The Storyteller's Daughter: One Woman's Return to Her Lost Homeland

The Storyteller's Daughter: One Woman's Return to Her Lost Homeland

by Saira Shah


View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Get it by Wednesday, May 23 ,  Order by 12:00 PM Eastern and choose Expedited Delivery during checkout.
    Same Day delivery in Manhattan. 


The Storyteller's Daughter: One Woman's Return to Her Lost Homeland by Saira Shah

Imagine that a jewel-like garden overlooking Kabul is your ancestral home. Imagine a kitchen made fragrant with saffron strands and cardamom pods simmering in an authentic pilau. Now remember that you were born in London, your family in exile, and that you have never seen Afghanistan in peacetime.

These are but the starting points of Saira Shah’s memoir, by turns inevitably exotic and unavoidably heartbreaking, in which she explores her family’s history in and out of Afghanistan. As an accomplished journalist and documentarian–her film Beneath the Veil unflinchingly depicted for CNN viewers the humiliations forced on women under Taliban rule–Shah returned to her family’s homeland cloaked in the burqa to witness the pungent and shocking realities of Afghan life. As the daughter of the Sufi fabulist Idries Shah, primed by a lifetime of listening to her father’s stories, she eagerly sought out, from the mouths of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the rich and living myths that still sustain this battered culture of warriors. And she discovered that in Afghanistan all the storytellers have been men–until now.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400031474
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/12/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.54(d)

About the Author

Saira Shah lives in London and is a freelance journalist. She was born in Britain of an Afghan family, the daughter of Idries Shah, a writer of Sufi fables. She first visited Afghanistan at age twenty-one and worked there for three years as a freelance journalist, covering the guerilla war against the Soviet occupiers. Later, working for Britain’s Channel 4 News, she covered some of the world’s most troubled spots, including Algeria, Kosovo, and Kinshasa, as well as Baghdad and other parts of the Middle East. Her documentary Beneath the Veil was broadcast on CNN.

Read an Excerpt

Book One
The Garden

Wherever there is a spring of fresh water, men and bees and ants will gather.
-Jalaluddin Rumi


Iam three years old. I am sitting on my father's knee. He is telling me of a magical place: the fairytale landscape you enter in dreams. Fountains fling diamond droplets into mosaic pools. Coloured birds sing in the fruit-laden orchards. The pomegranates burst and their insides are rubies. Fruit is so abundant that even the goats are fed on melons. The water has magical properties: you can fill to bursting with fragrant pilau, then step to the brook and drink-and you will be ready to eat another meal.

On three sides of the plateau majestic mountains tower, capped with snow. The fourth side overlooks a sunny valley where, gleaming far below, sprawls a city of villas and minarets. And here is the best part of the story: it is true.

The garden is in Paghman, where my family had its seat for nine hundred years. The jewel-like city it overlooks is the Afghan capital, Kabul. The people of Paghman call the capital Kabul jan: beloved Kabul. We call it that too, for this is where we belong.

"Whatever outside appearances may be, no matter who tells you otherwise, this garden, this country, these are your origin. This is where you are truly from. Keep it in your heart, Saira jan. Never forget."

Any western adult might have told me that this was an exile's tale of a lost Eden: the place you dream about, to which you can never return. But even then, I wasn't going to accept that. Even then, I had absorbed enough of the East to feel I belonged there. And too much of the West not to try to nail down dreams.

My father understood the value of stories: he was a writer. My parents had picked Kent as an idyllic place to bring up their children, but we were never allowed to forget our Afghan background.

Periodically during my childhood, my father would come upon the kitchen like a storm. Western systematic method quickly melted before the inspiration of the East. Spice jars tumbled down from their neat beechwood rack and disgorged heaps of coloured powder on to the melamine sideboard. Every pan was pressed into service and extra ones were borrowed from friends and neighbours. The staid old Aga wheezed exotic vapours-saffran, zeera, gashneesh; their scents to this day are as familiar to me as my own breath.

