Book Review : Romantic Look at War in Afghanistan

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The Wind Blows Away Our Words by Doris Lessing (Vintage: $5.95, paperback; 171 pages)

Doris Lessing puts her literary gifts to work as a publicist for the Afghan resistance in “The Wind Blows Away Our Words”--but I’m afraid she does no real service to either her literary reputation or the cause of the moujahedeen. Rather, she manages to portray herself as a slightly eccentric and hopelessly romantic British lady with a taste for the exotic that overwhelms not only her sense of proportion but her sense of history too.

Lessing traveled to Pakistan in 1986 on behalf of Afghan Relief, an organization that raises money for the Afghan resistance fighters and the millions of Afghan refugees who now live in Pakistan. Like many other Westerners, she made the rounds of Afghan notables in Peshawar; unlike other Western reporters, she did not accompany the moujahedeen into Afghanistan.

Lessing’s book begins and ends with a couple of aggravating and even insulting digressions on the nature of catastrophe in world history and mankind’s indifference to suffering and injustice. She devotes a long, rambling introductory chapter to the mythic figure of Cassandra and the futility of correct prophecy, and she likens the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union to such ills and disasters as topsoil erosion, the flu epidemic of 1918 and the threat of a new Ice Age.

And she closes her book with a truly incredible (and, for me, infuriating) chapter in which she starts by bemoaning the insensitivity of Western media to the plight of Afghan refugees and ends up, remarkably, in a tirade against the memorialization of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust: “Is it not time that the Germans who were the first to fight Hitler . . . were counted, and honored, and their story at last told?”


Almost from the beginning, Lessing allows us to understand that she is utterly smitten with the moujahedeen , which is the only way to explain some of the silly remarks in her tract: “Why are the Afghans so very good-looking, all of them?” she ponders. “A reply can be a grim one: that so many of them die in their first year, we are seeing the survival of the fittest and handsomest.” She is distracted, too, by the appearance of the Pakistanis: “The characteristic of the Pakistanis seems imperturbable, good-natured indolence. Charm. They are a charming lot. Charm oozes from friendly brown eyes, smiles, faces.”

Lessing’s account of her travels among the Afghan refugees tends toward the picturesque (“Peshawar, an enticing town born to be the setting for a Bogart movie . . .”) and the anecdotal, as if she were narrating a slide show in someone’s living room.

Lessing tries to debunk the Western perception of the Afghan resistance as a fundamentalist Islamic holy war (which is precisely how the moujahedeen describe it)--and tries, too, to downplay bitter feuding that plagues the various political and religious factions. She fails, despite herself. Will it be difficult for the moujahedeen to stop fighting and accept peace, Lessing asks one fighter: “Yes, very difficult; they are natural warriors,” he says. “When this war ends there will be a period when personal and tribal accounts will be settled.”

For Lessing, the question of Islamic attitudes toward women is troublesome but not insurmountable. She concedes that her party had to search at great length to find an Afghan woman who would agree to be photographed without her husband’s permission and without a veil, but she also tells with perfect credulity of a mysterious (and wholly elusive) female commander called Maryam and her all-female resistance army who have emerged from the isolation of strict Islamic practice to fight the Russians.

No one else seems to take the notion seriously. “We asked every moujahid we met about her but they only smiled politely,” Lessing reports. “It is interesting that even the women members of our party disbelieved in the existence of Maryam, smiling with the same polite disbelief as the moujahedeen , saying ‘It is enough that there is such a myth. A woman’s myth.’ ” But Lessing is still convinced: “I believe it. There was too much detail in the story for it to be a myth.”

These are the words of a true believer, of course, and Lessing’s book is an unapologetic work of public relations--indeed, it is very nearly a fund-raising brochure. But “The Wind Blows Away Our Words” is one tract that left me less convinced of the rightness of its cause than when I picked it up.