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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

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

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

The Storyteller’s Daughter is the work of a confident yet modest and self-effacing woman who is drawn to danger and whose greatest desire is to understand her ‘incompatible worlds of East and West.’ ” –The Washington Post Book World

“Absorbing, heartbreaking. . . . A book about myths and their double-edged power to inspire and delude. . . . Filled with memorable sounds, sights and insights.” –Los Angeles Times

“Both tender and haunting. . . . A stylized work of humility and heartbreaking devastation and dignity.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“Heartstopping. . . . Rich and startlingly eventful. . . . The Storyteller’s Daughter has the energy of a necessary catharsis.” –Vogue

“An extraordinary book by a remarkable young woman. . . . There is not likely to be a better one about Afghanistan.” –Doris Lessing

“Her courage takes the breath away.” –O: The Oprah Magazine

“Saira Shah takes us on an extraordinary journey from an English childhood, laced with Afghan myths handed down from her forebears, to the terrors and complexities of present-day Afghanistan. . . . At the end of it you are left with the truest sense of this magical country together with the recognition this exceptional English writer is still unmistakably Afghani.” –Jon Snow

“Invaluable. . . . A beautifully related journey to enlightenmment.” –Rocky Mountain News

“A remarkable and essential book about Afghanistan. . . . It is alive with detail, emotion, myth, fable, bleeding reality, and those laughs and freedoms which arise defiantly out of the darkest of times to assert the human spirit.” –Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, author of Imagining the New Britain

“A rare, much-needed glimpse into a still-closed society.” –Asian Week

“Deeply moving. . . . Here is a book written with resolute grace, much humour and underpinned by an unflinching spirit of enquiry.” –Jason Elliot, author of An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan

The New York Times
The Storyteller's Daughter can most accurately be described as a memoir, but while it considers Shah's upbringing in a distinguished expatriate Afghan family, it also explores the potency of Afghan mythology and how, on repeated visits over a number of years (from the era of Soviet domination to that of the Taliban), she came to distinguish the myths from the reality of that spectacular but now ravaged land. Brilliant and moving, hers is a book that can make uncomfortable reading for Westerners whose countries have periodically dabbled in the region, but only when it has suited them and for their own benefit. — Geoffrey Moorehouse
The Washington Post
The Storyteller's Daughter is the work of a confident yet modest and self-effacing woman who is drawn to danger and whose greatest desire is to understand her incompatible worlds of East and West.—Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
Born in England and raised on her father's fantastic stories of an Afghanistan she had never known, Shah spends her adult life searching for a mythic place of beauty. "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." What she finds is a place ravaged by decades of war, poverty and, later, religious puritanism. Shah first visits Afghanistan in 1986 as a war correspondent at the remarkable age of 21 and later returns as the documentary producer of Beneath the Veil, an expos of life under the Taliban that predated the national interest in the embattled country. Her journey forces her to reconcile the vast disparities between fact and fiction, the world she has pieced together from her father's tales and the reality she glimpses from behind the grille of the Taliban-imposed burqa. Shah weaves legends and traditional sayings into her text, lending a greater context to her expectations and experiences. She also offers a piecemeal history of Afghanistan to accompany the accounts of her travels, but for readers unfamiliar with the many years of political tumult Afghanistan has suffered, the history may not be thorough enough. Most compelling are the characters she encounters and their indomitable spirit, including a woman with 10 children who asks her about a "magic" pill to prevent pregnancy, and her husband, whose intense machismo is not enough to save him from the war. Agent, Patrick Walsh. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Saira Shah grew up in England hearing stories of her father's native Afghanistan as if it were the Garden of Eden. As she grew up, she realized that it was a country at war, but she still wanted to visit it and see if she could find the country of her ancestors. Instead she found a country of poverty and war. Her travels as a journalist under a burqa enabled her to hear the stories of Afghan storytellers like her father and to get to know the country. In doing so, she was able to reconcile the eastern and western halves of herself. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Anchor, 254p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
In this intriguing memoir, Shah superbly weaves oral traditions with history to describe life as an Afghani raised in the West but with solid roots in the East. Her book is more than just an autobiography; it is the story of Afghanistan itself. We learn about Shah's documentary work in Afghanistan, the power of myth through which Afghanistan's tradition is born, the brave work of peoples and organizations such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), and the West's (and even East's) misconceptions regarding Muslim teachings. Currently living in London, Shah works as a freelance journalist and first traveled to Afghanistan at age 21, during the Soviet occupation. Later, at considerable risk, she bundled herself in a burqu and filmed the documentary Beneath the Veil, which aired to great acclaim on CNN. This rare personal and historic account of the region is a great addition to public and academic libraries.-Ethan Pullman, Univ. of Pittsburgh Lib. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Adventure-filled account of an intrepid young British-Afghan woman’s search for cultural identity. Shah, whose 2001 television documentary Beneath the Veil examined the realities of Afghan women’s lives under the Taliban, asserts that she has within her two incompatible people: a middle-class liberal pacifist and a "rapacious robber baron" who "glories in risk." She was raised in England on her father’s stories about a romantic Afghanistan and its brave, noble people. At 17, visiting her extended Afghan family in Peshawar, she saw that her father’s stories represented a male vision; for Afghan women there was a different reality. She returned to the region at age 21 after studying Persian and Arabic, intent on becoming a journalist. Her Western side determined to discover the truth about Afghanistan, Shah recalls; her Afghan side still yearned after her father’s myths. With the Soviet Union backing the Afghanistan communist government and the US supporting the mujahideen, Shah found no romantic fairyland, but a war-torn outpost of Cold War conflict. Eye-opening experiences traveling with the mujahideen led her to question whether their fabled concept of honor was not more about appearance than principle. When, as a freelance journalist, she investigated stories that the rebels were selling Iran their US-supplied Stingers, hand-held anti-aircraft missiles capable of taking down Soviet jets, she came to doubt her father’s faith in the noble mujahideen and other long-held beliefs. Then her mentor, a gentle professor who personified the fairytale Afghanistan she longed to believe in, was murdered; soon afterward, she returned to the West. In a later chapter, Shah recounts her recent trip to asmall Afghan village in a fruitless attempt to help three girls featured in Beneath the Veil. This failure sharpened her realization that her two incompatible halves may never be reconciled. "Afghan has confounded me," she concludes, "just as it has always confounded the West." A powerful memoir and an unforgettable portrait of a land and a people. First printing of 100,000. Agent: Emma Parry/Carlisle & Co.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.54(d)

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.

Meet 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.

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