Atiq Rahimi: Earth and Ashes – Chakestar o Chak (2000)

Novel, short story, fable? – who cares. Here is a text with a sadness that tears at your heart, a visual beauty shot through with the horror of war, where every tear shed, every move made, every word counts.

Set during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan Earth and Ashes tells the story of an old man who has survived the bombing of his village. All the other members of the family are dead with the exception of Yassin, his little grandson and Murad, Yassin’s father, who works at the coal mines.

The old man has undertaken the exhausting journey to go and tell his son about the death of all of their loved ones  and that the little boy has lost his hearing in the bombing.

At the beginning of the slim novel the old man is sitting on the road with his grandson. It’s hot and dusty. They are hungry and thirsty and waiting for a truck to get a ride to the mines. These are dreadful moments in which the old man is torn by memories and fears. The memory of the bombing and the fear of the reaction of his son. How much should he tell him? Should he tell him how he saw his wife die?

With your back to the autumn sun, you are squatting against the iron railings of the bridge that links the two banks of the dry riverbed north of Pul-i-Khumri. The road connecting Northern Afghanistan to Kabul passes over this very bridge. If you turn left on the far side of the bridge, on to the dirt track that winds between the scrub-covered hills, you arrive at the Karkar coal mine.

This is the first book of Rahimi, an Afghani writer, that I have read but it will not be the last. This is beautiful prose, a second person narrative which is very appealing and something you don’t find very often in Western literature.

An army truck, a red star on its doors, passes the bridge. It disturbs the stony sleep of the dry earth. The dust rises. It engulfs the bridge thensettles. Silently it covers everything, dusting the apples, your turban, your eyelids. You put your hand over Yassin’s apple to shield it.

The dryness and harsh beauty of this country is rendered very well and what we read about the interactions with other men the grandfather meets, before arriving at the mines, is touching. The old man, as well as Mirsa Qadir, a shop owner, are moving characters. Qadir is a reader and a writer who had to flee Kabul and found refuge in this forlorn backcountry. In Kabul he used to assemble people and told them stories all night long.

One of the biggest achievements however is that with a few sentences and sparse but eloquent prose, Rahimi tells us a lot about his country. The old man learns that his son is found to be very promising when his superior tells him, that his son, although a grown up man, will be sent to school and learn to read and write. Allusions like these and the portrait of the storyteller Qadir show us a world in which literacy isn’t the norm.

Atiq Rahimi’s book is one of the most important discoveries of my reading this year. Not only is it well-written, it brought back memories of a trip to Morocco and the amazing encounters with kindness I had in that country. But far beyond reminding me of personal experiences it is also a plea to consider what horrors war means for civilians, what tragedies bombs trigger.

Earth and Ashes is a heartbreaking story of a war-torn country that reads as if we were looking into the soul of a man broken by tragedy.

The Patience Stone is the next of Rahimi’s novels I am planning on reading. Have you read any of his books or any other Afghan writers?