Saira Shah: Straddling the East/West Divide

The Storyteller's Daughter by Saira Shah (Alfred A. Knopf).

NEW YORK, September 22, 2003 - Saira Shah first visited Afghanistan at age twenty-one and worked there for three years as a freelance journalist, covering the guerilla war against the Soviet occupation.

Later, working for Britain’s Channel 4 News, she covered some of the world’s most troubled spots, including Algeria, Kosovo, and Kinshasa, as well as Baghdad and other parts of the Middle East. Her documentary Beneath the Veil, which she made with producer/director Cassian Harrison and cinematographer James Miller, was broadcast on CNN.

Shah lives in London and is a freelance journalist. She was born in Britain of an Afghan family, the daughter of Idries Shah, a writer of Sufi fables. The Storyteller's Daughter is her first book.

Ms Shah read at the Asia Society in New York on September 22, 2003, and was interviewed by Asia Society shortly before her reading. Here she discusses, among other things, the different media she has worked with, her experiences in Afghanistan, and the themes that appear in The Storyteller's Daughter.

You have worked primarily with news and documentary films, but with the publication of The Storyteller's Daughter you have established yourself in an entirely new medium. Which would you say you are more comfortable in, and will you focus your future projects in one more than the other?

The strange thing is that when I did start writing, I actually found it in some ways the hardest thing I have ever done. But in other ways, it felt like this magical, exciting new thing that was just right for me. So the answer is that I would love to write more. I would even like to leap further and perhaps write novels. I have just got the bug!

As far as documentaries are concerned, I would have liked to carry on doing them half time, and then writing half time, but a really tragic thing happened, which is that my friend and business partner, James Miller, was killed earlier this year. Now I feel that it is not that I have ended my television career, but that it has ended me. I do not feel that I want to work with anyone else, and in television, you have to work with other people. So I would just like to try and write for the moment.

That said, I do intend to finish the documentary about children in the Gaza Strip that I was making with James. It was a grueling decision to make, that I would finish it, but I think it is the right thing to do. We are not filming anymore, we are editing it, and it is really his film, so it is a little tribute to him. It has been quite tough working on it in his absence, but I know it is the right thing to do.

In many ways though, I actually feel like just crawling under a rock, to be honest, and disappearing for a while. At the moment, I am a bit crazy, and I feel I need to get my head a bit together, and eventually return to writing.

Although your book confronts what you view as the frequently irreconcilable differences between East and West, it seems that you are pitching your story to an audience only in the West. Is that the audience you had in mind when you were writing?

Yes I guess it is. But let me say as well that I use the East/West dichotomy playfully as a metaphor in a way. So when I talk about my Eastern side and my Western side, in a way it is a metaphor for the kind of fact-finding literal part of your brain and the storytelling, creative part of your brain. Of course it would be a sweeping statement to say, "The West is like this" or "The East is like that." I suppose it is slightly playful as well because the book is about myths and stories, and the role of myths and stories, and the use of metaphor.

As far as audience is concerned, certainly most of the audience is Western and I did have them in mind since I was writing after the US-led military invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. All of a sudden the Taliban were out, and there was massive Western involvement in Afghanistan, a place they did not really know very much about. So the book was in a part a response to that.

I really feel quite passionately that the Americans have the wrong assumptions about what they should be doing there. It is almost as though they are solving the wrong problems in Afghanistan (for instance, chasing endlessly after the Taliban, or Osama bin Laden). These, it seems to me, are the wrong sorts of problems to be trying to sort out in Afghanistan.

I suppose as well that I was writing The Storyteller's Daughter after Beneath the Veil, which was made while the Taliban were still in power. When Beneath the Veil came out, it seemed fine, but then suddenly after September 11th, it was shown again and again on American television. I realized very quickly as I was watching it that while it was a good piece of work, I would have changed things in it if I had made it after September 11th.

In some ways, then, I really did feel that in this book I was trying to write to the West, almost like a letter to the West. On the other hand, I hope people in the East will enjoy it as well.

You mention, several times in the book, what you describe as the essential traits of "Afghanness," or "Afghaniyat," and these frequently consist of things like valor and honor, but also hospitality and generosity, all of which exist in what you alternately describe as patriarchal or martial Afghan society. To what extent do you think your experience in Afghanistan confirmed certain stereotypes of the place and its people?

It depends partly on what you want to see and I think the experience definitely opened a number of new things to me. Hopefully that is there in the book as well.

Initially, I went out looking for the myth: I wanted to find that the Afghans were a certain way, I wanted to find that they were martial, noble, generous, courageous, macho (the machismo that I had previously been exposed to was in a very acceptable form, although when I actually went there, I also saw it in its rather unacceptable form). Of course, this is a cartoon, if you like, which is probably one of the functions of a myth: to hold up these values so that people can aspire to them (or not).