In the midst of this mayhem presided my father, the alchemist. Like so many expatriates, when it came to maintaining the traditions, customs and food of his own country he was plus royaliste que le roi. Rather than converting lead into gold, my father's alchemical art transported our English country kitchen to the furthest reaches of the Hindu Kush.

We children were the sorcerer's apprentices: we chopped onions and split cardamom pods, nibbling the fragrant black seeds as we worked. We crushed garlic and we peeled tomatoes. He showed us how to steep saffron, to strain yoghurt and to cook the rice until it was dana-dar, possessing grains-that is, to the point where it crumbles into three or four perfect round seeds if you rub it between your fingers.

In the kitchen, my father's essential Afghaniyat, Afghan-ness, was most apparent. The Afghan love of pilau is as fundamental to the national character as the Italian fondness for spaghetti. The Amir Habibullah, a former ruler of Afghanistan, would demolish a vast meal of pilau, meatballs and sauce for lunch, then turn to his courtiers and ask: "Now, noblemen and friends, what shall we cook tonight?"

We knew to produce at least three times more pilau than anyone could ever be expected to eat. Less would have been an insult to our name and contrary to the Afghan character. As my great-great-great-grandfather famously roared: "How dare you ask me for a small favour?"

If, at any point, my father found himself with an unexpected disaster-rice that went soggy or an overboiling pan that turned the Aga's hotplate into a sticky mess-he would exclaim: "Back in Afghanistan, we had cooks to do this work!"

He would tell us, with Afghan hyperbole: "We are making a Shahi pilau, a pilau fit for kings. This recipe has been handed down through our family since it was prepared for up to four thousand guests at the court of your ancestors. It is far better than the pilau you will find when you visit homes in Afghanistan today."

On one notable occasion, my father discovered the artificial food colouring, tartrazine. A pilau-making session was instantly convened. Like a conjurer pulling off a particularly effective trick, he showed us how just one tiny teaspoon could transform a gigantic cauldron of pilau to a virulent shade of yellow. We were suitably impressed. From that moment on, traditional saffron was discarded for this intoxicating substance.

Years later, I learned that all of the Afghan dishes my father had taught me diverged subtly from their originals. His method of finishing off the parboiled rice in the oven, for example, was an innovation of his own. Straining yoghurt through cheesecloth turned out to be merely the first stage in an elaborate process. In Kent, rancid sheep's fat was hard to come by, so he substituted butter. Cumin was an Indian contamination. And so it went on.

Yet although his methods and even his ingredients were different, my father's finished dishes tasted indistinguishable from the originals. He had conveyed their essential quality; the minutiae had been swept away.

During these cookery sessions, we played a wonderful game. We planned the family trip to Afghanistan that always seemed to be just round the corner. How we would go back to Paghman, stroll in the gardens, visit our old family home and greet the relatives we had never met. When we arrived in the Paghman mountains, the men would fire their guns in the air-we shouldn't worry, that was the Afghan way of welcome and celebration. They would carry us on their shoulders, whooping and cheering, and in the evening we would eat a pilau that eclipsed even the great feasts of the court of our ancestors.

My mother's family background, which is Parsee from India, rarely got a look in. As far as my father was concerned, his offspring were pure Afghan. For years, the mere mention of the Return was enough to stoke us children into fits of excitement. It was so much more alluring than our mundane Kentish lives, which revolved round the family's decrepit Land Rover and our pet Labrador, Honey.

"Can we take the Land Rover?" asked my brother Tahir.

"We shall take a fleet of Land Rovers," said my father grandly.

My sister Safia piped up: "Can we take Honey?"

There was an uncomfortable pause. Even my father's flight of fantasy balked at introducing to Afghans as a beloved member of our family that unclean animal, the dog.

