Tuesday, August 03, 2010

On Reading "The Patience Stone"

The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan appears to be strengthening. The Dutch are leaving after sacrificing some 24 young soldiers to the futile effort to impose democracy on a country extremely short on democratic sensibility. Canada will give up its combat role in half a year and the rest of the NATO group fighting that peculiar “war” is fast wearying of the routine of runway ceremonies. The illusion of a successful, externally imposed order is fading.

To say that Westerners have failed to understand the mentality prevailing in the Middle East may be the understatement of the “War on Terror” campaign into which we’ve bought so carelessly. In a paternalistic society like Afghanistan, honour and machismo rank highly as evidence of the quality of a man; the Western world has dealt humiliation to the men of the Middle East for decades. The War on Terror is an extension of the policy of paternalism and imperial privilege that set the stage for the current dilemma in Afghanistan. Western men’s machismo now seeks an honourable way out of yet another dishonourable war.

There are things we would understand if we had a memory and the wisdom to connect some historical dots. It’s only 100 years since North American men were scoffing at the idea of women voting; even now, the glass ceiling persists.

There are books to be read that could help us understand where many Middle East men are now. (Yann Martel has so far been unsuccessful in engaging Prime Minister Harper in a dialogue about books; Harper’s favourite reading is Guinness World Records.) The Patience Stone by expatriate Afghani writer Atiq Rahimi could be helpful to our politicians if they would take the hour of thoughtful reading that it requires.

A sang e saboor is a patience stone, a stone to which you bare your soul while it listens uncritically. In this case, the patience stone is the husband of an Afghani woman, deep in a coma from a gunshot wound to his neck, a wound acquired in the conflict that is every-day Afghanistan.

“You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces . . . and on that day you are set free from all your pain, all your suffering (75-6).”As the woman cares for her unresponsive husband, she begins to unburden her soul of all the hurt and humiliation she has had to endure because she is a woman. His comatose bulk becomes her patience stone. And in the silent moments between confessions, she tells her beads, repeating one of the many names of Allah ninety nine times, and she fingers the Koran that is always nearby.

Insurgents burst into her house as she keeps watch and because she is pretty and can read intent in their eyes, she convinces them that she is a prostitute. There is no honour, no manliness in consorting with a willing prostitute; it’s the conquest of the undefiled that marks them as men and they leave her be. Ironically, they steal her Koran.

The Patience Stone captures with courage and simple, explosive prose, the reality of everyday life for a woman under the oppressive weight of Islamic fundamentalism,” the flyleaf intones. That may be the milieu in which this particular woman experiences oppression, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that fundamentalism of any stripe has, and continues to, degrade women in a variety of ways. Islamic fundamentalism most certainly doesn’t have a lock on paternalism and its consequences.

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me . . . Exodus 20:5

I have to wonder if the Exodus verse is quoting God or documenting experience. If the latter, then it makes sense to note that the effects of bad behaviour have consequences that reach down through generations. In other words, the democratization of a people will never be effected in a brief war; it’s a transition that will only occur over generations, if at all.

We hate the thought that the resolution for Afghanistan may not be seen until our great, great grandchildren come to peaceful terms with the great, great grandchildren of the Taliban. But there may be no other choice. 

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