Land of the High Flags: Afghanistan When the Going Was Good, by Rosanne Klass (Odyssey, 358 pp., $19.95)
The history of Afghanistan, once known as the “crossroads of the world,” is riven with brutal invasions and world abandonment. Barbarism, slavery, ruthlessness, and disease existed side by side with the country’s enormous physical beauty and the elaborate, formalized hospitality of its people. Conquerors razed Afghanistan’s extraordinary ancient cities and exquisite court palaces—Herat, Ghazni, and Balkh. Genghis Khan, and later Tamerlane, slaughtered significant portions of the Afghan population and returned to the country to conduct raids on the survivors, leaving precious little in the way of art or architecture. Alexander the Great also conquered Afghanistan on his way to India, though his soldiers tended to leave behind descendants rather than smoldering ruins.
Most Afghan kings were brutal to their own people, who were, after all, a permanently armed male population, always ready to fight for village, tribe, or warlord against central governments, including those of native kings and would-be conquerors. Even the Victorian-era British learned that Afghanistan could not be tamed; so, too, did the Soviet Union. America’s intervention in Afghanistan, though based not on colonialism or aggression but rather on justified political goals, has failed in its own ways.
Yet despite the continued dangers of terrorism and political chaos, the land continues to attract Western traders, travelers, teachers, and do-gooders, with its real and imagined nobility, its charming hospitality, and its wondrous geographical beauty. It has also attracted its share of writers. Rudyard Kipling conveys the indigenous nature of Afghan barbarism (along with the indigenous foolishness of Westerners in search of gold and glory) in his story “The Man Who Would Be King.” In 2002, an intrepid Scotsman, Rory Stewart, published an account of his extraordinary walking trip through Afghanistan, The Places in Between. The next year saw the appearance of Norwegian author Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul, which describes her life with an Afghan family after the fall of the Taliban. And in 2007, Deborah Rodriguez published Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil, her memoir of teaching Afghan women the art of hairdressing.
Now comes a reissued edition of an extraordinary gem of a book: Rosanne Klass’s Land of the High Flags: Afghanistan When the Going Was Good. Klass first published the book in 1964, and she has added a new afterword. Hers is a world-class travel memoir that conjures all of the heart-stopping beauty that called out to me when I first traveled to Afghanistan in the early 1960s. Klass went there with her American husband in the 1950s to teach English in a school for men and boys from remote villages. It was the first school of its kind, and Klass was the first woman to teach male students in the country. As an “uncovered” woman—that is, one not wearing a burka—she handled the men’s inevitable fear and hostility with patience and grace. Ultimately, she befriended both her students and the recalcitrant mullahs who also taught at the school.
Klass returned to Afghanistan in the 1960s as a journalist. Later, after the Soviet invasion, she founded the Afghanistan Relief Committee, which provided medical and other humanitarian aid to victims inside the war-torn country. Her home in New York City became a first stop for her many Afghan friends and former students who were now ambassadors, cabinet ministers, or in exile. In the 1980s, Klass directed the Afghanistan Information Center at Freedom House, a major source of human-rights information for the American and international media.
The beauty of Klass’s writing recreates a shimmering and more hopeful time. Klass preserves for us in words, and with reverence, the Afghan people’s history and customs (the arts of long conversations and of reciting poetry by heart, for instance), as well as holidays, palaces, fortresses, precious artifacts, and the non-Muslim religious wonders—like the great Buddhas of Bamyan, destroyed by the Taliban—that have almost all disappeared from this seemingly cursed land. Such epic destruction has happened here before. Through Klass, I can once again see the kuchi nomads “impassively” passing through Kabul, with their long line of “shaggy Bactrian camels . . . the women walked proudly besides them—unveiled, vivid, dressed in black and scarlet, and decked with silver bangles. In the city, where purdah sent local women fluttering shyly from attention, the proud indifference of these handsome Kuchi women seemed imperious.”
Klass also renders the country’s geography: the towering mountains, the steep, winding roads, the torrential rivers, the Edenic valleys and forests—as well as the incredible flowers and brilliant gardens that were so much a part of the terrain, at least back then. She understands the hold that this landscape can exert upon a human being.
Klass’s descriptions also bring back to life the din and smells of the Kabul bazaars, fraught with clutter and exquisite finds. Through her, I can reenter the neighborhoods where I once lived or visited—Jaidi Maiwand, Shari-Nau, Carta Kia—and the nearby winter and summer villas and gardens in Jalalabad, Itstalif, and Paghman. She describes Da Afghanan, a lesser bazaar, as “an old Curiosity Shop of the world” in which ”these heaps of battered necessities were crowned with wild, gaudy jewels: a gilded French telephone or a sheaf of lacquered Uzbeck spoons; a volume of Sir Walter Scott, an exquisitely molded Greek coin turned up by some plow. . . . Once I found an old mortarboard cap from Oxford University and could only wonder what disillusion had banished it to lie amid a scattering of old crockery in a dark corner. It seemed as though, from the Universe of Objects, the crippled, the lame, the halt and the blind had all found their way here to await the day when someone might possibly look upon them again and find them good.”
The Land of the High Flags is many books: it is a thumbnail history of Afghanistan; a psychological and political analysis of its most powerful kings (Abdur Rahman, Habibullah, Amanullah); a list of its most important native literary sons; a travel guide to its cities, villages, and countryside, replete with personal and professional photos; an almost satirical analysis of the social pecking order; and the story of a country trying to enter the modern era while being brutally beaten down. Above all, it is a story about Klass’s relationship with individual Afghans and with the Afghan people as a whole. She renders a particularly touching portrait of Gul Baz Khan, her colonial-era “house-man”—something like a personal concierge or butler. Often inscrutable, comically manipulative, industrious, and proud, he ruled Klass’s heart and household with consummate deference and skill.
A few quibbles. Klass cannot tell us very much about Afghan women. Their absence haunts her pages, where they appear only briefly, just turning a corner, heard on the other side of a high wall, shrouded in burkas or chadaris. The portrait she paints of her male Afghan students, therefore, is also incomplete. She portrays them as bashful, innocent, noble, and good-hearted, people who, even when treated sadistically by tyrannical teachers and laid low by poverty, illness, and early death, remain stoic and uncomplaining. Yet many of these seemingly charming, tender boys are likely cruel toward their wives—and they probably have more than one, as revealed in books like Edward Hunter’s The Past Present, and confirmed by my own acquaintance, in Kabul, with women living in purdah and in polygamous marriages. However open-minded the boys may be about foreign women, their views about their “own” women are more subject to tradition. Even nearly half a century later, in The Bookseller of Kabul, author Seierstad describes being befriended by and invited to live with a bookseller, a man with a Western intellectual background who nevertheless was a brutal tyrant to the women of his family. Seierstad’s depiction of his behavior has led to a lawsuit as well as a published rebuttal.
These gaps notwithstanding, the beauty of Klass’s book both uplifts and consoles. I will leave the last word to her, as she describes a long trip outside Kabul: “You must live in a dry land to know what a garden is. The very word paradise comes from the Persian word for ‘garden,’ and Eden must have been much like the valley of Panjsher: an island of sunlit greenness and coolness and flowing water; that is what Genesis says: that Eden had trees and a river. It is a definition. Those who described this must have known waterless plains . . . where there is no sustenance but what can be wrenched from the earth by endless labor and unrelenting struggle. They knew what . . . I could here begin to comprehend: the terror of Adam and Eve, driven from such a world as this green valley out onto the sun-blanched rocky earth which they had hardly glimpsed, and never heeded, beyond the leafy edges of their paradise; and forbidden to return.”