When I was fifteen, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan. During a pilau-making session quite soon after that, I voiced an anxiety that had been growing for some time now. How could my father expect us to be truly Afghan when we had grown up outside an Afghan community? When we went back home, wouldn't we children be strangers, foreigners in our own land? I expected, and possibly hoped for, the soothing account of our triumphant and imminent return to Paghman. It didn't come. My father looked tired and sad. His answer startled me: "I've given you stories to replace a community. They are your community."

"But surely stories can't replace experience."

He picked up a packet of dehydrated onion. "Stories are like these onions-like dried experience. They aren't the original experience but they are more than nothing at all. You think about a story, you turn it over in your mind, and it becomes something else." He added hot water to the onion. "It's not fresh onion-fresh experience-but it is something that can help you to recognize experience when you come across it. Experiences follow patterns, which repeat themselves again and again. In our tradition, stories can help you recognize the shape of an experience, to make sense of and to deal with it. So, you see, what you may take for mere snippets of myth and legend encapsulate what you need to know to guide you on your way anywhere among Afghans."

"Well, as soon as I'm eighteen I'm going to go to see for myself," I said, adding craftily: "Then perhaps I'll have fresh experiences that will help me grow up."

My father had been swept along on the tide of his analogy. Now, he suddenly became a parent whose daughter was at an impressionable age and whose country was embroiled in a murderous war.

"If you would only grow up a little in the first place," he snapped, "then you would realize that you don't need to go at all."

April 2001

At thirty-six years old, Ihave never seen Afghanistan at peace. I am choking under the burqa, the pale blue veil, which begins in a cap upon my head. It covers my face, my body, my arms and my legs, and is long enough to trip me up in my muddy plastic shoes. A crocheted grille obscures my vision. A grid of black shadows intersects trees, fields and the white road outside. It is like looking out through prison bars.

I have not had enough air for four hours now and we have eight more to go before we reach Kabul. I have an almost irresistible urge to do whatever it takes to breathe, simply breathe. How can I describe it? I want to rip off the burqa in the way that a drowning man will grapple his rescuer in his urge to reach the air above. But I cannot: it is all that protects me from the Taliban. Even lifting the front flap of my burqa is a crime, punishable by a beating.

In the front of the car, the taxi driver fumbles in a secret compartment and produces a cassette. It is a good sign: music is banned. I was told that we would have a safe car with a driver we knew, but when it came down to it, we jumped into a taxi at random. If he is willing to play music in front of us, perhaps the taxi driver and we may trust each other. We are fellow conspirators. Perhaps he will not give us away.

Afghan popular music blares out, singing of lover and beloved. The Taliban detest this kind of language. The refrain goes, "Jan, jan . . ." and I feel a sudden flash of happiness. It's crazy: in ten minutes, I could be dead. But I can't help myself. We are heading for Kabul-beloved Kabul.

On the face of it, I am a journalist, filming a documentary for Channel Four Television, called Beneath the Veil, about the Taliban's Afghanistan. Now I have left my crew behind, to travel in disguise with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

We have just crossed the border illegally into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. As a Westerner, if I am caught, I may be imprisoned and accused of espionage. If the Taliban discover my family history and decide I am an Afghan, then I share the same risks as the Afghan women who are helping me: torture, a bullet in the head or simply disappearing in Pul i Charki, Kabul's notorious political prison. The women are willing to take this risk because they belong to an organization that opposes the Taliban. Their activities-secret schools and clinics for women-are already politically subversive enough to get them killed.

Beside me, my female companion is being sick. She holds a plastic bag, and vomits without lifting her burqa.

I don't need to ask her what she is doing here: I need to ask myself.

For many years, in the secret cubbyhole where precious things were stored, my father kept a dusty file containing two pieces of paper. The first was the crumbling title deed to our estate in Paghman. The other was our family tree, stretching back before the Prophet Muhammad, two thousand years back, to the time before my family had even heard of Afghanistan.

The title deed was no longer worth the paper it was written on. In Afghanistan, if you are not present to defend your property, you had better be prepared to take it back by the gun. As for our family tree, we didn't need a piece of paper to tell us who we were. My father, and his father before him, saw to it that our lineage was etched on our hearts.

