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The Storyteller's Daughter

by Saira Shah

However carefully I watch the news, however many column inches I read, however many foreign correspondents' reports I hear, I find it impossible to imagine what it is like to be living in a middle-eastern country at the moment. The Storyteller's Daughter, however, takes me there, furnishing my mind with the characters, the houses, the customs, the food and the zeitgeist of the Afghan people. Saira Shah can make you sweat and squirm with discomfort at wearing the burqa, she can make you breathless with the heat and claustrophobia.

Shah grew up in Tunbridge Wells, daughter of a half Afghan, half Scottish father and an Indian mother. The stories she grew up with were those of Afghan warriors and their heroic deeds, bloodthirsty legends of wily warlords who managed to survive in a country that had been, throughout its history, at the mercy of invading armies. She developed a fierce pride in her heritage and an attitude to life and death that was "particularly unsuitable for life in leafy Tunbridge Wells". Above all, she could never admit to feeling fear.

In an interview she has said, "'Two people live inside me. Like a couple who rarely speaks, they are not compatible. My Western side is a sensitive, liberal, middle-class pacifist. My Afghan side I can only describe as a rapacious robber baron. It revels in bloodshed, glories in risk and will not be afraid." She goes on to explain, "I think it was really important to my father that we didn't grow up feeling we didn't belong anywhere. He wanted us to have a metaphorical homeland, so he created a community out of stories. The only thing that surprises me was how amazed and horrified he was when I turned around at 21 and said, 'Well I'm going there, if that's where I come from.'"

The Storyteller's Daughter recounts Saira Shah's two journeys to Afghanistan, the first when she was a very young woman and later, when, as a Channel 4 reporter, she went there to make a documentary about the lives of women, 'Beneath the Veil'. The book is dedicated to her close friend and colleague, James Miller, the director who was killed in the making of the film.

Her narration is sometimes very funny - descriptions of her extended family are hilarious - and at times very tense as she finds herself in impossibly dangerous situations - disguised as a boy travelling with a group of mujahidin or threading her way through minefields. At the same time it is an account of a spiritual journey that allowed Shah to explore the myths and legends about the people of her father's tales and reconcile them with the liberal Western values with which she had grown up.

This is a fascinating book that helps make sense of a very complex situation.


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