The Magazine

Lost Kingdom

A 1964 memoir conjures old Afghanistan.

Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Land of the High Flags

Afghanistan When the Going Was Good

by Rosanne Klass

Odyssey, 358 pp., $19.95

Land of the High Flags is an artifact of a time when a foreigner could unabashedly enjoy being in Afghanistan the way one enjoyed Kenya or India or Sicily, even while going there to do good. Now, Afghanistan is a "war zone" in everyone's eyes, and a sense of its granularity has been lost in the clichés. The 1950s Kabul that Rosanne Klass entered as a novice high school teacher was a poor country which Westerners were trying to modernize, and which some fell in love with. Klass--still a feisty Afghanistan expert in New York--chronicles this love affair in a burnished, formal style that was slightly antiquated even in 1964. Perhaps she was influenced by Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, and other well-born lady travelers in the Muslim world, or by the Victorian novels she must have read in her childhood.

It feels of a piece that Klass manages to get through the whole book without discussing the husband with whom she went to Afghanistan (and from whom she was soon to be divorced) and that she visits Jews in Afghanistan without ever saying that she is Jewish (though it can be inferred from her surname and a discreet reference to a Succoth of her youth). This is the high old practice, and has its merits. Klass is preoccupied with others rather than herself, and always ready to see the good side of the people she meets, when there is one.

Perhaps for this reason, her characters live. Klass's portraits of her students could have been drawn yesterday; they reminded me of the college kids I taught for a couple of weeks at a time in Mazar-i-Sharif a few years ago, in their very un-American combination of deference, earnestness, and fecklessness. The time is gone when one could write chapters on one's bearer, but Klass's portrait of the Peshawar Pashtun Gul Baz is a joy. He is an individual, not a representative of a social class or ethnic group, as are all the other household servants Klass depicts.

Another major character is Klass's boss at the time, Dr. Abdul Kayeum (who went on to become vice-president of the Helmand River Authority, a provincial governor, minister of education, and, eventually, an exile in America--he also appears in Tamim Ansary's West of Kabul, East of New York). Like Gul Baz, he can seem too good to be true, but I lay that up to Klass's youthful goodwill.

Affection does not blunt her keen eye for the fault lines of expat society, and the irrelevance to it of Afghans:

One made a point of liking them, and was, indeed, politely deferential, because it was, after all, their country which one was there to deal with, to instruct or to improve. In sum, one did everything short of meeting them as individuals. It was on the whole as unexpected to really like an Afghan personally as it was improper to dislike him personally. .  .  . Most of the colony thought it surprising .  .  . if a foreigner and an Afghan became close friends. That they might simply like each other was scarcely considered.

The one criticism that leaps out at this reader, on her second tour through Land of the High Flags, is that Klass seems a bit too infatuated with the good old days. (The book was first published in 1964.) She hasn't been to Afghanistan in decades. If she had visited in the last few years, she might not have selected the subtitle "Afghanistan When the Going Was Good." Any nostalgia applies more to the lifestyle of expats--today they are called "internationals"--than to Afghans, who now enjoy a much higher standard of living, more legal rights, a much larger chance of seeing their children grow up, and many more opportunities than in 1951 (or just about any time in history).

It's true that an ancient culture has been weakened, its upper class scattered and shorn of its confidence and sense of responsibility. It is true that, in the cities, ugly cement boxes have replaced lovely and comfortable mudbrick homes, crude new carpets are now preferred to the masterworks of the past, and many traditional crafts live on only in the pallid form of charity projects for Afghan women. It is also true that imported religious extremism and politicized Islam have replaced what was once a fairly tolerant culture, at least in the larger towns and cities, and at least for the prosperous. Older Afghan women have told me that, in provincial capitals in the 1960s, they used to ride bicycles to school and wear miniskirts with their headscarves; today their granddaughters aren't allowed to ride bikes ("unfeminine") and their skirts reach the floor.