My father was also, of course, just drawing me a crude cartoon map in a way. So when I went out there, I could compare it to the image I had, and the two images sort of merged together. I always saw the myth as a medieval map where sometimes it says, "Here be monsters" and sometimes the shape of the country is completely wrong, and occasionally, all of a sudden, it is absolutely right! So these myths did help me in a lot of ways, although in some ways they made things harder for me because I was trying to make this country conform to the shape of the myth (which is not really what myths are about now in any case).

How much did Afghanistan fit in with the myth? As much as a medieval map with "Here be monsters" and mountains and so on accords with the real world; in some ways, helpful, in some ways, completely different. When you encounter the real thing, you get increasing layers of subtlety; in fact, one of the things I had to let go off reasonably early was the myth and the romance that goes with it, so that I could experience a different kind of romance, perhaps of a more grown-up variety.

To be fair to my father, I don't think he ever intended me to take the myth literally. I think that was entirely my doing. I wanted this kind of romantic vision. This is the exile's condition, though, isn't it? If you grow up outside the place that you think of as your home, you want it to be impossibly marvelous.

There is also the question of how Afghan I am. When I was growing up, I had this secret doubt -- which I couldn't even admit to myself -- that I was not at all an Afghan because I was born in Britain to a mixed family. I would think, "I have grown up in Britain, maybe I am not really an Afghan, but if I am not really an Afghan, then maybe I'm a traitor!"

I had to work through all this nonsense, and soon realized that in some ways I am not Afghan, and in some ways - if loving a place and understanding some things about it count at all - I am an Afghan. It is much more subtle; reality is much more subtle than the myth.

Next: "There was basically a complete lack of interest in Afghanistan. Nobody wanted to know about the Taliban."

When you wrote The Storyteller's Daughter, Afghanistan was at the center of global political events. To what extent, if any, did you intend your writing to participate in the production of knowledge about Afghanistan at this time? Did the political context in which you were writing your book shape what you wrote at all?

Yes, the political context certainly influenced the things I wrote. There was quite a passionate plea, more towards the end of the book, on behalf of Afghanistan. Already I was beginning to think that history is going around again with people saying, "We will never forget about Afghanistan, it is the most important place in the world." But then you could almost literally see people forgetting.

One of the other things about Afghanistan is that it is extremely complex and difficult and nuanced. You cannot simply go in, sort out the place and go out again. Also of course, the West's cultural values are so different from Afghan cultural values. At what point do you bash in Western cultural values? And at what point does that come back and bite you?

So it is not just a matter of forgetting, it is a matter of just getting tired. I was really afraid of that happening and I am still. I am afraid it is already happening. I am still angry about that: both superpowers systematically trashed the country, and just walked away. They never thought there would be any blowback whatsoever. You cannot do that, because human suffering has a way of spiraling out of control, not only on a political or religious level, but simply on a human level. I really do passionately believe that human beings must care about each other for their own sakes. As Saadi reminds us: "We are all limbs from one body." This was definitely something that the book tried to get across.

I should say too that post-9/11, I did not want to write a journalistic account of Afghanistan. I did not want to do facts and figures. I wanted to write a book that people who would otherwise never read a book about Afghanistan would pick up and be able to enjoy and get things out on the level of a story. But that would also inform them - though not necessarily in a factual way - about the spirit of the place, or just give them something of the quality of the myth that I grew up with, because that myth certainly helped me fall in love with this place that I had never seen. I would like people in the West to feel the same. There has been so much written about Afghanistan and how terrible it is, how they are all killing each other, and the Taliban are awful and oppress women and so on. I would love people to see a little bit of what I love about Afghanistan too. So this was another aspect of the book.

I also thought that there had been enough political books written about the war, and Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. I did not want to do it that way.

Would it be accurate to say that your documentary, Beneath the Veil, deliberately portrayed particularly sensational and, in a sense, apolitical images of Taliban violence in order to bring world attention to the suffering of the Afghan people?

What I would say is that Beneath the Veil was very much a product of its time. In the context in which we made this documentary, there was basically a complete lack of interest in Afghanistan. Nobody wanted to know about the Taliban. We went without a brief for the documentary except to find out what the Taliban were doing. I had read up loads before I went and I was still absolutely appalled by what I saw. During the course of the shoot, we started off with the three little girls whose mother had been a victim of Taliban atrocities. Towards the end, I went undercover. We actually filmed it in a slightly different order than how it appears in the documentary. So it was absolutely genuine, from the heart, the things we reported and the things we saw. The scene, for instance, with the little girls whose mother had been killed: after witnessing that I really felt it is the duty of a human being to bloody well pay attention if another human being is in that kind of state. We all really felt that.

It was a really great team though: there were three of us and it was a really long shoot: Cassian Harrison, James Miller, and myself. By the end of the filming, we were - all three of us - absolutely furious: we were furious with the Taliban and what they were doing, we were also furious with the West for not paying any attention to a situation that they had actually helped to create.

So Beneath the Veil was a cry. We made the strongest film we could possibly make to try and get attention. Having said that, there was journalistic rigor; we did not make anything up. Everything we put in was true. The passion you see in the film came from just the frustration of seeing this kind of suffering and knowing that people did not care about it.

You have suggested that if the events of September 11th, 2001, had preceded the making of your documentary Beneath the Veil, you would have made a number of changes. What kinds of things did you have in mind?

We started filming in 2000 and ended in 2001. It was extraordinary that we made this documentary just months before Afghanistan was to become the center of world attention. It was broadcast first in July 2001.

The main thing we would have changed, had we known what was to happen, concerned the Northern Alliance. We would have added more about the Northern Alliance.

At the time, especially in the opposition-held North, we were in this tiny little pocket, and as the Taliban had moved up north, they had displaced people from all the other ethnic groups. All these groups had been pushed into a corner and were then slammed up against the Tajik border. We went and saw the Northern Alliance in their trenches and they were listless and completely useless. I thought to myself then that it was just a matter of time, not very much time at that, that the Taliban were going to take this last pocket and when they do, there are tens of thousands of people that they are going to slaughter. And there is nowhere else for these people to go.

Had I known that the Northern Alliance would ever come back and be a proper fighting force, we would have put in a lot more caveats about the Northern Alliance. I think again this is the problem of Afghanistan: just because one side is terrible does not mean at all that the other side is good or heroic. But that is just the default, probably human mechanism: you want there to be heroes and villains. In Afghanistan, it does not work that way.

We would also have put in a lot more history. That, in any case, is the weakest part of Beneath the Veil and again it is because we wanted to make a film that would really strike people. History became very important again after 9/11. Part of me was really hoping that they would not show Beneath the Veil after 9/11, but of course it was shown again and again on a loop here in the US. I wish I had been able to re-cut it or do something with it, but that was not possible.

I do think that Beneath the Veil was a strong enough piece of journalism so it bore up at the time. I did a lot of interviews then as well and I made these points because I also feel they needed to be made in the new context in which the documentary was being aired.

Next: "My two favorite authors in the world are both American: JD Salinger and James Thurber."

I would like now to turn again to your interest in writing, and the shift from news and documentaries to this new form. Your father, Idries Shah, seems to have played an important role in your decision to write.

He was a huge influence on my life, but obviously not a direct influence on my decision to go to Afghanistan because he tried to get me not to go!

At the same time though, my father, my aunt, and my grandfather were the three real storytellers about Afghanistan during my childhood.

Sadly, my father is no longer alive, I would love to know what he thought about the book. I think some things in the book would really annoy him but I think others he would really like. In any case, I know he would be proud of me.

In a way, it really amazes me that I had not written before. I actually grew up - and this is probably why I never wrote a book before - hearing, from the time that I was six, "You're going to be a writer when you grow up." And I remember thinking that I would not be a writer at all; in fact I would go off to dangerous places, to Afghanistan, and have adventures, and so on.

I think it probably is the thing that I should naturally do, or at least it feels as though it is. It might be wrong, but it feels right. It sort of feels like the thing I was kind of putting off all of my life really.

Who are the other influences on your work, in the different media in which you've worked?

There are loads of people on the reporting side, who are mostly British. There are lots of really good foreign correspondents whom I have had the privilege of knowing and working with. I come out of a news background (with Channel 4 News). Jon Snow, for example, was a great reporter and an anchor for the news show I worked on, and has been a friend and an influence. I think John Simpson, whom I don't know personally, is a fantastic reporter and an excellent example of a really good person.

Other names I mention people here in the US may not recognize, like Alan Little, a really fine reporter. A very good friend is Gaby Rado, whom I worked with on Channel 4 News, who sadly died in March this year in Iraq.

I was very lucky when I joined Channel 4 News, because I joined as a producer, and was able to work with some really fine reporters. I learnt how to be rigorous in reporting by seeing their work.

As far as writers go, I like loads of people, but my two favorite authors in the world are both American: JD Salinger and James Thurber. I am not sure if they have influenced me, but I really love them, I think they're both fantastic.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.