Friday, November 15, 2013

Facing the Taliban by Anoja Wijeysekera

Sometimes you come across a book that is well written and has a pretty unique story and you are pleased as punch that it is a Sri Lankan story - yes this book is that good. Ok, except for really minor editing grouses (which perhaps only a picky reader might detect) the book for the most part stands out as a good read. Anoja Wijeyesekera has a lovely writing style and while most memoirs or first person accounts can tend to be heavy on the "I" factor, it is perfectly understandable in this instance as it is quite a unique story.
Here you have a Sri Lankan woman working in an all male office, in a fundamental Muslim country, in a patriarchal environment, in a war torn region, during a despotic reign, managing to hold her own with dignity and calm. Hats off to her.
Anoja Wijeysekera leaves her husband in the UK, and her youngest daughter in an English boarding school to take up a four year post with UNICEF as the Resident Project Officer in Jalalabad approximately 95 miles away from Kabul.
She details her next few years describing her working relationship with her male Afghan colleagues, with the Taliban, with the people of Afghanistan and especially with the women. She writes of a journey that is principled and fair and in the end both sides - the seemingly inflexible Taliban and herself end up with a grudging respect of each other. The ordinary Afghan citizen is portrayed as being caught in the middle of a vicious tug of war between what they feel is decent and what is imposed by the Taliban. The unfortunate Afghan women despite their clearly second class status and inferior position come out shining like beacons of light with their fortitude and their courage and hope. Anoma too, ends up understanding in some small way the alien culture that she is placed in and understands that the Afghan word is one of honour and trust that does not depend on pieces of paper to ensure the word is kept.
She describes the beautiful country, the fruits, the food, the hospitality and the people. Likewise she was an ambassador of the Asian woman combining gentleness with steel and the perfect example of Buddhism in acceptance, tolerance and openess. Values that many so called Buddhists in our country should share.
The book is written without judgement or condemnation even though Anoma witnessed brutality and harshness first hand and had to negotiate difficult terrains of teaching the Taliban to respect women and authority and rules and fairness. She manages to convey a love of a country, a love of a people and at the same time, the absolutely tough life and environment that exists in a country like Afghanistan.
The book concludes with her leaving Afghanistan soon after 9/11 (with her brother narrowly escaping disaster in New York) with her promotion as Country Representative to Bhutan. As she puts it from hell to heaven and yet in her book she reveals that even in hell she found heaven, for in in this book she  writes a tribute to Afghanistan and her people. A super read and congratulations to a  Sri Lankan woman who deserves applaud not only for her journey and story but also for her tale. And finally to cap it off for me the cover of the book is superb!

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