Sunday, February 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

'Kara Kush' is an insider's view of Afghanistan

Special to The Seattle Times

Idries Shah (1924-1996), celebrated Afghan writer and the world's foremost authority on Sufi thought, wrote only one novel. This is it. First published in 1986, "Kara Kush" is the exciting story of a band of Afghan resistance fighters during the early years of the Russian/Afghan war (1979-89). For readers who want a deeper understanding of Afghanistan than a 20-second sound bite can offer, this fascinating mosaic of a novel will admirably fill the bill.

Shah dedicates "Kara Kush" to the people of Afghanistan. The title, a Turkestani term, translates as The Eagle and refers to Adam Durany, Afghan-born, American-educated leader of the freedom fighters. Like all classic heroes, Durany shows his powers early in life. One day, hiking in the mountains near Kabul, the young boy discovers a lost Buddhist cave-monastery, which will become, 20 years later, his base of wartime operations:

"He told nobody. The secrecy which had protected the place for so long seemed to capture him, too. Adam was no occultist, but something said to him that the monastery was sleeping: and that its time would come again."

"Kara Kush: A Novel of Afghanistan"

by Idries Shah
Overlook, $26.95
"Kara Kush" is an epic and a call to arms. Durany vividly springs to life in the opening chapters and then all but disappears for several hundred pages as Shah introduces scores of characters from all walks of life. The story moves across much of Afghanistan to Moscow to England to India and Pakistan. We meet housekeepers, soldiers, diplomats, carpenters, business men, secret police and numerous warlords. Russians are villains and intruders. Afghans are resourceful underdogs.

This is partisan writing, pure and simple. To enjoy the almost nonstop action — and it really is that — you have to do a cultural about-face and see the oppressed mujahedeen (who later evolved into the Taliban) as the good guys. If you can make the shift, Shah will take you into a fascinating universe of a warrior culture that goes back more than a thousand years.

With a reporter's eye and an academic's breadth of knowledge, Shah describes ancient rituals and modern warfare with equal attention to detail. Every weapon, tank, aircraft, has a name; every ceremony has a special protocol:

"Just as Adam realized, with dismay, that they had not performed the nazaria, the ceremony of offering gold and precious jewels or sweet spices and perfumes to the potentate, he saw that Farid had not forgotten. He lifted a piece of red velvet from an inlaid brass tray carried by a splendidly dressed servant and revealed three large gold coins, ashrafis, and some silver boxes, such as are used for amber, incense and the like. In accordance with custom, the Prince touched each object in turn, signifying acceptance."

The most impressive quality of the novel is how Shah can offer so many glimpses of Afghan life and yet never lets us forget there is a very ugly war going on. The pace is fast, character development is brief — every new character has a job to do — and the battle scenes are unflinchingly brutal:

"Men screamed, automatic fire rattled, shells exploded in all directions. From the blazing tanks came the radio operators, frenziedly trying to beat out the flames on their uniforms and get away before the ammunition exploded. The dismounted tank crews were utterly bewildered. The darkness was lit by the red-orange explosions, while the yellow of the diesel flames and the choking black smoke mingled with the stench of burning rubber and human flesh. The Russians had put up field-flares, but this only helped the Afghans to see their targets better."

Good war novels are almost always stories of landscape, how soldiers move through space, how their bodies feel, the fatigue that comes from marching, sleeping on the ground, enduring the harsh conditions of battle. Here Shah's knowledge of his country's geography takes us far beyond the cave images of the Western press.

We see an Afghanistan of terrifying spaces, mountain gorges "spanned only by rope bridges," snowy peaks as high as 25,000 feet where even camels can't perform, and gale-force sandstorms.

It's a country that U.S. Special Forces are now getting to know intimately as they try to do nation-building while hunting down elusive al-Qaida and Taliban soldiers. It's a Herculean task, for Shah's Afghanistan is still a feudal place, tribal, fractious, deeply poor.

The unity of purpose glorified in "Kara Kush" feels like a fleeting dream, perhaps only achievable when invaders are rolling across your borders.


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