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Of Facts And Fables In Afghanistan

Author Greg Mortenson with Pakistani schoolchildren
Author Greg Mortenson with Pakistani schoolchildren
Greg Mortenson’s best-selling “Three Cups of Tea” earned him millions of dollars and a global reputation as an altruistic humanitarian.

He was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Recent media investigations contend, however, that Mortenson has not only fabricated a story about being kidnapped by tribes in Waziristan but also misused millions of dollars donated for the construction of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This scandal is but the latest involving Western writers who have traveled to Afghanistan and either exaggerated or blatantly lied about what they saw in order to make names for themselves and sell books., a blog that covers Central Asia, once published a comic guide to writing about Afghanistan. The guide is inspired by Christian Bleuer’s “29 Tips For Bad Writing On Afghanistan” and a famous comic guide by Binyavanga Wainaina, “How To Write About Africa,” in which both writers mock how foreign journalists depict these parts of the world and aim to provide some “simple things to keep in mind in order to keep standards as low as they currently are."

It seems like Mortenson had read’s sarcastic guide on how to write about Afghanistan so as to attract readers, earn credibility as an expert, and eventually become a millionaire by selling lots of books full of sensationalism and drama. Indeed, Mortenson’s “kidnapping accident” in Waziristan sounds exactly like one of the suggested techniques: “Treat Afghanistan as if it were one indistinct mass. It is hot and dry all year, and full of angry, heavily armed religious fanatics who spend all their time torching girls’ schools and kidnapping Western journalists.”

Just Can't Compete

In "Three Cups Of Tea," Mortenson described his host, Mansoor Khan Mahsud, as an "emerging Taliban commander" who held Mortenson captive for several days. Mahsud rejected this allegation and said Mortenson was his guest for two weeks and that his fellow tribe members took care of him and offered the most generous hospitality.

The made-up kidnapping is a case in point. The actual story of hospitable, friendly Pashtuns just couldn't compete with the more striking image of wild-eyed, violent tribesmen. Therefore, Mortenson invented a story that would sensationalize his experience and enthrall more readers.

National Public Radio quoted Mortenson as saying that his publisher, Viking Press, also played a role in the decision to dramatize his story. And that is understandable. Because in order to get sympathy and eventually a broader audience, most writers overuse terms to dramatize events. The guide, for instance, suggests using attention-grabbing phrases like “war-torn."

One sees this trend in the media’s description of Kandahar -- one of the region’s most ancient cities, historically known as Gandahara, and whose name translates into “sugar necklace” -- as “the birthplace of the Taliban.” The city has given Afghanistan its most influential leaders, intellectuals, poets, writers, and architects for centuries. But all that is lost under the fog of some ugly buzzwords.

The Other Side Of Helmand

Another hotspot in the news is Helmand. This province was once dubbed “Little America” for serving as the center of a USAID development project, The Helmand Valley Authority, from 1949-63. Famous among tourists for its green landscape, Helmand was a flourishing agriculture region. However, during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s and since 2001, when the Taliban government was overthrown by U.S.-allied forces, things took a turn for the worse. Taliban insurgents turned Helmand into their main center of command for planning and carrying out attacks on foreign and Afghan forces. Helmand is also the world's largest opium-producing region.

But there is another picture of Helmand that the media largely ignores: one that shows a place where construction projects are under way, health clinics are opening, and children -- boys and girls -- go to school. A recent concert in Helmand featured the popular female Afghan singer Farzana Naz, who appeared without a head covering. But these positive attributes are not as well-known because Helmand’s reputation as the birthplace of the Taliban insurgency makes a “sexier” story.

Most of the foreign writers covering Afghanistan are locked into the notion that the tribesmen on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border are fanatical xenophobes, the eternal "warrior race." They ignore the fact that this is also the land of Bacha Khan, a “nonviolent soldier of Islam” and “the Frontier Gandhi."

Born in Peshawer, Khyber Pukhtonkhwa, as Abdul Ghafar Khan, Bacha Khan (King Khan) was a Pashtun leader and close friend of India’s Mohandas Karam Chand Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi). He is known for his nonviolent struggle against the British role in India. He was a devoted Muslim who persuaded Pashtuns to follow the route of nonviolence.

