After decades of indifference, the West’s attention is now focusing on Afghanistan in an unpredecented way. Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner is the first novel written for children set in that country and reflecting life under Taliban rule. How well and how accurately does it convey this experience? Shereen Pandit explores. <!--break-->
With Afghanistan dominating the media, books for children about that benighted country are imperative.
The Breadwinner is about an Afghan child and her family living under the Taliban regime. Young Parvana comes from an educated, middle class family impoverished by war. Under the Taliban, her teacher father, crippled by the bomb which destroyed his school, sells in the marketplace everything that the family can spare, as well as his ability to read and write for the illiterate. Her writer mother, like all women, is forbidden by the Taliban to work. Parvana and her female siblings are forbidden to attend school. Her mother and older sister are confined to the home because the Taliban has ordered women to remain indoors. They are required to wear an all-enveloping burqa and be male-escorted if they need to venture beyond their homes. The burqa makes it difficult for them to do outdoor chores, so Parvana has to do them. Only Parvana can safely help her father to and from the marketplace. When Parvana’s father is arrested by the Taliban for being Western educated, the family faces starvation, so Parvana, disguised as a boy, has to take his place.
The story itself is straightforward and its theme – a child’s courage and survival in difficult circumstances – is not new. The Breadwinner takes its place alongside such important novels for young people, about war, oppression, starvation, asylum-seeking, as all Beverley Naidoo’s books, Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella, Bernard Ashley’s Little Soldier, Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy and Nancy Farmer’s A Girl Named Disaster, to name but a few. What is new is its setting – Afghanistan – and its exposure of the horrors visited by the Taliban on the lives of Afghan people, especially the educated and women.
With this central thrust, the novel is clearly political. Published as it is in the midst of a war by the most powerful nation in the world against this impoverished country, with intensive media coverage of that war, of Afghanistan and its recent history, in the midst too, of the rise of Islamaphobia, it needs to be politically and historically balanced. That it is for children cannot absolve it from this. In fact it heightens the need.
It is here that I have some reservations about the book. There is some imbalance in the way it presents Afghanistan’s past in relation to its present, and in the way in which it allocates responsibility for what has befallen ordinary families like Parvana’s.
Aghanistan is presented as a country of fertile farms and modern infrastructure reduced to rubble by wars engendered first by the evil Soviets, then the evil Taliban. Before this, its people lived peacefully, prosperously and happily in the sunshine amidst all the mod-cons. Issues like the fact that Parvana’s parents must have been educated under the Soviets (and indeed that Parvana went to school under them), that all who pay Parvana’s father to read to them could not be illiterate only due to the Taliban’s short rule, are glossed over. Such intrusions of the writer’s hostility to both the Soviets and the Taliban endanger the credibility of the story.
US support for the Taliban?
My daughter read the book and asked several questions – mainly how could a country have been taken over by a bunch of illiterate thugs, as Parvana’s father calls the Taliban, if the majority of people were literate and living in the comfort which Parvana’s family enjoyed before the wars and the Taliban. If Parvana’s family’s experiences were typical of most families in Afghanistan, then why could not the proud Afghan people, defeaters of so many oppressors and would-be oppressors, overthrow them. The book’s explanation of the Taliban’s rise is questionable: ‘After the Soviets left, the people who had been shooting at the Soviets decided they wanted to keep shooting at something, so they shot at each other.’ Thus, the Afghan people are responsible for the rise of the victors of this squabbling, the Taliban.
The Author’s Note is unhelpful in restoring balance. In the body of the book, Afghan children aspire to escape to the West. In the Author’s Note, the role of the West in the war against the ‘pro-Soviet’ government, in the rise of the Taliban, its failure to do anything about the plight of Afghan people, is briefly glossed over. My daughter asked why America let the Taliban take over? Why they fought against a Soviet-backed government, one at least under which Parvana’s parents could live as they chose, could be educated, could work regardless of gender, and not against the Taliban?
For children, one cannot leave such questions unanswered in a book like this. Not today. If one does, then what purports to be a fictionalised account of the true sufferings of Afghans under the Taliban, comes over very much as a Westerner’s view of how bad the Taliban was, how good life was without it.
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis is published by Oxford (0 19 275211 1) at £4.99.
Shereen Pandit was a lawyer, political activist and trade unionist in apartheid South Africa and came to Britain at the height of the uprisings in 1986 as a political exile. She has worked in anti-apartheid and amongst refugees for many years whilst reading for a Ph.D. in labour law. For the past six years she has worked in London as a writer, and has also taught English and creative writing to refugees, mainly women, from many countries.