Sewing Circles and war – a review of Christina Lamb’s Afghanistan memoir

War isn’t beautiful

“War wasn’t beautiful at all. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen and it made me do the ugliest thing I had ever done. The real story of war wasn’t about the firing and the fighting, some Boy’s Own adventure of goodies and baddies. It wasn’t about sitting around in bars making up songs about the mujaheddin we called ‘The Gucci Muj’ with their designer camouflage and pens made from AK47 bullets. It was about the people, the Naems and Lelas, the sons and daughters, the mothers and fathers.” – from Christina Lamb’s The Sewing Circles of Herat (HarperCollins, 2002).

“Dizzy with Kipling and diesel fumes.”

The Sewing Circles of Herat is about the human cost of the “great game” that has been played in and about Afghanistan by the three major powers of imperial Britain, Soviet Russia and the United States, each of them playing the game by the rules of their own particular perceptions of realpolitik , their own interests in the stony and impoverished land made, according to Pashtun legend, from a pile of rocks left over when Allah had finished making the rest of the world.

Lamb’s book, quite different from David Loyn’s Butcher and Bolt , is the story of a foreign correspondent’s personal experiences in the roiling cauldron of violence that has been Afghanistan for the past 30 years, since the December 1979 invasion by the Soviet army, violence that has only increased in intensity since the horror of 9/11.

It is also the story of a young woman, Marri, who wrote a series of letters and a diary during the dark days of the Taliban oppression “On my desk is a handful of letters from a woman of about my own age in Kabul. She risked her life to get them to me and this is also her story.”

The two intersecting stories make for a very moving and at times horrifying read, starting from Lamb’s arrival in Afghanistan, “…stumbling out of a battered mini-bus in the Old City of the frontier town of Peshawar, dizzy with Kipling and diesel fumes.”

“If ever there was a country whose fate was determined by geography,” writes Lamb, “it was the land of the Afghans.”

Christina Lamb re-entering Afghanistan in November 2001.

While Afghanistan was never a colony, it has “always been a natural crossroads – the meeting place of the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and the Far East – and thus frequently the battlefield and graveyard of great powers. Afghans spoke of Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Tamerlane, as well as various Moghul, Sikh and Persian rulers as if they had just passed through.”

Christina gets a ride in the only convertable in Afghanistan

Into this complex land Lamb came as a “gawky English girl”, a “graduate of philosophy at university and of adolescence in British suburbia”, to witness at first hand the struggle of the mujaheddin against the Soviet occupiers and then again, 12 years later, the effects of the “war on terror” that followed the 9/11 attacks in New York.

The torturer

The Taliban torturer, Mullah Khalil Ahmed Hassani

One of Lamb’s early encounters after the fall of the Taliban was with 30-year-old Mullah Khalil Ahmed Hassani, a business studies graduate from Peshawar University. He was forced to leave his job as an accountant for a trading company in Quetta to join the Taliban who had arrested Hassani’s 85-year-old grandfather in Kandahar and would only release him if a male member of the family joined up.

Hassani was drafted into the secret police and at first patrolled the streets looking for anyone disobeying the many intricate and often absurd regulations such as: women not allowed to buy from male shopkeepers; any woman showing her ankles to be whipped; a ban on shoes with heels or that make any noise as no stranger should hear a woman’s footsteps; a ban on cosmetics, meaning that any woman with painted nails should have her fingers cut off.

A later assignment for the “Taliban torturer” was to guard some shipping containers full of Hazara women and children. Hazaras had been declared, by the governor of Mazar-i-Sharif, Mullah Manon Niazi, non-Muslim “Kofr” and thus “legitimate” targets for the worst possible treatment.

In the 40 plus degree Centigrade heat the 450 or so prisoners were kept in the containers without water, food, or toilet facilities, in what Hassani called “among the worst of many bad things” he and his men had been forced to do. “I can still hear the noise, the desperate banging on the metal and the muffled cries that gradually grew softer,” Hassani told Lamb.

