Lost Kingdom; A 1964 memoir conjures old Afghanistan


Land of the High Flags Afghanistan When the Going Was Good by Rosanne Klass Odyssey, 358 pp., $19.95

Land of the High Flags is an artifact of a time when a foreigner could unabashedly enjoy being in Afghanistan the way one enjoyed Kenya or India or Sicily, even while going there to do good. Now, Afghanistan is a “war zone” in everyone’s eyes, and a sense of its granularity has been lost in the cliches. The 1950s Kabul that Rosanne Klass entered as a novice high school teacher was a poor country which Westerners were trying to modernize, and which some fell in love with. Klass–still a feisty Afghanistan expert in New York–chronicles this love affair in a burnished, formal style that was slightly antiquated even in 1964. Perhaps she was influenced by Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, and other well-born lady travelers in the Muslim world, or by the Victorian novels she must have read in her childhood.

It feels of a piece that Klass manages to get through the whole book without discussing the husband with whom she went to Afghanistan (and from whom she was soon to be divorced) and that she visits Jews in Afghanistan without ever saying that she is Jewish (though it can be inferred from her surname and a discreet reference to a Succoth of her youth). This is the high old practice, and has its merits. Klass is preoccupied with others rather than herself, and always ready to see the good side of the people she meets, when there is one.

Perhaps for this reason, her characters live. Klass’s portraits of her students could have been drawn yesterday; they reminded me of the college kids I taught for a couple of weeks at a time in Mazar-i-Sharif a few years ago, in their very un-American combination of deference, earnestness, and fecklessness. The time is gone when one could write chapters on one’s bearer, but Klass’s portrait of the Peshawar Pashtun Gul Baz is a joy. He is an individual, not a representative of a social class or ethnic group, as are all the other household servants Klass depicts.

Another major character is Klass’s boss at the time, Dr. Abdul Kayeum (who went on to become vice-president of the Helmand River Authority, a provincial governor, minister of education, and, eventually, an exile in America–he also appears in Tamim Ansary’s West of Kabul, East of New York). Like Gul Baz, he can seem too good to be true, but I lay that up to Klass’s youthful goodwill.

Affection does not blunt her keen eye for the fault lines of expat society, and the irrelevance to it of Afghans:

One made a point of liking them, and was, indeed, politely deferential, because it was, after all, their country which one was there to deal with, to instruct or to improve. In sum, one did everything short of meeting them as individuals. It was on the whole as unexpected to really like an Afghan personally as it was improper to dislike him personally. .  .  . Most of the colony thought it surprising .  .  . if a foreigner and an Afghan became close friends. That they might simply like each other was scarcely considered.

The one criticism that leaps out at this reader, on her second tour through Land of the High Flags, is that Klass seems a bit too infatuated with the good old days. (The book was first published in 1964.) She hasn’t been to Afghanistan in decades. If she had visited in the last few years, she might not have selected the subtitle “Afghanistan When the Going Was Good.” Any nostalgia applies more to the lifestyle of expats–today they are called “internationals”–than to Afghans, who now enjoy a much higher standard of living, more legal rights, a much larger chance of seeing their children grow up, and many more opportunities than in 1951 (or just about any time in history).

It’s true that an ancient culture has been weakened, its upper class scattered and shorn of its confidence and sense of responsibility. It is true that, in the cities, ugly cement boxes have replaced lovely and comfortable mudbrick homes, crude new carpets are now preferred to the masterworks of the past, and many traditional crafts live on only in the pallid form of charity projects for Afghan women. It is also true that imported religious extremism and politicized Islam have replaced what was once a fairly tolerant culture, at least in the larger towns and cities, and at least for the prosperous. Older Afghan women have told me that, in provincial capitals in the 1960s, they used to ride bicycles to school and wear miniskirts with their headscarves; today their granddaughters aren’t allowed to ride bikes (“unfeminine”) and their skirts reach the floor.

But the society Rosanne Klass saw was dysfunctional and heartbreakingly poor. In 1960, 245 out of every thousand Afghan children died before their first birthday. The number was 165 in 2001 and 135 in 2006. Maternal mortality in Afghanistan in 1950 must have been astronomical; it had fallen to 3,070 per 100,000 in 1978 and a still-appalling 1,600 per 100,000 today, the highest in the world. (By comparison, around 1900, the American rate was about 900 out of 100,000.)

Life expectancy today for Afghans is 43 years, but in 1970 it was 38, and God knows what it was in 1950. Such numbers remind us that the notion that Afghanistan is undergoing “reconstruction” to bring it back to some acceptable prewar condition is a fantasy. Most of the country wasn’t destroyed in the war, for the good reason that there was little infrastructure to destroy outside of the few cities. Most Afghans didn’t live remotely well in 1800, in 1900, or in 1950.

Of course, Klass was aware that the society she lived in was flawed. In fact, the diagnosis she made in 1964 still stands: “Pride and self-contempt mingled are a cruel burden to bear. .  .  . Xenophobia grows from such twisted roots as these. .  .  . Praise change, and you might be understood .  .  . as implying .  .  . ‘Your own uniqueness was nothing very much worth having.’” But perhaps out of affection, and the optimism of the postwar years, she lets Afghan society off the hook too easily.

It didn’t help that Afghanistan is impossibly mountainous, with only 14 percent arable land, or that it is in a bad neighborhood with aggressive neighbors. But most of Afghanistan’s poverty can be blamed on a long line of terrible governments and the absence of civil society. The Afghan-Australian historian Amin Saikal in Modern Afghanistan tells the unsparing truth: From the Mohammadzai ascendancy in 1747 until the Soviet invasion of 1979, Afghan society was characterized by “highly repressive administration” and elites that denied many major groups access to power, relying on support from foreign powers.

I can’t measure the losses, since I first visited Afghanistan in 2002, but neither can Klass be fully aware of the gains. I don’t only mean Afghanistan’s astounding recent economic growth, with GDP growing an average of 9.375 percent a year from 2003 to 2007–more than the 8.9 percent growth rate of Russia, India, and China in a similar period. Today, Afghans of all backgrounds and in almost all regions have some awareness that they have opportunities and choices in life–they have, at least, dipped their toes into the confusing, entrancing, cynical larger world. The past two decades that dispersed the elite and its ancient culture also opened this most hidebound of societies to social mobility. The upper class lost its sense of noblesse oblige, yes, but the lower orders also lost the habit of deference. Given that everything in Afghan society conspired against risk-taking or experimentation, this is no small advancement.

Klass went back to Afghanistan as a reporter in the 1960s, joined Freedom House in 1980, and founded the Afghanistan Information Center, heading it from 1980 until 1991. She was one of the founders of the Afghanistan Relief Committee and knew everyone who mattered in Afghanistan before, during, and after the jihad. (She donated her papers to the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins in 2005.) She edited and contributed to an essay collection–Afghanistan: The Great Game Revisited (1988) published by Freedom House–which is still worth reading. Its emphasis on the degree of Soviet success in dominating Afghanistan and destroying its society has been lost in today’s eagerness to portray insurgencies/resistance movements as history’s “winners.” But she has not written another book with the flair and poetry of her first. That makes this reissue of Land of the High Flags a poignant, as well as happy, event.

Ann Marlowe is the author, most recently, of The Book of Trouble: A Romance.

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