Our family traces its descent through Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The man who, during his lifetime, founded one of the world's great monotheistic religions, who united the feuding tribes of Arabia, and who could have accumulated wealth beyond compare, but died in poverty. On his deathbed he left this bequest: "I have nothing to leave you, except my family." Since then, his descendants have been revered throughout the Muslim world. They are entitled to use the honorific Sayed.

My grandfather maintained that ancestry was something to try to live up to, not to boast about. As an old man, his hooded, faintly Mongolian eyes, his hooked nose and his tall karakul lambskin hat made him look like an inscrutable sage from a Mughal miniature. I remember this venerable figure telling me a joke: "They asked a mule: 'What kind of creature are you?' He replied: 'Well, my mother was a horse!'"

The old man laughed, enjoying the punch-line, and so did I, though I barely understood it. "Do you understand? He was only a mule, but he boasted of the horse, his ancestor! So, you see, Saira jan, it is less important who your forebears were than what you yourself become."

Islam, as I absorbed it, was a tolerant philosophy, which encouraged one to adopt a certain attitude to life. The Qur'an we studied taught: "There is no compulsion in religion." The Prophet we followed said: "The holy warrior is he who struggles with himself."

Many of the sayings of the Prophet that I was raised on are from a compilation by the Afghan authority Baghawi of Herat. In the orthodox Muslim world it is eclipsed by the monumental collection of Imam Bokhari. Bokhari set out to preserve the literal words and traditions of the Prophet as an act of pious scholasticism. He investigated six hundred thousand sayings, passing only around five thousand as incontestably authentic.

The purpose of Baghawi's collection, on the other hand, is instrumental, rather than scholastic. It was revered by the classical Persian poets, and is widely used in dervish mystical communities to this day. Sayings are included for content. The distinction between these two great Islamic figures is a matter of emphasis: the literal or the spiritual.

From the Hardcover edition.

Reading Group Guide

“Brilliant and moving.” –The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion of The Storyteller’s Daughter, an intense and moving look at war-torn Afghanistan through the eyes of a young woman in search of her heritage.

1. What does the title, The Storyteller’s Daughter, reveal about the perspective Shah brings to her memoir? How does it encompass the various themes she explores?

2. Shah spends her childhood in two disparate cultures, living in middle-class Kent while identifying herself as an Afghan. As a teenager, she asks, “How could my father expect us to be truly Afghan when we had grown up outside an Afghan community?” [p.6] Does the question reflect a feeling common to immigrant families, or is her household an unusual one? What are the positive aspects of maintaining ethnic traditions in a new homeland? In what ways can it have a negative impact?

3. Shah’s father tells her, “In our tradition, stories can help you recognize the shape of an experience, to make sense of and deal with it” [p. 7]. How does this definition of storytelling, in addition to the actual stories she hears as a child, contribute to her sense that “Two people live inside me. . . . My Western side is a sensitive, liberal, middle-class pacifist. My Afghan side I can only describe as a rapacious robber baron.” [p. 14]?

4. Shah discusses the historical differences between the Islamic tradition in which she was raised and the teachings of the orthodox Muslim world [p. 10]. Why is it important to understand this distinction? What light does it shed on the repressive measures imposed by the Taliban and on the fundamentalist Islamic movement in other parts of the world? Does the distinction between a literal and a spiritual emphasis exist in other religions as well? If so, how has it manifested itself?

5. What do Shah’s descriptions of the little boy in the Afghan refugee camp [p. 28—29], Maryam, her guide in Kabul [p. 31], Halima and her family [p. 36], and others she meets during the filming of Beneath the Veil reveal about the importance of myth and legend in Afghan culture? What makes these portraits so effective in conveying the complex role these elements play in people’s lives?

6. In what ways does Shah’s visit with her extended family in Peshawar at age seventeen change her sense of self and her attitudes about Afghan culture? How does her uncle’s household differ from the one she grew up in? Do the women in this traditional Muslim family, for example, wield more power than her mother? Do the interactions within the family contradict or reinforce your previous beliefs about Muslim society?

