Tuesday, 31 July 2012


Parvana is the first in a series of books about an Afghan family living in Kabul in the early years after the Taliban took control in 1996. I had accidentally read the second book in the series, Parvana's Journey first, but this didn't hamper my enjoyment of Parvana (published as The Breadwinner in the USA and perhaps elsewhere).

Parvana (The Breadwinner) is another quick read. The writing style is simple and direct, but it's quite a compelling tale. I enjoyed reading this book even though I had read the sequel first. It certainly helped fill in the holes in my understanding of the story.

Parvana is living in Kabul with her family. Her oldest brother has already died, killed by a landmine. The family has been forced to move repeatedly each time as their home has been destroyed, each time they move into a smaller dwelling. When we meet Parvana and her family they are living in a single room. Her father had been a teacher, her mother a writer at a radio station. Both have been forced out of their jobs, and the family now subsists on the meagre living that they eek out by Parvana's father selling his skills at reading and writing in the local market. Parvana, her mother and her sisters are not allowed out of the house by themselves, venturing out only if accompanied by a male member of their family.

The first chapter is rather extraordinary and sobering reading. It's almost incomprehensible to the comfortable Western reader I think. How can we imagine the life of this girl and her family?

Bombs had been part of Parvana's whole life. Every day, every night, rockets would fall out of the sky, and someone's house would explode.

I learnt a number of things that I didn't know about life in Afghanistan at this time. The Taliban required windows to be painted black, women weren't allowed on a bus without a man accompanying them. Photographs were illegal. I didn't know landmines had been disguised as toys, imagine designing bombs to kill children. These were apparently Russian bombs.

At one stage Ellis challenges our thoughts about the men who are part of the Taliban. Parvana reads a letter for a Taliban soldier. The Talib has shaky hands, and a tear rolls down his face in response to Parvana reading the letter to his dead wife.

Could they have feelings of sorrow, like other human beings?

My Australian copy has a small section at the back about Afghans in Australia. I knew that there had been Afghan people and camels in central Australia for some time. That they had been essential to the exploration of Central Australia and the building of the Overland Telegraph Line between Port Augusta and Darwin. Indeed there are now large populations of feral camels in Central Australia, they are causing a number of environmental problems.

Anyway in one of my (rather common) d'oh moments I learnt that the Ghan, the famous train from Adelaide to Alice Springs, and now to Darwin, which has a camel painted on the side, is named after the Afghan cameleers. Ghan. Afghan. D'oh.

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