Atossa Abrahamian reads Atiq Rahimi's latest novel, a sustained contemplation of Afghan suffering Syngué Sabour Atiq Rahimi French and European Publications Dh160 Last November, Atiq Rahimi joined the ranks of Marcel Proust, André Malraux and Marguerite Duras when he was awarded the French Prix Goncourt for his third novel, Syngué Sabour. The prize, widely held to be the highest honour for a francophone author, has traditionally been associated with all things lofty, lengthy, high-minded and self-consciously French - so French that no English translations exist for 55 of the 105 winners (by contrast, over two-thirds of Booker Prize winners have been translated into French).
Rahimi's slim volume met none of the usual Goncourt criteria. It was short, just shy of 160 pages; his publisher was neither Grasset nor Gallimard (the usual suspects), but POL, a small independent house. While his main competitor, Michael LeBris, was, like many previous winners, a literary insider and former editor of several publications, Rahimi, a trained filmmaker, was more recognised in Cannes than among the Académie Française. Perhaps most surprising was the fact that Syngué Sabour was written in straightforward prose; it could probably be quickly read and understood by anyone who happened to pick it up. This makes sense: it was Rahimi's first book in French. To quote one relieved reviewer on the Nouvel Observateur website, his pomp-less French did not cause readers to "foam at the brain" as previous prize-winners had done; the French press, taken aback, spoke of a "Goncourt Revolution".
The protagonist of Syngué Sabour is a woman grappling with the repercussions of Islamist power in Afghanistan. As a result, many critics were quick to accuse the jury of making a political rather than literary selection. Since headscarves were banned in French schools in 2004, an intense debate has raged over outward manifestations of religious - and specifically Muslim - belief. Polemics over intégrisme (fundamentalism) and laicité (secularism) come only second to la crisé economique in the opinion pages of the major papers (the left-wing magazine Marianne recently outdid them all by referring to the "fiscal burqa" of Swiss banking). Add to this lingering resentment over French involvement in the disastrous war in Afghanistan and an outcry was inevitable. The Tribune de Genève ran a particularly scathing review, accusing Rahimi of using "basic French" and "attracting attention for extra-literary reasons".
"The Goncourt jury made a donation to the third world" the piece continued; "they were thus able to finish their dessert at Drouant's [the restaurant where they meet] at peace with their consciences." But Rahimi is a novelist, not a politician, and his books display no polemical tendencies. His novels, which all appear to take place before September 11, 2001 (no dates are provided), make only vague reference to socio-political conditions in Afghanistan. They are not concerned with clashes of civilizations, axes of evil, or western debates over diversity, relativism, feminism, or liberalism. Instead, he looks closely at the personal, suggesting that a bitter history like Afghanistan's is often less-than-amenable to analysis and theory, particularly from faraway armchairs.
Atiq Rahimi was born in 1962 to a privileged Kabul family. After the Soviet war, he fled to Pakistan, and in 1984 sought asylum in France. But his expatriation did not sever his ties with Afghanistan: Since 2002, he has spent half his time in his home country, and all three of his novels, Syngué Sabour (2008), A Thousand Rooms of Dreams and Fear (2002), and Earth and Ashes (2000) are based there. In 2005, he published Le Retour Imaginaire, a book of photographs with observations on returning to Afghanistan. His cinematic adaptation of Earth and Ashes, filmed on location, won the Prix du Regard vers l'Avenir at Cannes in 2004. Most recently, Rahimi has worked as an adviser to the Moby Group, a major Afghan media outlet. As if this wasn't non-Goncourdian enough, he is also the creator of Secrets of this House, Afghanistan's first soap opera.
Undoubtedly drawing on his own memories, all three of Rahimi's novels take place during periods of extreme violence and unrest in Afghanistan. Each of his protagonists could lose his or her life at any moment and knows it; Rahimi's plots involve their search for solace amid physical destruction. In every case, this search is guided by the values and rituals of Afghanistan's traditional spiritual culture, not the rigid Islam that rose to power after the Afghan-Soviet war.
Syngué Sabour is very much a product of the tensions between these two value systems. In Persian mythology, the syngué sabour is a magical stone to which one confesses one's deepest secrets; the stone absorbs these thoughts until it explodes, symbolising deliverance. The novel records the confessions of an unnamed woman whose husband has fallen into a coma after being shot. Rahimi describes the woman tending to her husband, caring for him, and telling him her secrets as he lies on the floor of their house, mute as a rock. Her sense of time, conveyed by the novel's rhythmic prose, is measured in breaths, heartbeats and prayer beads. She tries hard to follow the orders prescribed by the authoritarian village mullahs: repeating some arbitrary number of prayers, maintaining a constant, unwavering belief in God despite it all - but finds no comfort in their strict prescriptions, and begins to speak of them with sarcasm:
"I no longer divide my days into hours, my hours into minutes, my minutes into seconds... one day equals 99 rounds of prayer beads... and once I get to the 72nd round, this cretin of a Mullah will come and reproach me? I did not follow his instructions, I was negligent with my prayers... if I hadn't been, you would heal!" Her husband is a jihadist who spends most of his time on the battlefield. The woman was married off to his photograph, and for the first three years of their "union", lived with her in-laws waiting for his "heroic" return and never questioning the value of his duty. During this time, she became close with her husband's father, who taught her to read and write. He recited passages from the Quran that affirm a woman's worth, and noted the frequent wisdom of Khadija. Though he was once proud of his son's commitment, after "liberation" (from the Soviets) he began to despise him for "fighting only for power". He is the novel's "wise man" - a traditional figure in Sufi folk stories that Rahimi often evokes to channel fears and concerns about drastic changes.
