Land Without Time: Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan

A Land Without Time cover
A Land Without Time by John Sumser

A Land Without Time ~ A Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan by John Sumser

Oh mercy me, not another Peace Corps narrative, was my knee-jerk thought. Instead, flipping open the book with a seductive title — A Land Without Time,  I was enthralled immediately by John Sumser’s funny, self-aware memoir of working as a volunteer teacher in Afghanistan during the run-up to the 1979 Soviet-led invasion and coup.  For those who slept through the past six administrations,  the Soviets made the same mistake as Prince George Bush who led the USA into the futile rock pile of Afghanistan in the  early 21st century, perhaps in a fantasy of imperial fervor, misunderstanding that the British Empire had actually not succeeded there in the 19th century, nor the Soviets, nor anybody else.          It was deja mess all over again. 

Though a packet of years have slipped by, Sumser inhabits the voice of the young volunteer he was and infuses the story with the perspective of a canny adult living in the political world post-911.  He starts off edgy with a chip on the shoulder attitude towards some of the other Americans in country and wastes no time trying to make Afghani friends.  Of course, he met only Afghani men because the women, then as now, were shrouded in chadors and denied social interaction.

Sumser understood his role as a volunteer, to live within the culture, not try to change it or insult people.  This makes for some funny encounters and as the author spins out his story, he presents an increasingly wiser voice.  Honest about his fears, he tells of living on watermelon and orange soda until mustering the courage to eat in local dives and teashops.  He knows that his presence is inexplicable to an Afghani.  Why would an American leave prosperous family and comfortable home to live as a poorly paid volunteer teacher in Afghanistan?  Surely the volunteers must be spies.  Insights about cultural differences won in late 1970’s by Peace Corps volunteers could have served this century’s beleaguered invaders.

At one point he’s passed a paper sack made of an old magazine page containing sugared almonds.  Sumser notices a photo of Bertrand Russell on the magazine page.  Sumser exclaims that he ‘knows’ Russell.  During the ensuing discussion, the Afghanis determine that Russell is dead and that Sumser never actually met him or shared tea with him. While these men sit in characteristic silence etching the differences in their cultures, Sumser ponders that he knows more about Russell’s life story, his ideas and impact on academia — more about a dead man he’s never actually met —  than he knows of any Afghani including the companions in the tea shop.  To know an Afghani, you needed to be one.

There’s useful advice for travelers.  In one scene while instructing an Afghani houseman who refuses to boil

Map of Afghanistan at time of Soviet invasion. 1985
Map of Afghanistan at time of Soviet invasion.
1985

water for 20 minutes to sterilize drinking water against the invisible bugs the Afghani man doesn’t believe are in the water, someone tells the man that the holy book advises Americans to boil drinking water for 20 minutes.  That bit of cross-cultural fiction is understood by the devout Afghani who then agrees to boil the water for the specified time.  These and other scenes make this book useful for travelers contemplating hard-seat travel in barren lands.

I read this tightly written and well-edited book start to finish, non-stop.  For this serious consumer of travel writing, it was a grand read– laced with humor, tension, adventure, insight, landscapes and sharply defined characters.  I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing the white-knuckle finale of Sumser’s story.

Maybe the secret to writing a great Peace Corps narrative, or any travel story, is to let enough time go by to mature the writer and distill the events with notes of history, wisdom and cultural insight.

Details:

Academy Chicago Publishers.

ISBN: 10:0-89733-543-0

Paperback, 205 pages, 2006.

Goodreads review notes

Reagan with Taliban 1985

Zen in the Art of Writing

Ray Bradbury
TheImaginativeConservative.org

Ray Bradbury lived a long and creative life.  He died last week which sent me to my copy of Zen in the Art of Writing, Essays on Creativity, his 1990 book on the writing process.  Bradbury celebrates life and the mystery of imagination in these essays, as he did in public — at readings, lectures and impromptu autographing events.

His essays remind writers to relax and follow the fantastic notions that stalk our logic and reason.  In the urgent elaborations and emotional intensity that awaken our minds, we do our best writing.  Or maybe it’s sheer surprise at creativity  from the unknown dimension that captures our energy.  Sometimes it is pure luck and having enough time to get the words down before a writer’s attention wanes.  Bradbury’s Zen message to writers:  Just write and the rest will unfold.  Thank you, Ray Bradbury, for opening your prescient imagination to us.

I opened the collection  randomly, trusting serendipity and found this passage in the essay about Dandelion Wine:

Here is my celebration, then of death as well as life, dark as well as light, old as well as young, smart and dumb combined, sheer joy as well as complete terror written by a boy who once hung upside down in trees, dressed in his bat costume with candy fangs in his mouth, who finally fell out of the trees when he was twelve and went and found a toy-dial typewriter and wrote his first “novel.”    (page 86)

Slow Reading Movement

The Slow Books concept is an idea to embrace.  Do if for your mind.  Read long, slow, complicated stories heavy with history, allusion, imagery and human emotion.

I learned about the slow reading movement on a site that discussed Margaret Olley, the painter whose work I viewed during a recent sojourn in Australia.

Suggestions for books that qualify as slow reads?

North and South

Vanity Fair

Middlemarch

The Red and the Black

The Abyss

Hotel of the Saints

Hotel of the Saints.  Stories by Ursula Hegi

Simon & Schuster, 2001

The title story caught my fancy but lost my confidence when the character in the Jesuit seminary is described as a ‘brother.’  Jesuits do not call each other ‘brother,’ do they? Jesuits are priests, not monks, and their vows are flexible, or should be, according to this author:   http://www.scribd.com/doc/267211/The-Vows-of-the-Jesuit-Order

I like fiction to be credible and an author who doesn’t know the difference between a Jesuit and a monk mixes things up.  Maybe the characters are inherently uninformed, but then, why would I want to read their perspective.  The stories twist through territory and attitudes that would be interesting to some, but I left this book after the first story.  In the story, the Jesuit helps his aunt name the hotel rooms after saints and then paint and decorate the  paint rooms in the family hotel so they reflect the nature of the saint.

The story was poignant, but simple like a Hallmark television drama one sees in passing running up and down the channels looking for images and acting worth pausing for.

Just Kids

justkidscoverPatti Smith wrote an honest account of how young artists struggle with the enormity of becoming outsiders by embracing the path of art.  The memoir won the National Book Award and that’s no surprise.  The prose is smooth and the concepts expressed are significant for individuals and society.

Anyone who was born during the years 1945-1965, the rock n’ roll protest generation,  will see their hopes and heart reflected in this gentle book.

Walking Spain

Marching Spain

V. S. Pritchett * J.M. Dent & Sons, 1933

Account of a foot trek in rural Spain originally published in 1928. An adept prose stylist, the young Pritchett isn’t above accepting a lift now and then in his progress from Badajoz to Leon.  He’s poor, but richer than the people he bunks down and eats with in a Spain still steeped in suspicion for outsiders.