In a Land Far from Home – A book review

Aalam Gul FarhadReviewed by: Aalam Gul Farhard, a longtime friend of Star Educational Society. She graduated from the American University of Central Asia with a degree in International and Comparative Politics and is a current Fulbright finalist nominee. She works as a certification officer for the Afghanistan Institute of Civil Society.

In 1927, Sayed Mujtaba Ali accepted a teaching position in Kabul, and traveled all the long way from Bengal (now Bangladesh) crossing the crude roads of Peshawar and through the Khyber Pass reaching Kabul, exhausted. He spent a year and a half in Kabul, teaching at Habibia High School.

Drawing on his experience, Mujtaba Ali, an extraordinary Bengali scholar of the twentieth century, wrote a travelogue In a Land Far from Home to share the story of his journey and his bittersweet experiences during his stay in Afghanistan. The book was originally written in the Bengali language and was published in 1948. Until recently, the book had been accessible only to Bengali speakers but can now be read in English with thanks to an Indian writer and journalist, Nazes Afroz, for his fascinating translation of the book.

When in Kabul, Mujtaba Ali is curious about exploring the city. His impressive language skills allowed him to access diverse communities of people. His social interaction with the ordinary people like Abdur Rahman, his Panjshiri manservant, and diplomats like Bertrand Russell, Hirschfield and Gautier, and his friendship with the king’s brother Enayatullah with whom he played tennis later, helped enrich his experience, but he still found it difficult to understand the situation very well:

I could build relationships and establish contacts with the bazaars, the streets, the ministers and other dignitaries, the rich and the poor of Kabul…..but I figured that it would be almost impossible to fathom the social forces that moved at a slow pace in times of peace and ran like a wild horse in times of turbulence.

The role of the ordinary people in the political sphere of the country was not very different from today, insignificant. They played no role in the development of the country; Mullahs were more influential. As per Mujtaba Ali’s observation:

… the city folk were delicate and had no clue about the pulse of the country. On the other hand, the mullahs were half-educated. Even if you forgave the better educated ones … would the mullah society ever take part in the economic advancement of the country by better educating the people? Possibly not. Would they oppose it? One could not say.

Similar to the current political actors, Mujtaba is unhappy about the qualifications of King Amanullah’s Ministers. They were the rich disqualified individual who did not contribute anything to the development of the country. For Mujtaba:

It was hard to figure out on what basis these people had become ministers. They were all Einsteins in their qualifications! They never tried to learn about the world around them. All of them had visited Europe once or twice. When interacting with them, it became apparent that they had not brought any wisdom or knowledge back with them … The younger lot that joined us at least had a few degrees in education. You could make out by conversing with the older generation that, if anything, they had experience. But this gang of ministers could neither fly nor swim properly; they were like toads that hopped about awkwardly.

The below excerpt refers to the time of Mujtaba’s stay in Kabul when King Amanullah attempts to westernize the city and reform the country. Women were liberated and more educational opportunities were available for girls in the country and abroad. The dress code is something very attractive as per the narrator:

The city of Kabul was then trotting like a mad horse wearing ‘dereshi’. The word ‘dereshi’ came from the English word ‘dress’ meaning hat, tie and trousers. I was told that one had to wear dereshi if you were in government service be it a lowly clerks job or a constables. Not only that, one could not enter public parks if one was not in dereshi. First, the pressure from government, secondly, an attraction towards the culture of advanced societies and thirdly, images in the movies Kabul was mesmerized by dereshi.

It was very difficult to digest the reforms and to see all the women mingling around with mini-skirts. It did not take very long before the reformist king was overthrown by the bandit leader “Bacha-e-Saqao” and the city was looted to the worst extent, and Mujtaba did not suffer less.Land far from home

The book is comprehensive first-hand evidence of the socio-political events witnessed through Mujtaba’s lens. Fortunately, now that is available in English, it is highly recommended to be read by anyone, especially those who are interested in the geo-political history of Afghanistan. Such texts are more reliable to be read since we are usually skeptical about the events recorded differently by local writers. To facilitate the readers, the language is very lucid with smooth flow of the text. The usage of some Dari expressions and poetry, in spite of some misspellings, has added to the beauty of the text. Overall, it is a beautifully written, fascinating and informative book.