The Sleeping Buddha

In the June issue of Vogue magazine, there is a profile about CBS broadcast journalist Lara Logan, who reports from Afghanistan and Iraq. An American foreign correspondent, the magazine’s photos of Logan show a stiletto-heeled journalist with blonde highlighted hair that falls past her shoulders as she crouches down and smiles at an Afghan orphan in Kabul. It is a classic Princess Diana photo-op.

It was interesting to see this image of Logan while I simultaneously read Hamida Ghafour’s memoir The Sleeping Buddha. Ghafour, an Afghan-Canadian writes, “Pretty reporters from the big US networks may have tossed their hair in front of the cameras in the days after the Taliban to prove that women were free to walk bareheaded. But that was simply not the case.”

Ghafour continues to write about how women were not welcome in public and that she made sure to cover her head with a scarf and wear modest, loose clothing to protect herself from harassment in Kabul. This is the Afghanistan that Ghafour explores in The Sleeping Buddha, although the writer looks beyond what has happened post-9/11.

I would dare say that Ghafour is the antithesis of Logan. An assumption made more obvious when Ghafour points out, “The Western female journalists, unless they are from television, wear ratty combat trousers, shapeless shirts, no make-up, masculine-looking hiking boots.” And this is who I assume Ghafour, the narrator, to be.

As I read on, the book made me wonder what stories and images were not being shown by mainstream news agencies and reporters like Logan. Although Ghafour was sent to Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent for The Telegraph in London, a mainstream newspaper in the UK, the stories told in The Sleeping Buddha are unique, sentimental and deeply personal because Ghafour writes as both an insider (she was born in Afghanistan) and an outsider (she was raised in Canada).

Instead of being restricted to write in inches, as journalists must, the book form allows Ghafour to write about Afghanistan long, sentimentally, and at times, beautifully. This format allows

Ghafour to showcase a multitude of views of Afghanistan using different eyes: as a journalist, Ghafour writes observant snapshots of a wartorn country. From a historical perspective, Ghafour recounts the history of a nation that has been routinely invaded and attacked by outside forces as well as magical tales and mythology about royal families. Lastly, from a personal perspective, Ghafour writes as a woman who travels back to her native land, not sure if she can embrace or mourn the experience of her return.

One of the book’s aims is to reclaim the literary history of her grandmother, who Ghafour claims to be an Afghan Virginia Woolf. Unfortunately, her grandmother’s work ceases to exist because of the communist regimes that have occupied the country and have confiscated radical literature. Ghafour rather romantically travels through war-torn Afghanistan to try to discover any remains of her grandmother’s writing and eventually finds herself standing by her grandmother’s grave–a dramatic and poignant moment.

I found that while reading the book, that the author’s grandmother, also named Hamida, became the most engrossing character as she was a woman who wrote poetry and campaigned for the abolition of forced marriage as well as the veil. Whereas other stories in the book look at the pained history and present state of Afghanistan, when the focus of the story shifted to Ghafour’s grandmother, the writing became a perfect balance of reporting and personal realization. (Erin Kobayashi)

by Hamida Ghafour, $29.95, 336 pgs, McArthur & Company, 322 King Street West, Suite 402,Toronto, ON, M5V 1J2, mcarthur-co.com

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