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The Blind Man's Garden

Two Pakistani brothers flee to Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in this riveting story by Pakistani-British author Nadeem Aslam.

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However, Rohan and Naheed face a more pressing problem: the fate of Mikal. When Mikal returns from Afghanistan – where Jeo has died in circumstances Aslam deliberately leaves unclear – he is a fugitive from the US army, two of whose members he killed when he thought they were about to execute instead of release him.

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Mikal wants to stay in Heer and marry Naheed, but improbably decides to return to Peshawar, where he sought refuge after escaping Afghanistan. A member of the family that sheltered him there shows up in Heer being pursued by the law and asks him to deliver money to his sister. Once Mikal sets off, Aslam snips the last thread tying his story to reality by having him come into contact with the vengeful brother of one of the two US soldiers he killed.

Setting aside the implausible storytelling devices Aslam uses to advance the plot, his evocation of war’s insidious social effects is chilling and profound. War is the great objectifier of people, herding them into cast-iron roles from which egress is rarely possible. To be sure, surviving victims of war may struggle to transcend the roles they have been forced into. With the death of Jeo, Naheed is made a widow. She cannot change this fact, but she might prevent it from monopolizing her identity. She wants to study and become a teacher. And she wants to marry Mikal.

Yet she had better steel herself for probable disappointment. In a sense, "The Blind Man’s Garden" is about the terrible irrelevance of decent people in times of war. That Naheed, one such decent person, is also a woman, compounds her disadvantage. After Mikal returns to Heer and before he leaves for Peshawar, an emotionally ravaged but fuming Naheed tells him how she feels about the expedition that proved fatal to Jeo. “I am angry at him for going, and going without telling us. I am angry at you for not telling us about his intentions. I am angry at myself for not having detected it myself.”

She then sets her sights on the region’s political players and their actions. “I am angry at the Americans for invading Afghanistan. I am angry at al-Qaeda and the Taliban for doing what they did.”

Finally, having directed her ire at all those who have upended her life, Naheed’s energy seems spent. Aslam does not have to describe her voice or manner for us to know that they signify defeat, and that she has reconciled herself to insignificance and helplessness. She concludes her fiery outburst with the resigned question: “What does it matter?”  

Rayyan al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.


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