Tuesday, January 1

In the middle

Soldiers in the Afghanistan National Army are on a quick learning curve - not simply practical lessons in securing their country but maintaining a delicate balance among many, many competing factions. Luke Mogelson embeds with an ANA unit and profiles Lt. Col. Mohammad Daowood, a battalion commander for the New York Times

He asks some of the Afghan soldiers what are they fighting for: " Most of them, when I asked, answered with the word 'watan,' or 'homeland.' But what does the notion of a homeland mean for someone who has seen his ruled by monarchists, dictators, communists, mujahedeen, Islamic fundamentalists and Karzai?"

The ANA troops are being weaned from US support, and a reader can find as many connections as differences between the concerns of Afghans and Americans. The soldiers don't always agree with the choices made by US commanders. They don't always agree with their own government. And they are wary about corruption, which weakens a society from within. Ordinary citizens must be vigilant, both resisting corruption's draw and taking risks by speaking out. Mogelson describes a plea that convinced the Afghan commander at the center of his article to join the effort: "If good men don’t participate, the criminals will take over. We have to reclaim this country from them."

The article makes me nostalgic for writing about Laashekoh, my invented village in Fear of Beauty.  Consider this passage: "Apple orchards and trees with white trunks and bright yellow leaves crowd the basin. Dark canyons branch into the mountains. A single road follows the river deeper into the valley, connecting the lawless foothills of the Hindu Kush to Highway 1, a critical transit route that bridges Kabul and Kandahar, northern and southern Afghanistan." The article is set in the Chaki district of Wardak, not too far from northern Helmand, the province of Laashekoh, per the handy distance calculator for Afghanistan. And another Afghan soldier reminisces about his home: "The river was wide and clear, bountiful with fish. The people were kind; the air was fresh; the fruit was sweet."

The soldiers even crash a wedding.

The Afghan soldiers have a big job - to provide a sense of security by protecting families and homes. But in the end, Afghans are the only ones who can really accomplish peace at home.

Monday, December 31

Favorite bits

Mary Robinette Kowal asked me to select a Favorite Bit from Fear of Beauty and write about it - and I chose a section in the middle of the book, pages 190 to 193, when main character Sofi recalls the last  day she spent with her father, as she leaves the village where she was raised and heads off for a new life and marriage.

Writers can learn much about the craft - character development, motivation, choices in setting or plotting - with close readings, their own analysis and that supplied by authors. Be sure to check out some of the other intriguing posts, too!


"Unfortunately, when rituals are prioritized over spirituality at this tender young age, religion can become restrictive rather than liberating," writes Asma T. Uddin, founder and editor in chief of Altmuslimah. She and other writers of various faiths were asked to debate when does a religious upbringing cross the line from nurturing to oppressive.

Religion is too restrictive when it limits basic human rights, opportunities, education, curiosity - the growth of the human spirit. Religions lose influence and sustainability when their leaders must rely on manipulation, commercialism or threats to win over hearts and minds.

As noted in Fear of Beauty, "There’s no reason to fear comparisons and inquiries that come with good intentions.... Believers cannot fear the nonbelievers. Those who resist questions or comparisons lack true faith."

Children and families do make comparisons in a diverse society.
Responsibility for spirituality rests with parents, maintains Uddin, and people do change their minds. Yet too many parents lack the confidence to examine teachings and make a choice, and for others, religion is but another passing fashion.

Photo of Afghan child in Garmsir, courtesy of US Marine Corps and Wikimedia Commons


Reading a mystery, getting caught up in a setting along with suspense, I can't help but get hungry for the type of food being described.

And so here is food for thought for readers of Fear of Beauty who might feel the same way and are searching for recipes with pomegranates, saffron, lamb, carrots, raisins, yogurt, grains, grains, and many more, vegetables, fruit, nuts  and spices as ingredients. Here are a few links to recipes from Afghanistan from AfghanOnline.com and AsiaRecipe.com.

And Christi Qazi offers a reminder in Afghan-web.com to prepare for unexpected guests: "Guests are revered and even in families, people often just drop in with little or no notice and to not have food for them would be unheard of even in the most spur of the moment situations."

Photo of  Afghan feast in Jani Khel district by Fred W. Baker III, courtesy of US Department of Defense and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 28


Literacy is essential.

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.” ― Kofi Annan

Thursday, December 27

Women helping women

"Each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces has a Women’s Affairs office... the front line in the Afghan government’s effort to advance women’s rights – and to fight violence against women.... For example, Human Rights Watch has heard of cases where, in provinces with no shelter for women fleeing violence (there are only 14 such shelters in all of Afghanistan) Women’s Affairs staff members have protected battered women in the staffers’ own homes, at great personal risk."
Maybe Sofi is reasonable to hide her teacher - and it's not a case of kidnapping after all. Afghan women can help other women, but only secretly.

Tuesday, December 25

Public prayer

Public prayer is treacherous territory for politicians, whether one offers a new sentiments or repeats a familiar verse. Prayer is laden with symbolism and emotion, and in public transforms into a message of persuasion. The audience may or may not agree, and the choice of words, tone, place can influence the prayer's reception.

For too many politicians, when difficult action is required, public prayers become a means of evading responsibility or accountability.  Private prayer can be about making demands ... or confronting personal responsibility.

And that's why a mystery author finds herself writing about prayer and religion - because disagreement over values and beliefs can lead to power struggles and lethal conflict.

John Newton, the same man who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," wrote about "Public Prayer" and warned that some prayers were too much like preaching, a common failing among politicians. "The studied addresses with which some approach the throne of grace remind us of a stranger's coming to a great man's door; he knocks and waits, sends in his name, and goes through a course of ceremony, before he gains admittance, while a child of the family uses no ceremony at all, but enters freely when he pleases, because he knows he is at home," Newton warns. "Some attention to method may be proper, for the prevention of repetitions; and plain people may be a little defective in it sometimes; but this defect will not be half so tiresome and disagreeable as a studied and artificial exactness."

It's for each to decide which is better - public prayer that's awkward, self-serving and poor in form or no prayer at all.

Photo of nomad praying in the desert, courtesy of Kazimierz Nowak and Wikimedia Commons. Nowak, a Polish correspondent and photographer, is described by Wikimedia Commons as likely the first man in the world who crossed Africa alone from North to South and from South to North on foot, bicycle and canoe.