Earth and Ashes also features a sage figure concerned with power and corruption. The novel follows Dastaguir, an elderly man travelling with Yassin, his deaf grandson; he is going to inform his son, who works in the mines, that their village has been bombed and the rest of their family has perished. At a bus stop, a respected shop owner named Mirza Quadir comments that "men have lost all dignity. Power is their faith, rather than faith being their power." As a result, everyone in Afghanistan suffers, and this suffering is Rahimi's focus: Dastaguir's drug addiction, the deafness of his grandson, the conflicted confessions recorded in Syngué Sabour. But rather than ranting (an understandable temptation), Rahimi crafts his prose - whether French or Farsi - into a near-constant state of mourning and contemplation.
The unconscious husband in Rahimi's new novel is, like many of Rahimi's young male protagonists, only able to express emotion through silence or aggression. In Earth and Ashes, the wise man Mirza Quadir tells Dastaguir that it is the sadness of conflict that makes men react this way; the wife in Syngué Sabour similarly comments that "when you [men] have arms, you forget women". She repeats an aphorism: "never count on he who has known the pleasures of arms". Still, she is desperate for her husband to live, regardless of his violent and unpredictable temperament. As a widow, she would have no resources to take care of her two daughters alone. His family has fled to less dangerous areas, but she continues to care for him. For the first time she can speak openly to him without fearing repercussion.
As the woman's confessions - often deeply personal and explicit - pile up, it becomes clear that Rahimi has a considerable preoccupation with the physical in general and the sexual in particular. In a particularly charged moment, the woman puts her hand, wet with menstrual blood, up to her husband's blank face, demanding whether it is as "unclean" as the mullahs insist. We learn about the way she became pregnant with her two daughters - not with her husband, who, in denial of his own infertility, has angrily accused her of being barren, but with a clueless gigolo. Their first encounter was awkward and unpleasant, but "the following sessions were better and better". Eventually she found herself, not guiltlessly, enjoying expressing her own desires in ways her husband would never allow.
The men of Syngué Sabour, however, come off as uniformly damaged on this front, riddled with insecurities and terrified of women wanting or enjoying sex. In one scene, the narrator is forced by her husband to sleep in the kitchen as punishment for an overt expression of desire. In another, she tells Afghan soldiers that she is a prostitute to avoid being raped. In doing so, she exploits the assumption that prostitutes, unlike "normal" women, are always seeking sex: "for men like him... raping a whore is not an exploit... you no longer dominate her body. You participate in an exchange."
One of the soldiers, an awkward, frightened teenager, comes back and offers her money for sex. She agrees - partly out of empathy, but also because she fears a violent reaction - and they begin to sleep together. The woman sees scars on his body; eventually, it becomes clear that he has suffered sexual abuse from his fellow soldiers. He stutters, and has no idea what he is doing, but the woman is sympathetic, understanding that men like him and her husband have been warped into viewing sex as a means of dominating, owning, controlling - not a mutual pursuit of pleasure. "From the moment you [men] come to possess a woman," she tells her sleeping husband, "you become awful."
Rahimi's first two novels refer to similarly dysfunctions. A Thousand Rooms of Dreams and Fear follows Farhad, a student who is arrested and beaten to a pulp by the Communists for staying out past curfew. He ends up escaping, but must leave the country to protect himself and his family. Farhad's father has abandoned his mother and two siblings: "the day my mother stopped being terrified of having sex, my father's desire vanished. So he had to get himself another wife. A younger wife who'd still be scared of sex." In Earth and Ashes, Rahimi refers to the Shahnama, an epic poem by Ferdhoussi in which in which a tyrant's pet serpents feast on the brains of people. Mizra Quadir comments that snakes these days want more than young men's brains - they also want their sex organs.
Rahimi's Afghanistan is in a state of constant physical deterioration. Villages, houses, animals and people are all subject to premature ends; bodies are beaten, and the future is as dark as it is dangerous. His characters are fully aware of their mortality. But they continue to think and care about their lives. A Thousand Rooms ends with Farhad (who has been smuggled into Pakistan), returning to Afghanistan, determined to rejoin his family at home despite the danger. Earth and Ashes describes the elderly grandfather giving in to grief, and through his sobs "letting his sadness flow" so that he can keep walking. Syngué Sabour lacks a typical happy ending, but the narrator's psychological trajectory - from pure despair, to acceptance of his state and her own desires, and even a glimmer of hope - reveal the persistence of some truth immune to the bombs and ranting mullahs outside her window. Without such dogged unwillingness to give up on life, Rahimi seems to be asking, what will become of Afghanistan?
Atossa Abrahamian is a writer and translator living in Paris.