Don’t stop a donkey

Posted on May 20, 2012



Don’t stop a donkey that isn’t yours – Afghan Proverb

Doesn’t this sound so much better than the sneery playground – ‘mind your own business/onions/beeswax. Or the aggressive, fingers twiddling over a holster, ‘Step away from the donkey/nothing to see here’? Just let another man’s donkey walk on unmolested and covet your own ass.

For a country that so many others have made their business this seems a rather poignant proverb.

So here’s where I admit that I’ve already read a book from Afghanistan. Two in fact. Both by Khaled Hosseini – The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. If I were to recommend one it would be, without hesitation, The Kite Runner. I was put off reading this book when it was published in 2003 because of its cover. Here, I’d better confess, I do judge books by their covers (I have a particular love of 50s and 60s paperback covers) and sometimes this has worked in my favour – Alec Waugh’s Island in the Sun (1955), the film tie-in cover from 1957, being a case in point. With Kite Runner I made a mistake. The UK cover made it look like a misery memoir, very popular at the time, and so I gave it a wide berth. Luckily I was working in a bookshop and I kept on having to re-shelve it and so on a quiet afternoon I opened it up, little realizing what a world lay between its ill-judged covers.

It seems fitting that the first book on this trip, if you choose to read along, embodies what I hope this journey will be about. Kite Runner exposes a country I never knew existed. Oh, I could have pointed to it on a map, but in my mind Afghanistan didn’t exist outside images of Mujahedin or Taliban, warlords and poppy seeds, women and repression. Thanks to Hosseini these images are supplanted by beautiful gardens and architecture, friendly tea drinking and good natured debating, of openness and tenderness. There is brutality and betrayal, but on a personal level, much as anywhere on the planet, yet I found myself grieving as much for Afghanistan itself as Hassan the servant boy who is as betrayed and ravaged as the country itself.


When a man writes a love poem to his girl, he is often more in love with the poem then the girl. – Albanian proverb

In 2004 the Independent newspaper published (helpfully) a list of Albanian proverbs Miles Kingston describes these as ‘a shrug written down’. Given that I know next to nothing about Albania other than they take part in the Eurovision Song Contest, I read through the list for illumination. It left me shrugging. In the end I plumped for the proverb about poetry because I have read some of Albania’s Nobel prize nominated, and Booker International Prize winning author, Ismail Kadare’s poetry as well as his novel The Siege. I wish I could recommend them more highly, and it may be that a lot has been lost in translation, or that I’m simply not up to the task, certainly the fearsome intellects who worked and shopped in the bookshop found a lot to like. For me, Kadare’s use of language has a simple, fairytale quality to it, that draws you to conclude that there must be something deeper if you can but excavate it – a not unreasonable assumption when faced with someone writing under the censorship of communism. However, you’ll find yourself after a long day’s digging with no more than a shard, trying to attribute something meaningful to it – a marble for a complex game, a bead from a beautiful necklace – when all you’ve really gripped is a little piece of pot.

As Kadare himself said to The Guardian, ‘I did something entirely normal. I just did it in an abnormal country.’


Do bad and remember. Do good and forget. – Algerian proverb

I wish I could live up to this ideal, but what’s a blog if it’s not a verbal halo?

Now, at the risk of sounding a complete twat, I will point out that I’ve read the work of the Algerian Camus, but only in French. Well, I was taking ‘A’ levels and wasn’t the only one. I loved l’Etranger when I was a teenager but haven’t read it since. Nor can I recommend a translation, although all the boys I fumbled through my student years (with?), had the Stuart Gilbert translation. But then, they smoked Gauloise or Camel, owned guitars, and could spell, pronounce and pronounce on Nietzsche, though read in translation too of course, so that’s no indication of good judgement. We were overly earnest teenagers.

I had planned to declare Algeria as read, but once I started looking more deeply into the country and it’s literature, I realized that reading set texts as a teenager really wasn’t good enough. I want to read something that speaks more urgently (and currently) of the place. And I’m drawn to Yasmina Khadra. If you don’t know his story – not least of which is that he took a female pseudonym to avoid military censorship – it’s enough to know that in 2004, Newsweek said of him that he is, ‘one of the rare writers capable of giving a meaning to the violence in Algeria today.’

So my first actual step will be taken on Algerian soil with the ordering of Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night.

Hope you read along or, if drawn elsewhere, let us all know about it.

Posted in: Reading