points for mentioning it anyway.)
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted Afghan accompanying your article. (Make an exception for Afghans you want to be president.) A stoned cop, a woman in a burka begging, a scowling man holding a Kalashnikov: use these. If you must include an Afghan who is not miserable or threatening, make sure you get an elderly farmer with very few teeth, or a little girl holding a baby goat.
In your text, treat Afghanistan as if it were one indistinct mass. It is hot and dry all year, and full of angry, heavily-armed religious fanatics who spend all their time torching girls’ schools and kidnapping Western journalists. Or if it’s winter it’s cold and remote, with everyone dying of starvation or in childbirth, as, your bleak description should imply, they always have and always will.
Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Afghanistan is big: thirty-four provinces, 30-somehting million people who are too busy embezzling and warring and plotting your death to read your article. The country is full of booming cities, small market towns, lush farmlands, fishing villages and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions stark and sinister and imprecise. Never, under any circumstances, mention peaceful areas like Bamiyan, except on those rare occasions you need a line or two about Buddha statues.
Make sure you show how Afghans have violence and xenophobia deep in their souls, and reject absolutely anything introduced from the outside. Do not mention Afghanistan’s long periods of peace or experiments with democratization; constant war is the Afghan way, along with tribalism, misogyny, and illiteracy. Make sure you show that you are able to withstand such harshness and live amongst such difficult people —because you care.
Taboo subjects: middle class Afghans, secular Afghans, happy marriages between Afghans (unless a death is involved), references to Afghan intellectuals, honest politicians or entrepreneurs (unless you want them to be president), or successful advocacy campaigns by Afghan feminists.
Your Afghan characters may include bearded Talibs, tribal elders, comical cab drivers, and former warlords living in opulent palaces. Or corrupt politicians, inept fixers, and heroin addicts.
The Modern Afghan is a man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Afghanistan. He wears a shiny suit and pointy shoes, and owns five mobile phones with Bollywood ringtones. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs to report on how awful Afghanistan is. Or he is an ex-Taliban ambassador who now owns an iPhone. Mention the iPhone several times. (Note: the Modern Afghan is never, ever a woman.)
Bad Western characters may include aid workers who drink, sleep around or do drugs, USAID contractors, Italians, and employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the military –but do not specify which one. If you can’t make Afghans’ innate backwardness work in your narrative, just blame the greedy West for Afghanistan’s situation. But do not be too specific.
You’ll need to mention a nightclub called Martini, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Afghans, spies and aid workers listen to horrible music and do illegal things. (Note: leave out the evil nouveau riche Afghans if you mentioned earlier in your text that foreigners and Afghans never mix.)
Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the Afghan characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Afghanistan. Afghan characters should be hardened, stubborn, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.
Always end your book with an obscure Soviet or British general saying something about how Afghanistan is a land of ferocious, fanatical, crafty people capable of fighting forever.
Remember: you’re an expert.