Nelofer Pazira’s memoir

My review of Nelofer Pazira’s memoir A Bed of Red Flowers appears in the January issue of World Literature Today. Pazira starred in the award-winning film ‘Kandahar’ (2001), and the book details her escape from Kabul to Canada, and her subsequent return to Afghanistan to search for her friend (which in turn became the story for the film). Incidentally, Pazira studied journalism at Ottawa’s Carleton University. (Go, Ottawa!) 

The film ‘Kandahar‘ is a must-see. It’s rated at 6.7 on IMDB, for those who like to know such things before they rent the DVD, but I’d peg it at at least a star higher.

Here’s the text of the review:

Nelofer Pazira. A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan. Toronto. Random House Canada / Vintage. 2005/2006. 408/432 pages. Can$34.95 (Can$21 paper). ISBN 0-679-31271-4 (978-0-679-31272-7)

WHEN HER FAMILY fled Afghanistan for Canada in 1989, sixteen-year-old Nelofer Pazira left behind her home, her books, and her friend Dyana. Almost ten years later, Pazira returned to Afghanistan in search of her friend, fearing from Dyana’s letters that life under the Taliban had made her suicidal. Pazira’s hunt for Dyana became the story behind the film Kandahar, in which Pazira played the lead role. Four months after the film’s 2001 Calmes premier, the World Trade Center was attacked by the Taliban-supported al-Qaeda, and Kandahar, formerly regarded as an obscure foreign film, proved one of the few sources of information on modern Afghanistan. Pazira found herself famous overnight.

A Bed of Red Flowers is the story of Pazira’s years in Afghanistan. It is a wrenching tale; Pazira moves from a happy memory of a picnic on a hillside covered with thousands of red flowers to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. She was six.

Pazira details the events of the time with a shocking intimacy. Russian tanks rolling down her street, she recalls, left behind a “fine, soft, almost greasy dust,” which coated the house, making it impossible to keep clean. When the Russians, attempting to befriend the local population, handed out dresses to schoolgirls, Pazira hated the clothes that “represent [the country’s] occupiers.” After school, the children built a bonfire, and Pazira and her friends (including Dyana) threw their red-and-blue dresses into the flames–after making sure the school guard was not watching.

The Russian occupation lasted ten years, during which Pazira stoned military vehicles and joined a resistance group (her adventures give new meaning to the term “adolescent rebellion”). When Pazira’s younger brother was to be conscripted into the army, the family decided to escape, fleeing across the border to Pakistan and then to Canada.

Pazira’s honest, even-handed account brings the suffering and courage of ordinary Afghans to such vivid life that no reader can regard the country as a mere political entity. From the Anglo-Afghan war of 1839, when the British sought to control the region, to the decade-long Russian occupation and the current American involvement, Afghanistan has long suffered as the battleground for world powers (two million Afghans have died or gone missing over the past twenty years, states Pazira). The Taliban, however, proved that homegrown cruelty could be just as inhuman as the colonizer’s, and Pazira’s anguish as her country is taken over by religious fundamentalists (chillingly described in Dyana’s letters of the mid-1990s) is desperate.

The last fourth of the book covers Pazira’s search for Dyana and the process of filming Kandahar. The author describes her Canadian experiences sparely–clearly, Afghanistan, rather than Pazira, is the focus of the book. The reader, however, cannot help wondering about Pazira’s journey from non-English-speaking seventeen-year-old refugee in New Brunswick to celebrated journalist and filmmaker in Toronto. Perhaps Nelofer Pazira will pen a sequel and reveal whether the family ever celebrated a picnic of the red flowers again–six thousand miles away from that other hillside near Kabul.

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