Marri’s story – a bird singing in the tree

“…I hope this will help you outside understand the feelings of an educated Afghan female who must now live under a burqa.” – Marri’s first letter to Christina Lamb, dated 24 September 2001.


Marri and Christina did not know each other when Marri first wrote to Christina. The process of learning about each other, the discovery of the humanity behind the rhetoric of Afghanistan symbolised by their search for each other, is the focus of this book, which makes it indeed as much Marri’s as Christina’s story.

On 13 November 2001 Marri wrote to Christina: “Kabul is free, can you believe it!” The Northern Alliance had advanced on the city and the Taliban had left, as Marri wrote, “like thieves in the night.”

After the Taliban rule ended Marri wrote of the return of simple, everyday things that had been banished by the religious fanaticism: “Our new neighbours have small children and they are laughing – their father has brought them a pink and green paper kite and it is flying high in the sky. How long it is since we heard laughter – now imagine, that was banned too.”

Boy flying kite in Kabul in February 2002

Marri ends this letter: “This is a sweet night.”

In a diary entry in February 2002 Marri wrote, “Soon it will be spring, there will be cherry blossoms, maybe we will hang up our burqas for good and even start to love again.”

During the Eid holiday in 2001 Christina began to search for Marri in the crowded part of Kabul called Microrayon, having only Marri’s letters to guide her. The search lasted two months, two months of meeting and questioning many, many people, following false leads and getting discouraged.

Izatullah, one of Kabul’s leading kite makers, was jailed by the Taliban and all his kites burned.

It was only on the day before Christina was due to leave Afghanistan that she got word that her helper Tawfiq Massood had found Marri, not in Microrayon but on the other side of Kabul, where she and her family had fled to escape the noise and the bombs.

“Since the Taliban left I cannot stop smiling,” Marri told Christina. “The snows have come back to the city and today there was a bird singing in the tree. And now you have come.”

Christina pointed out that Marri had taken a huge risk in writing and smuggling the letters out of Afghanistan, and asked why she had done it.

“We thought we were the forgotten people,” Marri said. “…it gave us hope that someone somewhere wanted to know…”

When they parted Marri gave Christina a parcel wrapped in a cloth – when Christina opened it she found it was Marri’s diary.

“We must never forget”

The entrance to the “Golden Needle” sewing circle of Herat.

Women in Herat window-shopping for white shoes.

One of the enduring themes of this book is the survival of human values, human activities, in spite of the dreadful effects of the inhumanity of war and religious fanaticism, ideology and economics.

One symbol of that was the Sewing Circles of Herat, which give the book its title. Under the Taliban, literature, especially Western literature, was a forbidden subject, especially for women, who were not allowed education of any sort.

In an alley in Herat was a doorway with the sign: “Golden Needle, Ladies’ Sewing Classes, Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays”.

“Three times a week for the previous five years, young women, faces and bodies disguised by their Taliban-enforced uniforms of washed-out blue burqas and flat shoes, would knock at the yellow wrought-iron door. In their handbags, concealed under scissors, cottons, sequins and pieces of material, were notebooks and pens.”

This was the home of Mohammed Nasir Rahiyab, professor of literature at the Herat University, where he gave the women lessons on literary criticism, aesthetics and poetry, including western classics. All subjects forbidden by the Taliban, more especially to women.

Why run this “Sewing Circle”?

Refugee children in Maslakh camp, Herat, forced from their homes by the 23 years of war.

The professor explained: “If the authorities had known that we were not only teaching women, but teaching them high levels of literature we would have been killed. But a lot of fighters sacrificed their lives over the years for the freedom of this city. Shouldn’t a person of letters make that sacrifice too?”

Zena and Leyla risked imprisonment and beatings to study literature

The professor added: “A society without literature is a society that is not rich and does not have a strong core. If there wasn’t so much illiteracy and lack of culture in Afghanistan then terrorism would never have found its cradle here.”

