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The Sewing Circles of Herat: A Personal Voyage Through Afghanistan    by Christina Lamb order for
Sewing Circles of Herat
by Christina Lamb
Order:  USA  Can
Perennial, 2004 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I've read quite a few books on Afghanistan by now, each with a different perspective, and The Sewing Circles of Herat is one of the better ones. The author is an award winning journalist who first entered the country with mujaheddin 'on the back of a mullah's motorbike' in the 1980s to report on the Soviet occupation. She speaks of the horrors of the fighting at Jalalabad, and of war as being 'the ugliest thing I had ever seen and it made me do the ugliest thing I had ever done.' Interspersed with her own forays into the country over the years, and sketches of history, are poignant letters sent to Christina Lamb by a young 'educated Afghan female who must now live under a burqa', a teacher who continues to hold secret classes for girls in her home.

Lamb gives us all kinds of perspectives in this book, from that of a glassmaker to the viewpoint of the exiled Afghan king, Zahir Shah. She interviewed a Taliban torturer and wrote down his lengthy list of what the regime forbade, from bans on laughing in public to playing chess or cheering at sporting events. With reference to who was in control in the days of the Taliban, he told her that 'Afghanistan is not a state sponsoring terrorism but a terrorist-sponsored state.' Then there's the Haqqania madrassa in Pakistan, which boasts that 90% of the Taliban are its graduates. Lamb interviewed its rector, a fundamentalist cleric who stated that his friend bin Laden was not responsible for 9/11, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In Herat, Lamb discovers a 'Literary Circle' that continued its meetings, teaching literature in 'Ladies' Sewing Classes', under Talib noses. She speaks to a poet who fought back with verse - 'You moral policeman in the middle of the bazaar / Are as greedy as a long-tailed donkey in a trough' - and wrote after the Taliban downfall, 'Begin taking out the ruthless and break the butterflies free'. In Kabul she met an artist, a cultural hero who painted over a hundred or so oil paintings in easily removed watercolors to preserve some of his country's heritage. These tales of triumph balance somewhat the legion of stories of limbs lost to land mines, people tortured and killed, warlords hungry for power.

The Sewing Circles of Herat is an engrossing read for anyone interested in the human faces behind the news about Afghanistan. Christina Lamb talks about 'being among a people who had nothing but gave everything', one of whom sadly tells her 'Mine is a country where all the beauty has died.' While her account feeds our search for understanding, it also does the journalist's best work of giving voice to those who need, and deserve, to be heard.

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