Saturday, March 23, 2013

"Sikander" (M. Salahuddin Khan): the human cost of war

With the ten-year politics of the moment's history obscuring the meaning of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it becomes increasingly difficult to consider the human cost of these conflicts. 
Beyond the curtain of "shock and awe" in 2003 there came the front-page unmasking of diplomatic and state secrets through Wikileaks, the dissembling of facts about the existence of weapons, and an ensuing political battle of wills. As the memory of the United States becomes cloudy about its own recent history, the people of Afghanistan and Iraq must still face every day's challenges in a battle-torn landscape.

For most Americans now, the resolution of conflict in both of these countries seems more and more distant and perplexing, and the cost less personal, with each week that passes. 

Sikander is the story of one 17-year-old Pakistani boy and his journey from a child's view of war to a man's understanding of peace. If that sounds like a time-worn tale, it's a well-told one here: the novel turns 25 years of recent Afghan and Pakistani history into a fast-paced story of family, relationships, separation and duty that readers will find familiar. It is 1986: Sikander Khan is a young student dreaming of life in America who joins with Pakistani mujahideen to fight the Russians in neighboring Afghanistan. 

Returning home, he faces another kind of conflict between his heart and his head, as well as the developing political unrest brought by the rise of the Taliban who begin to reshape daily life in his home of Laghar Juy. Over a decade, as political events force Sikander Khan and his family out of their home and into exile, the story becomes a tangle of conflict, separation and chaos against a backdrop of events over which he and his young family have no control.

Then Osama Bin Laden strikes at the World Trade Center, and Sikander's hopes for a life in America are changed beyond recognition.

M. Salahuddin Khan, the author, has a quick way of weaving the complex story around this simple personal drama, even as the locales and cultures of Afghanistan and Pakistan seem remote and unfamiliar. There is much about regional and world politics, although Khan never lets the action stop: like any good storyteller he knows that the important thing is what happens next, and the writer seldom lets the politics get in the way of the story.

For casual readers -- and Khan provides a great service here -- the novel gives a detailed look at several Islamic cultures, providing a basis for understanding of the religious practices that inform decisions in daily life, and descriptions of events that are already receding into history and may only be echoes of newspaper headlines.

In its politics as well as the day-to-day relationships of Sikander and his family, the action is written without sentimentality or pretense. While the unfolding family drama is told warmly and with great affection, the excesses of the Taliban regime are described with an unblinking eye:
By September of that year, with the exception of Ahmed Shah Massoud's militia and the Panjshir Valley territory it held to the north, the country finally succumbed to the Taliban. One of their early actions after having captured Kabul was to seek retribution for Najibullah's excesses. Although he and his brother had taken refuge in the UN compound in Kabul, Taliban forces summarily dragged them both from the compound, executed them, and hanged their bodies from the frame of a traffic kiosk. This form of execution and corpse display became the gruesome trademark of Taliban retribution for others to beware.
The action sweeps from Afghanistan to Guantanamo, Applecross in Wales to Durham, North Carolina -- here the forces of war and displacement and necessary duty are strong and unstoppable. Just as the novel seems to be coming to a kind of settled peace at last, there's a final and unexpected twist that underscores the story's theme of life during a time of conflict.

In describing one man's attempt at reconciliation between his duty and his conscience, the author shows us that our own sense of right and wrong may sweep us along with a force even greater than war -- a force just as strong, and just as unstoppable.

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