7. Why does Shah find the idea of an arranged marriage “seductive” [p. 51]? Does it reflect her naïve eagerness to identify with her heritage? To what extent is the desire to marry “a family, a tribe, a way of life; somewhere to belong to” a universal one?

8. Shah first enters Afghanistan with the mujahidin in 1986 at the height of the war with the Soviets. Why does she take us into the home of one of their leaders, Zahir Shah? What is the purpose of depicting him as a husband, father, and son?

9. Why does Shah include the anecdotes of her conversations with Zahir Shah’s wife [pp. 76—77] and with Karima, the young woman she meets in a small village in the Valley of Song? What other examples are there in the book of why it is “practically impossible to convey concepts outside somebody’s cultural experience” [p. 94]. How, for instance, are Shah’s interactions with the mujahidin, her relationship with her extended family, and her position within the circle of Western journalists also attributable to a cultural gap?

10. At the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Shah writes, “One could read very little in the Western press about the mujahidin that was not tinged with politics of one shade or another” [p. 87]. Are war reporters always vulnerable to preconceived notions and political prejudices? What is your reaction to Shah’s analyses of the U.S. activities during the conflict [for example, pp. 111, 119, 133, and 149]? Do they influence your opinions about the recent investigation into U.S. efforts to combat terrorism before 9/11?

11. What new insights does Shah’s perspective provide into the rise of the Taliban following the Soviet withdrawal? Are the “trade-offs” and concessions by the West that permitted the establishment of the Taliban regime [p. 204] understandable or dangerously misplaced?

12. Shah re-creates the horrors of life under the Taliban in vivid detail. What particular passages show how the distortion of Islam devolved into the blatantly cruel repression of women? In what other ways did the Taliban regime betray Islamic principles and traditions?

13. How do the descriptions of the landscape [for example, pp. 43, 82—83, 95] mirror the portrait of the Afghan population in The Storyteller’s Daughter? Do they help you better understand the national characteristics that Shah admires?

14. Shah writes, “My father’s mythological homeland was a realm where I could live through the eyes of a storyteller. In my desire to experience the fairytale for myself, I had overlooked the staggeringly obvious: the storyteller was a man” [p. 57]. To what extent are the observations and opinions in The Storyteller’s Daughter colored by Shah’s viewpoint as a woman? What does she bring to light that a man might have overlooked? Does her gender affect the tone of the book? How does The Storyteller’s Daughter compare to other accounts of war and its impact on soldiers and civilians, either fiction or nonfiction, that you have read?

15. A generation of children in Afghanistan has grown up knowing nothing but war, and the conflict still rages today. Does The Storyteller’s Daughter provide possible approaches to ending the despair and devastation ravishing the country?

16. In an interview,* Shah said “A lot of the book deals with the question of how to approach the truth.” Why has she chosen to interweave such diverse elements as mythology, genealogy, and poetry in her chronicle? How do they help deepen and clarify the factual history and reportage she presents?

* Read the complete interview at


A Conversation with Saira Shah

Q: Tell us about your father, the writer Idries Shah, and his influence upon you to become a storyteller yourself.
My father was a writer and thinker, who happened to be a Sufi. Part of his work dealt with making traditional Eastern stories accessible to the West. Stories were a part of my childhood–and never considered just for children. This was a family tradition and a very Afghan one. Nobody apologized for telling stories–even now my father is dead, my aunt continues the same way–you can be talking to her about her chilblains, and the next minute she will be telling you a fairy tale, say, or an anecdote about the tenth century Afghan king Mahmud of Ghazna.

Q: Talk about what it was like to grow up as an Afgan-in-exile in Britain.
We weren't exactly exiles–a return trip seemed to be always around the corner–until the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, when I was 15. I grew up with two self-contained worlds, which rarely met–my sedate middle class existence in Kent, and a sort of virtual homeland, woven from stories.

