First published in 1987, Camel Bells is an extraordinary look at pre-Taliban Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of 12-year-old Hajdar. It is a novel that moves back and forth in time, chronicling the Marxist coup of 1979 and the ensuing Soviet invasion¨the beginning of the nearly ten-year struggle between Russia and the mujahadeen freedom fighters that ended with the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1988/1989 and that lead, ultimately, to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1996.
Hajdar might still be a child but he is also the head of his family. His village has been bombed, his home destroyed. He's responsible for the safety of his mother and older sister and, as the novel opens, he's guiding them through the treacherous mountain ranges that separate Afghanistan from Pakistan where they hope to find refuge in the camps¨those same camps millions of Afghanis would flee their homeland for (as we now know), more than a decade later. Carlsson then takes us back in time to a less politically fraught moment in the family's life¨the period just after his father's sudden death, when, as a 10-year-old, Hajdar was able to help provide for his family by assisting his father's brothers in the fields, and by travelling to Kabul to sell raisins and wild tulips.
Carlsson gives us a vivid portrait of life in the frontier mountain villages of Afghanistan that would be amongst the hardest hit in the Soviet struggle to control Afghanistan, a portrait of close-knit family life and a caring community that works together as well as glimpses of the last lingering splendors of Kabul when east and west still mixed freely. But even in this pre-Taliban world, we see glimpses of the Islamic fundamentalism that would become the main agenda of the Taliban¨a world where people question the need for a woman to learn to read or write. We see this world always through Hajdar's eyes¨a child's eyes.
Eleven-year-old Malaak Abed Atieh's world is also in the process of collapsing. It's 1988, and we're in Gaza City. This is occupied territory. Malaak doesn't understand what has happened to her father who went one morning to Israel to look for work as a mechanic and never returned. We later learn that the bus he was travelling on was bombed by the shabab, the youth fighters in the intifada.
Malaak is only just beginning to come out of the silence that she tumbled into after her father's disappearance. She's trying to cope with life without him. Meanwhile her mother is lost in agony brought on by her husband's death, her older sister longs for peace so that she can get married, and her older brother, Hamid, yearns to join the very same shabab which caused the death of his father. It is a world enveloped in violence as the Islamic Jihad and the Israeli army wrestle for control; where it is illegal to write Free Palestine on a wall; where families can be torn apart, brother fighting brother, father fighting son; where children fall victim to the slogans of terrorism; a world where an 11-year-old girl can lose her father and her brother; where an Israeli soldier tries to help a Palestinian child and where Palestinian children attack soldiers with stones. Terrorism, Malaak remembers her father saying, is like a wild dog. It only breeds violence. But no one in Malaak's family can escape from the violence that overwhelms their lives.
Clinton conveys perfectly the conflicting emotions experienced by Malaak and her family, brought on by the larger, political conflict raging around them, and by trying to find a voice for the Palestinians outside of the fundamentalism of the Islamic Jihad. It is an exceptional novel that expresses the devastating pain caused by war, and that, at the same time, reaches for beauty¨whether in the colours of a sunset or the sheen of a pigeon's feathers, in the taste of a lovingly prepared meal, the words of poems, or in the comfort of family connections. A Stone in My Hand tries to give voice to the voiceless and is an invaluable addition to children's literature that explores the impact of contemporary conflict on children's lives.
Note should also be made of the very fine audio version of Deborah Ellis's The Breadwinner. Set in contemporary Afghanistan, The Breadwinner is a devastating portrait of life under the Taliban¨a country torn asunder by Islamic fundamentalism, known for its cruelty and inhumanity. Parvana has watched her father dragged off to prison, and her mother and sister virtually imprisoned within walls they call home. In order to keep her family from starvation, she has had to dress up as boy and take her father's place as a letter writer in the marketplace. It's a risky business whichever way you look at it; if she doesn't do it, her family will starve; if she's caught, she risks being stoned to death. Reader Rita Wolf brings just the right tone to her reading¨she's got a tight clipped English accent that creates just enough distance between reader and listener to make this, at times painful novel, instantly accessible. You feel at all times that, like the reader, she too is looking into Parvana's world and reporting on the goings-on. It is a first-rate performance and an interesting way to approach this fine fiction.
Jeffrey Canton is editor of the children's books section in Books in Canada.