What Life Under The Taliban Is Really Like
Do you know what is our problem? We know everything about our weapons, but we know nothing about how to use a telephone.”
If you’re reading this article, then you’re probably aware of the news dominating the world: The U.S is pulling out of Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani, their president, has fled the country. And after 20 years, the destructive Taliban has regained control in Afghanistan.
By now, most of us have seen the heartbreaking clips of people plummeting to death from planes. News of countries rescuing their citizens, diplomats leaving the country in a frenzy, are just some in the pool of a million struggles. But all of this raises just one big question:
How bad can life under the Taliban really be?
What is it that compels people to abandon their homes, their livelihood, and seek refuge in other countries? To get to the bottom this, I’ve curated a list of the best books that give us a peek into life under the Taliban regime.
1) A Thousand Splendid Suns
I ask that you avoid leaving this house without my company. That’s all. Simple, no?…Oh, and I also ask that when we are together, that you wear a burqa. For your own protection, naturally. So many lewd men in this town now. Such vile intentions, so eager to dishonour even a married woman.
Ah, to start with the most praiseworthy book. Khaled Hosseini is a man of exceptional talent, and that’s no secret us. He weaves words into stories like pearls into necklaces. And that's the skill that makes his books memorable and packed with emotions.
A Thousand Splendid Suns talks about a friendship that brews between Mariam, and her husband’s second wife, Laila. The portrait makes it impossible to believe that the same women who once wore skirts and went to offices, were barred from showing even their toes under the Taliban.
For instance, Rasheed’s words when the Taliban had just come to power, “At least the Taliban are pure and incorruptible. When they come, they’ll clean up this place. They’ll bring peace and order. People won’t get shot anymore going out for milk. No more rockets. Think of it… Let them come, I, for one, will shower them with rose petals.”
And a few pages later, “The University was shut down and its students sent home. Television screens were kicked in. Books, except the Koran, were burned in heaps, the stores that sold them closed down… They shut down the cinemas too.”
The contrast between life before and after the Taliban is so vivid, it’s painful to imagine what the people must have been through.
In a conversation, Rasheed justifies his second marriage by saying, “I’m giving you help around the house and her a sanctuary. Haven’t you noticed all the widows sleeping on the streets? They would kill for this chance. In fact this is… well, I’d say this is downright charitable of me. The way I see it, I deserve a medal.”
Rasheed's character mirrors the patriarchal society in Afghanistan. He is a constant reminder of the battles women have to fight even today, in the 21st century, to get basic human rights.
And at last, the extensive list of the Taliban's orthodox rules is penned down:
This is a rare book, and arguably the closest depiction of life under the Taliban. The raw emotions, sublime writing, and life-like characters built by Hosseini make it an unmissable read.
2) The Bookseller of Kabul
These men considered anyone who loved pictures or books, sculptures or music, dance, film or free thought enemies of society.
Journalist Åsne Seierstad lived in Afghanistan for 3 months, in 2001. Although Afghanistan was free from the Taliban at the time, Seierstad gives us a tale of all the scars their regime left behind.
Living in a bookseller’s house, she knew she wasn’t amidst a typical Afghan family. Most family members could read and write, and some even spoke fluent English. Seierstad retells how the bookseller was made to burn any and every page that portrayed living things—from post cards to reference books.
“You can burn my books, you can embitter my life, you can even kill me, but you cannot wipe out Afghanistan’s history.” These are the words of Sultan Khan, the bookseller of Kabul himself. Despite being threatened, interrogated, and even imprisoned, he continued to sell books to the people of Kabul.
A confession: When I picked up this book, I didn’t like it. Non-fiction isn’t my type. But once I was halfway through it, I realised how important it was for me to read this book.
It reminded me of how blessed we are to live in a democratic country. To have rights that we so often write off as “basic”. It is a portrait of all the hardships endured by people for whom a stable house, a basic education and free speech aren’t a birthright but mere fantasies.
3) Taliban: The Story Of The Afghan Warlords
We want to live a life like the Prophet lived 1,400 years ago, and jihad is our right.
Here’s another non-fiction in group. The book, as the name gives away, is about the Taliban’s origin, history and policies. Despite being an informative text, the unbelievable precision and detail with which it is written makes it a phenomenon.
Ahmed Rashid has been reporting on Afghanistan since 1979, and has been one of the few journalists to interview the Taliban's leaders.
Even before the Taliban first appeared, 90% of the Afghan girls and 60% of the boys were illiterate. Their gender policies worsened this crisis, as women were prohibited from working. The result was that most schools were shut down, given that a majority of the teachers were women.
“The Taliban just want to trample women into the dust. No woman, not even the poorest or most conservative wants the Taliban to rule Afghanistan. Islam says women are equal to men and respect should be given to women. But the Taliban’s actions are turning people even against Islam,” said one of the woman in Rashid’s book.
“Movies, TV, videos, music and dancing were all banned. 'Of course we realise that people need some entertainment but they can go to the parks and see the flowers, and from this they will learn about Islam'," said a leader to Rashid.
The book is teeming with such anecdotes and jaw dropping facts. For those with a pinch of patience and curiosity, this is is a must-read.
4) The Kite Runner
Returning to Kabul was like running into an old, forgotten friend and seeing that life hadn’t been good to him, that he’d become homeless and destitute.
I saved the best for the last. The Kite Runner is, in all honesty, the best book I have ever read. Hosseini possesses a knack for writing emotional dramas that no one else can. His stories shake your very marrow. You laugh with the characters, cry with them, and carry them with you forever.
I think I’ll stop before this becomes a Khaled Hosseini appreciation post. More on that later.
Another one of Khaled Hosseini’s spectacular works, The Kite Runner touches upon the themes of betrayal, love, redemption and friendship. If my continuous raving hasn’t convinced you yet, here goes the plot:
The book follows the friendship between our privileged protagonist Amir, and Hassan, a Hazara boy. As the political events unfold and one-eyed bullies cause complications, the boys are separated. Years fly by, and Amir builds himself a new life in America. A clean slate.
All of that, however, is forgotten when he gets a phone call from Afghanistan. A call that promises redemption. And so, he goes back to Afghanistan, only to find the past secrets clawing their way out.
A beggar in the book comments on the Taliban saying, “They drive around looking. Looking and hoping that someone will provoke them. Sooner or later, someone always obliges. Then the dogs feast and the day’s boredom is broken at last and everyone says ‘Allah-u-akbar!”
By the end, even the Taliban's leader admits that,'Sometimes, we broke down their doors and went inside their homes. And…I’d…I’d sweep the barrel of my machine gun around the room and fire and fire until the smoke blinded me… You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘liberating’ until you’ve done that, stood in a roomful of targets, let the bullets fly, free of guilt and remorse, knowing you are virtuous, good, and decent. Knowing you are doing God’s work. It’s breathtaking.”
Every time I re-read this book, it makes me sob. The damage done by the Taliban is beyond repair. And while you read this article, the Taliban is taking control over Afghanistan again. Books are being burnt and cinemas are being shut. Textbooks are being replaced by guns, and freedom is being replaced by imprisonment.
And that brings us to the end of this list. If there are any books I missed out on, or any books that you'd like to recommend, let me know in the comments! And if it's not too much, please share this post as much as possible!