The Sleeping Buddha

Fall 2007 CSANews Issue 64  |  Posted date : Oct 17, 2007.Back to list

With the heartbreaking images of grieving families and flag-draped coffins returning from Afghanistan, Canadians have more than an academic interest in that turbulent society.

In The Sleeping Buddha, journalist Hamida Ghafour gives us an evocative family memoir, and a portrait of a changing Afghanistan. She writes with the unique insights of an Afghan woman, descendant of generations of leaders, courtiers and intellectuals, but raised as a middle-class Canadian in Toronto.

As supporters of the royal family, Ghafour's family was forced to flee Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, and were given political asylum in Canada in 1985. Hamida returned to Afghanistan in 2003 as a reporter for the London Telegraph. She had studied journalism at Ryerson University and had written for the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail until 9/11, when she moved to London.

Ghafour was posted to Afghanistan by her paper, but she also went in search of her "Afghan-ness" – the heritage that she had ignored for so long. She shares the guilt of living in one of the richest countries of the world, after leaving one of the poorest.

Hamida describes her homeland as: "populated by many ghosts, lost in their past, unsure of the future, adrift in grief and sorrow."

There were some hopeful signs for a time, after the Taliban were forced out by Kabul by the Americans and Northern Alliance in November 2001. Young men flocked to join, "English and computer classes, the twin languages of success in the 21st century."

Society reverted to the more liberal times of Ghafour's grandparents in the 40s, when her grandmother Hamida wrote poetry and campaigned for the abolition of the veil. Ghafour's parents met in university in the 70s, when Kabul was a vibrant city in which women wore miniskirts and drove buses.

The Bonn Agreement of December 2001 (post 9/ll) established a road map for peaceful reconstruction and a functioning government. "Operation Enduring Freedom" was never meant to be an invasion in the traditional sense, but to organize international help to get Afghanistan back on its feet.

Unfortunately, the Pentagon under Bush/Cheney/Rice/Rumsfeld became focused on Iraq, and Afghanistan felt abandoned again – as it had been by the British in the 19th century and by the Americans after the Russians were defeated in the 20th century.

By the time our Canadian contingent arrived in Kandahar in 2006, Taliban insurgencies were becoming bolder and bolder. They were openly operating out of Pakistan's tribal areas.

Images of young men shaving their beards to greet Western liberators were now replaced by pictures of burning aid agencies. Ghafour makes the point that, "as the post-Taliban euphoria disappeared, she was watching two, very different universes unfold, and the priorities of Afghans were not always those of America, The United Nations, or its allies."

"To understand a man, you must know his memories, the same is true of a nation."Hamida uses this quote from actor Anthony Quayle to illustrate cultural misunderstandings. For instance, Americans didn't understand Afghan hospitality. Americans thought that because the Afghans invited them for a cup of green tea and they saw smiling children, the Afghans were on their side. "So when the same Afghans hosted insurgents, it seemed to the Americans to be evidence of the treacherous nature of the people." They didn't realize that Afghan hospitality has been honed into a survival tactic, over years of invasion.

Throughout The Sleeping Buddha, Ghafour presents an engaging cast of characters. We meet Abdul Basir Balouch, the Afghan Dr. Frasier Crane, who hosts the popular radio show "Good Morning Afghanistan." Abdul not only gets daily death threats from the Taliban, he also gets complaints from the Taliban, that they, "blow up all these buildings and get no credit for it."

Other chapters are devoted to Ghafour's cousin Shahida, who risks her life to wage a brave but unsuccessful parliamentary campaign, and Debbie, the American housewife, a "beautician without borders" who teaches Afghan women to become independent.

One of the most poignant characters is the dedicated archaeologist, Dr. Tarzi, who mourns the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas but continues to dig for his country's lost civilization, in the form of a grand, sleeping Buddha.

Currently, our Canadian service men and women are still making sacrifices to prevent the Taliban from returning to power and ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to a training camp for global jihad. Recently, however, there are reports that Harper's Conservative government plans to shift the Kandahar combat lead.

Hamida Ghafour agrees. She concludes that in the long term, Afghans will have to be responsible for their own security. They will have to prove once again that Afghanistan really is a nation, "not just an amalgam of feuding tribes."