Truth Of The Matter

On the subject of Afghan hospitality and Mortenson’s deception about this generous and imperative pillar of Afghan culture, another book -- and the controversy it stirred -- comes to mind. Like “Three Cups Of Tea,” it, too, was a best seller.

In "The Bookseller Of Kabul," a Norwegian journalist told the story of a Kabul bookseller who still maintains a famous bookshop in the city. Shah Muhammad Raes, named in the book as Sultan Khan, is portrayed as an oppressor who treats his family, especially his female relatives, harshly, and refuses to educate his sons. But the truth of the matter is that he actually saved hundreds of books during Afghanistan’s civil war.

It all started when Asne Seierstad asked Shah Muhammad if she could stay with his family for a period of time and write about their lives. He agreed. Seisrstad stayed for almost six months. When she completed the book and it became a best seller, her host sued her for fabricating the events she claimed to have witnessed at his home. Not only did she tear apart his reputation in public, she had intimately described one of the women of Muhammad’s family. Seierstad wrote an explicit account of the young girl’s breasts and genitals while taking a bath in a hammam.

In a female hammam, everyone can see everyone. However, it is hard to justify putting this in the book, unless one wants to add sexual explicitness for Western readers regardless of the consequences for those mentioned back in Afghanistan. Afghan woman seldom leave their homes after reaching adulthood. Sexual discussion is taboo in Afghan society. Talking about somebody’s genitalia is considered vulgar and brings extreme shame to the family. Never mind putting such details in a book that sells millions of copies, is translated into various languages -- including Dari, one of two Afghan official languages -- and distributed throughout the world. Plus, I am sure Shah did not host Seierstad knowing that she would write sexual portraits of his female relatives.

Couldn't Face Them

Here’s how I see the situation as an Afghan who has enjoyed the hospitality of Americans: Several years ago, I was a Fulbright scholar who participated in a Chicago-based seminar on Afghanistan. The member families of the community that organized the seminar each hosted two students. I was fortunate to stay with a family of four people -- two parents and their two daughters. It would be cruel were I to write ill about my extremely nice and hospitable Chicago host family, with whom I stayed in 2008 and 2009. Would I ever have be able to face them again if I wrote atrocious things in exchange for their having treated me as a prince? Even if the well-mannered mother had beaten her two teenage daughters, I would have not judged the American people from that Illinois family as Seirstad presented Shah’s family as a picture of the whole Afghan nation.

Shah Muhammad Raes was so angry about the book that he flew to Norway, successfully sued Seierstad, and wrote his own book, "Once There Was A Bookseller In Kabul."

The sensationalizing of Afghanistan doesn’t end there. "Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil" is the best-selling story of Michigan hairdresser Deborah Rodriguez, who travels to Afghanistan, falls in love with the country, and sets up a beauty school in Kabul. She tells dramatic tales, including helping a bride fake her virginity on her wedding night and preventing the school from being seized by the government. The subjects of her book, however, claim she fabricated much of the story. Rodriguez ended up marrying a warlord, a subordinate to the brutal Northern Alliance commander Rashid Dostum, a powerful figure in Afghan politics. That explains how Rodriguez was able to save her beauty school.

"[The book] makes Debbie out to be Mother Theresa. And it's wrong," Sheila McGurk, Rodriguez’s former colleague, told “The New York Times.” But, unfortunately, that’s too often how it has to be when foreigners write about Afghanistan. People are not interested in reading a story about just another ordinary person; you have to be a hero to impress. Too many Western writers try to portray themselves as selfless, Mother Theresa-like figures who venture to an exotic and dangerous country to single-handedly save the natives.

Fabrication, exaggeration and drama seem to be necessary elements in writing about Afghanistan today. After spending some time in Afghanistan, the Western writers become famous millionaires and “experts” for writing about the locals’ misery. A better approach to writing about the country would be for writers to acknowledge their ignorance of the place and to understand that Afghanistan, like any country, is a complex land that offers more than just terrorism, fundamentalism, and poverty.

Andrea Busfield, the writer of "Born Under A Million Shadows" -- a novel I edited for cultural accuracy -- put her experience this way: “Afghanistan had been generous to me. I went there single and curious, and I left 2 1/2 years later, richer and wiser, with a dog and a boyfriend."

Bashir Ahmad Gwakh is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL