Since the early 2000s, no one in the United States quite escapes references to Afghanistan. I’m among the majority of US citizens, I’m afraid to say – I know next to nothing about the country or its people beyond the headlines. I hate not knowing. A recent expedition to the library revealed Nelofer Pazira’s A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan, and I instantly snatched it up. My hope was to find a story free of government propaganda and the media’s skewed perspective. Pazira’s detailed accounts of her life in and flight from Afghanistan, paired with her outstanding storytelling, offered even more than I’d dreamed of finding.
In A Bed of Red Flowers, author Nelofer Pazira opens the narrative on the streets of war-torn Kabul. People are so numbed by the constant rockets tearing through the city that they barely look up unless it hits the right in front of them. Even under a rain of debris and faced with the dead and dying, they still board the bus and continue on their way. But it wasn’t always like that.
Once she captures our attention with the mortified landscape, Pazira steps back – it’s still Kabul, but now it’s the 1970s. She’s a young girl, and growing up in a world very similar to the United States at the same time. Life seems simple, and everyone goes about planning their education and careers just like they would in any peaceful place.
As one decade slips into the next, Nelofer speaks of the resentment between Afghans and Soviets during the occupation there. She and her classmates romanticize about the mujahedin, convinced that they would defeat the Soviet intruders and bring sovereignty and peace back to Afghanistan.
Finally, amid escalating violence and the realization that each conquering force was worse than the last, Nelofer and her family flee from Afghanistan and from there eventually make it to Canada. Here, Pazira’s narrative splits between her own story and the tragic tale of her best friend, Dyana, who remained in Kabul throughout the 80s and 90s.
The first obvious fact about this book is that Pazira is a gifted storyteller. Each account is so vivid and emotional, and conveys her story as wholly as is possible when her readers have never experienced anything close to that reality.
If you’re looking for a book that covers the political workings of Afghanistan through these decades, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. As the title states, this is about Nelofer Pazira and Afghanistan as she experienced it. She shares her experiences as a child, as a student, as the child of a state prisoner, as a budding young adult, and – perhaps most importantly – as a woman in Afghanistan’s volatile landscape. While some may see this focus as a drawback, it’s exactly what I wanted to find in this book. If you want the political backdrop, check out timelines on Wikipedia or some book on the changing sociopolitical climate in Afghanistan. However, if you want to be able to connect with this piece of the past on an emotional level, as well as understand the current plight of everyday Afghans, then this book certainly provides the opportunity.
It is very clear that Pazira writes the story from her memories. It’s important to remember that she was a very young girl in the 70s, so her account of those times is somewhat scattered and disjointed. As she grows older and her outlook matures, so too does the form of her stories. Pazira covers everything from schoolgirl insurrections to being shot at for showing her uncovered head outside the house, and then on to her starring role in the movie Kandahar and her desperate search for Dyana. To me, this makes the entire book far more real than if she had perfectly executed stories over her entire lifetime.
At the end, the book culminates in Pazira’s primary concern now: The welfare of the women in Afghanistan.
One of the things I most loved about this book is that it puts names, faces and individual personalities to the people of Afghanistan. Especially in the past decade, Afghan stereotypes have run rampant through the United States. People here seem to have this jaded, inhuman perspective on Afghanistan and its people.
Look, I love my home state of Wyoming, but it’s fair to say that the atmosphere is a bit backward and closed-minded – okay, maybe adding “a bit” is the only real stretch there. I graduated high school in 2004, and then large numbers of my friends and family members headed overseas. Whenever we heard about Afghanistan, it was never in positive terms. Whenever people referred to Afghans, it was never as fellow humans who deserve the same compassion and respect as our own next-door neighbors. That’s why I love books like A Bed of Red Flowers—it’s a lot harder to pigeonhole people when you know something about their daily lives and everyday challenges.
Overall, this is an awesome book to read if you want a snapshot of life in Afghanistan, and of how drastically it has changed in just a few short decades. There’s no media hype, no government messaging, and no detached look at political workings in the upper echelons of power. It’s just a story of one woman’s life, and where some pretty incredible changes led her.
Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with the author, publisher, marketers, or anyone else concerned with this book. No one requested that I write this review, and all of the views in it are entirely my own. It’s just the fortuitous result of a random browse through the local library.