Words of amazing optimism in a land in which, in a few years, one-and-a-half million people had been killed, and millions more horribly injured and displaced. And typical of the incredible power of the human spirit to endure and to choose life, if not to flourish, even in the most unconducive conditions.

As Christina’s friend Hamid Gilani put it in the final words of this fascinating and important book, “… we lost so many people. One and a half million. That’s too big a number. Every one of them had their story and we must never forget.”

Copyright Note

The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor. The illustrations are taken from the book The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb (HarperCollins, 2002) and are copyright by the author.

Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

Of miscegenation, race and redemption – two South African novels

“Miscegenation – n. The inter-breeding of people of different races. – Origin C19: formed irregularly from L. miscere ‘to mix’ + genus ‘race’ + -ation (Concise Oxford English Dictionary)”

“Unrestrained sexual intercourse between the black and the white races is … a crime of great magnitude, for it is the self-murder of a white nation whose mission it should be to maintain a supremacy of highest civilisation throughout the world.” – from Of European Descent by Mary Frances Whalley and A. Eames Perkins (Juta, 1909)

“Race has no basic biological reality, the human species simply does not come packaged that way.” – Professor Jonathan Marx of Yale University.

“I know perfectly well … that in a scientific sense there is no such thing as race, but I as a politician need a concept which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis …” – Adolf Hitler

The fictional concept of race has overshadowed South Africa for centuries, and the shadow fell heaviest during the 20th Century, when the policy of crude segregation pursued by the white colonists since the founding of the first white settlement at the Cape in the mid-17th Century became “intellectualised” in the ideology of apartheid almost exactly 300 years later.

Much has been written, both fictional and journalistic, about the place of race in South African society and politics – some justificatory and some condemnatory.

Modern South African literature can be said to have started with Olive Schreiner’s great novel The Story of an African Farm (published in 1883 under the pseudonym ‘Ralph Iron’) from which the race question was almost entirely absent.

Turbott Wolfe – mirror held to a dirty face

Race took stage front and centre with the publication in 1926 of William Plomer’s Turbott Wolfe which rudely and roughly tore down the curtains of evasion and etiquette which had hitherto hidden the realities of racial injustice from the vast majority of white South Africans.

These whites were not at all pleased at having their comfort disturbed, at having their role in the injustices based on the fiction of race so vividly brought to their attention. Indeed the book caused an uproar unlike anything literary had caused in the country before.

One letter writer to a local newspaper even complained that the novel was “not cricket”! It wasn’t meant to be.

As Plomer’s friend and fellow-South African writer Roy Campbell wrote in his satirical poem The Wayzgoose:

Plomer, ’twas you who, though a boy in age,

Awoke a sleepy continent to rage,

Who dared alone to thrash a craven race

And hold a mirror to its dirty face.

William Plomer

Plomer was 22 when he wrote the novel which was to bring him such notoriety in his then home country and such fame in the rest of the world. Plomer was born in 1903 in the city of Polokwane (then called Pietersburg) in the province of Limpopo (though it was then still in the Northern Transvaal) and spent his early years moving between South Africa and the United Kingdom, though he lived fully in South Africa from 1918 to 1926.

Plomer wrote Turbott Wolfe while living at Entumeni in Zululand, disguised as “Ovuzane” and “Lembuland” in the novel. In his autobiography Double Lives (Jonathan Cape, 1943) Plower described the writing of the novel as “an outburst of poetic frenzy”. An outburst it certainly was.

The novel opens in a dingy room in an unnamed English town where Turbott Wolfe lies dying and tells his story to the author, a school friend from the not too distant past. The “ridiculous room” is a figure of the racist mind: “The room itself was so tawdry as to be grotesque.”

The room is decorated with a sort of faded gentility, with “Patterns of flowers, sewn or painted or printed in smudgy colours…” to the extent that the author feels “obscured by all these scentless bouquets” though Turbott Wolfe himself “seemed so little obscured that he might have purposely designed those enormous bistre-and-green roses that were tousled and garlanded up and down the coverlet on the bed; and the wall behind his head, with its bouquets of brown marguerites, its pomegranates and bows of ribbon and forget-me-nots, …”

Wolfe tells his story to the author, how he was ill after leaving school and went to Africa, like so many others, to attempt a cure for his unnamed illness. He goes to Lembuland to run a trading store there in a “native” reserve.

He is licensed to run the store Ovuzane where he passes his time “between trace and flok-lore and painting and writing and music, between sculpture and religion and handicrafts.”

Very soon, though, Wolfe begins to learn “the hard lesson that in Lembuland it is considered a crime to regard the native as anything even so high as a made wild animal.” Appalled by this attitude on the part of the whites in the area Wolfe sets himself to “seek with keenness for information about the relations between blacks and whites in those parts.”

Wolfe’s neighbours are portrayed in most unflattering ways, and he sees them as “unclean” people with whom he would not choose to “breathe the same air”.

Then one day a young black woman came into the store and “took my breath away.”

“An aboriginal, perfectly clean and perfectly beautiful. I have never seen such consummate dignity.”

The young woman, Nhliziyombi, was in complete contrast to the meanness of Wolfe’s white neighbours, “She was an ambassadress of all that beauty (it might be called holiness), that intensity of the old wonderful unknown primitive African life – outside history, outside time, outside science.”

This was Plomer’s first crime in the eyes of white South Africa – to find beauty, indeed to be attracted by the beauty, in a black person, and particularly a black woman.

As Laurens van der Post wrote in the introduction to the 1985 Oxford edition of Turbott Wolfe, “That, of course, roused an even angrier reaction from the white South Africans. One of the cardinal principles of the popular attitude was that it was impossible for a decent, civilised white man to be attracted by black women.”

But the novel went even further – some of the characters in it were openly and actively in favour of that horror of horrors, miscegenation.

The newly-arrived missionary Rupert Friston says, “I do not assert yet that miscegenation should be actually encouraged, but I believe that it is the missionary’s work now, and the work of any white man in Africa worth his salt, to prepare the way for the ultimate end.”

Another character, Mabel van der Horst, who herself marries a black man in the story, says to Wolfe, “What the hell is the native question? You take away the black man’s country, and, shirking the future consequences of your action, you blindly affix a label to what you know (and fear) the black man is thinking of you – ‘the native question.’ Native question, indeed! My good man, there is no native question. It isn’t a question. It’s an answer.”

This was written a mere 16 years after South Africa had been unified with a blatantly and explicitly racist constitution, a country which was ruled by a minority who believed totally that the country was a “white man’s country”.

It was written a mere 13 years since the passage of the Land Act of which Solomon Tshekeisho Plaatje wrote in his Native Life in South Africa: “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

Van der Post in his introduction writes: “Art, to me, is a magic mirror wherein are made visible aspects of reality hitherto invisible, and thus Turbott Wolfe was for me and some of my generation in South Africa.”

No wonder the whites did not like having its “dirty face” reflected in the mirror of this fine novel.

The forlorn crying of the titihoya

Another novel of race which came out of the pre-apartheid era in South Africa opens in way deeply different from the beginning of Turbott Wolfe: where Turbott Wolfe is lying dying in a dingy room in England, author Alan Paton opens Cry the Beloved Country (first published by Jonathan Cape in 1948) with an elegiac, beautiful paragraph about the wide open landscape of southern kwaZulu-Natal, in what is in my view the most beautiful passage in South African literature:

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the tithoya, one of the birds of the veld.”

The contrast with the opening of Turbott Wolfe is indeed dramatic and is indicative of the wide differences between the two books. Plomer is, in spite of clear preference for a liberal point of view, a realist, while Paton is a romantic.

Indeed, despite the fact that Paton’s book has been hugely popular in many parts of the world, and has been the source of much of the world’s popular knowledge about South Africa, Plomer’s novel is perhaps a better, though far less well-known, work of art.

Both of these books are passionate works of art; Plomer’s work is passionate about art and literature and the issue of race is dealt with in that context. Paton’s work, on the other hand, is passionate about justice, about morality, and the issue of race is dealt with in that context.

Indeed Geoffrey Hutchings, writing in the excellent compendium Perspectives on South African English Literature (Ad Donker, 1992) could call Paton a “Puritan”: “He can be seen within a tradition of English Puritanism whose great figures include Sir Thomas More, John Milton, John Bunyan, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Florence Nightingale, W.E. Gladstone, D.H. Lawrence and F.R. Leavis – not, in other respects, a group with very much in common.” (Interestingly, Geoffrey Haresnape, writing on Plomer in Perspectives on South African English Literature, lists Turgenev, Conrad and E.M. Forster among Plomer’s literary forebears.)

Alan Paton

Yet he could write a few sentences earlier, “My story, begun in Norway and Sweden, was becoming a cry of protest against the injustices of my own country.”

(I find it interesting that these two novels also had such different births – Turbott Wolfe was conceived and born on a lonely trading station in rural kwaZulu-Natal of a 22-year-old; while Cry the Beloved was conceived and born in Europe and the United States of a 40-year-old on a study tour of penal institutions for juveniles. Both were also first novels for their respective authors.)

Cry the Beloved, in contrast to the almost exclusively white perspective of Turbott Wolfe, is written almost entirely from the perspective of a black Anglican parson, Steven Kumalo. However, the polemical nature of the writing does not encourage any depth of psychological insight, though such insight is not entirely lacking.

As Hutchings notes, “South Africa recognised itself reluctantly in his (Paton’s) portrait, and within a few years other writers had followed Paton, often in more horrifying detail.”

The “magic mirror” was held up to South Africans again, and again they did not like it too much.

Paton tells of sitting next to Mrs Malan, wife of the Nationalist Party Prime Minister Dr D.F. Malan, at the screening of the first movie made of the book. She said to him, “Surely, Mr Paton, you don’t really think things are like that.” To which he replied, “Madam, I lived in that world for thirteen years.” He writes that he did not add, “and you, madam, have never seen anything of it at all.”

Towards the Mountain

Both books end with images of mountains and valleys. Turbott Wolfe is on the train heading to the coast and back to England and death, and from the train window sees “the moonlight on the deserted barren mountains. They are turning and turning like roundabouts as the train turns round and about.”

And then he quotes a stanza of a poem:

Into the night, into the blanket of night,

Into the night rain gods, the night luck gods,

Overland goes the overland passenger train.”

Paton’s book ends with the priest looking out over the mountains and valleys where the story had started, and watching the sunrise, the sunrise which would be the last day of his son’s life, as the son was to be executed for murder that morning. And Steven Kumalo reflects on the experiences of the last weeks. At the moment when he thinks his son will die, he stands, removes his hat, and prays. As he does so the dawn finally breaks over the rim of the valley.

But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”

The Magic Mirror

In his introduction to Turbott Wolfe Laurens van der Post tells of how as children he and his friends would put a mirror in front of baboons they had caught. The baboons would be convinced that the image in the mirror was another baboon and they would search frantically for the other baboon, never accepting that the image in the mirror was their own.

In their highly neurotic and intelligent way they were convinced that a dirty trick was being played on them, and the exercise would end with them picking up the mirror and smashing it to pieces.”

Van der Post concluded, “This has always seemed to me a precise rendering of South Africa’s reaction to Turbott Wolfe.” One might add, to Cry the Beloved Country too.

Works cited

Chapman, Michael; Gardiner, Colin; and Mphahlele, Es’kia (eds) (1992): Perspectives on South African English Literature. Johannesburg: Ad Donker.

Paton, Alan (1948): Cry the Beloved Country. London: Jonathan Cape

Paton, Alan (1986): Towards the Mountain. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Plomer, William (1985): Turbott Wolfe. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Van der Post, Laurens (1985): The “Turbott Wolfe” Affair. Introduction to Plomer, William: Turbott Wolfe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.