Q: Why did you become a journalist?
I wanted to travel to Afghanistan, and the country was at war. I also felt (but didn't really realize it at the time) a need to reconcile my Eastern–myth-making–side with my Western love of factual truth. I told myself I wanted to uncover the truth behind the myth–but probably, more likely, I wanted to discover that the myth WAS literal truth.

Q: Please talk about your search for personal and cultural identity. How have the facts informed you? How about the ancestral myth that hasbeen your inheritance? Which gets you closer to truth–fact or mythology?
A lot of the book deals with the question of how to approach truth. There is a Persian
saying: ‘the question about the sky, the answer about a rope'. Facts try to build a ladder, rung by rung, to approach the sky, while stories and myths try to provide an overarching rainbow of metaphor, which can give you a taste of what the sky is like, though not necessarily physically reach it! In my quest for Afghanistan, I used both. Both were helpful–and I suppose you could argue that neither could be really useful without the other.

Q: Your film "Beneath the Veil" was widely viewed and had tremendous impact on the world's understanding of what was going on in Afghanistan in the lives of women. How do you feel about your role in telling this story?
I was, and am, very proud of how the film turned out. It was teamwork–between me, the director Cassian Harrison, and the cameraman on that project (later to become an Emmy-winning director) James Miller. The timing was astounding–and not always to the good. If we had known that September 11th was going to happen, followed by a US-led bombardment of Afghanistan, we would have done some things in the film very differently.

Q: How did the culture of the Taliban come to take over Afghanistan–a country that had a cultural elite and that educated its women? Where does that conservative impulse come from?
The cultural elite was miniscule. Women educated only in towns. The Taliban–as has been very well documented–are a hybrid of impulses: Pushtun tribal values, conservative village mullahs with a very narrow view of Islam and the West (one once told me that in the West women are allowed to marry dogs), an influx of mainly-wahhabi Muslims (known as Arabs) who came to fight alongside the mujahidin against the Soviet Union.

Q: Talk about the difference between film making and writing a book. Which medium do you prefer for telling a story?
I've loved writing, although I found it difficult. It seemed like it was the thing I should always have been doing. You can be much subtler in a book, explore many more ideas. TV is a linear medium. I'd like to write novels.

Q: Do you think things have changed in Afghanistan since the most recent war?
Of course they've changed–nothing stays still. But there are still overwhelming problems. The main one, I think, being that the West picked the wrong problem to solve–getting rid of the Taliban and chasing Osama. There needs to be much more emphasis from the West on rebuilding Afghanistan, rather than destroying perceived enemies. That will take at least a generation and require cash and care.

Q: Do you think Osama Bin Laden is alive or dead?
I have no clue–and I think Osama Bin Laden is a huge red herring. The West needs to concentrate on the factors which created Osama and helped him to flourish, not on the man himself. There can be any number of Osamas.

Q: How often do you get to Afghanistan these days? When were you last there?
I was last there in October 2001–at the ending of the book. I was supposed to go this spring, but the tragic death of my friend and business partner James Miller made it impossible. I hope to go and spend proper time there when I have finished the film I was working on with James.

In the meantime, I am campaigning for Israel to hold a proper, independent and open
investigation into how he was killed.

Q: Please talk about your most recent project–the film you made in Israel.
It was a film for Home Box Office about the impact of violence on children in the Gaza strip. I am interested in the concept of things, which appear to be in opposition, actually having the effect of working together–and in Gaza, you can see how violence on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides drive these kids in the same direction–further militancy, desire for martyrdom, a culture of despair.

Q: You've often covered the world's hot spots–Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Africa, etc. Why do you think you are drawn to these places?
I'm not. Ninety per cent of my war experience was Afghanistan. The rest I have done as part of being a professional news reporter, or else for a specific project. I'm not drawn to war at all. I am drawn to places where you can witness human beings living in extremities of various kinds. Then you see the full gamut of which humans are capable–their capacity for good and evil, dignity and horror.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews