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Posts tagged ‘Afghanistan’

We talked with Alla Ivanchikova to discuss the author’s upcoming book, contemporary cultural production on Afghanistan, and the way this cultural production serves as a litmus test for a producer’s political and geopolitical beliefs.

Ivanchikova’s book, Imagining Afghanistan: Global Fiction and Film of the 9/11 Warsexamines how Afghanistan has been imagined in literary and visual texts that were published after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion.



Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

Alla Ivanchikova: The two decades of the 9/11 wars have seen a production of thousands of titles on Afghanistan, and the book tries to make sense of what has transpired in this corpus of works. I argue that Afghanistan serves as a mirror upon which contemporary cultural producers project their values and beliefs, as well as their presumptions and biases.


Alla Ivanchikova (photo provided by author)

Q: What are some of the most common ways this projection manifests?

Ivanchikova: The most obvious one is the belief in benevolent humanitarianism. Since the end of the Cold War, humanitarianism has become the only mode through which we were able to imagine relating to distant others and to their suffering. It was a direct consequence of the collapse of the socialist bloc. Humanitarianism replaced the relation of comradeship or solidarity as being on the same side of a common struggle, which defined the era of anticolonial liberation movements, of which many were left-leaning. Afghanistan is a case study in the humanitarian imaginary: the two cultural products that came to stand for Afghanistan are the Afghan Girl from the National Geographic cover and Khaled Hosseini’s bestseller The Kite Runner. Both give us striking, unforgettable images of suffering children on behalf of which we are compelled to intervene. The less obvious way in which this projection manifests is the anticommunist imaginary, still pervasive in the NATO-centric contexts and my book unpacks the distortions and mirages it creates.


Q: In the introduction to the book, you reference Afghanistan being referred to as a “dim object” prior to the 9/11 attacks. More specifically, “it emitted no light, attracted no attention, and the eyes of the world were not on it”. Do you think this absence of a cultural presence made it easier for these post 9/11 cultural producers to project Afghanistan in their own light?

Ivanchikova: Afghanistan’s cultural invisibility between 1989 (Soviet withdrawal) and 2001 reflects how cultural production is tied to geopolitics. The era between 1989-2001 was one when the Afghan state suffered a complete collapse and people’s suffering was the most intense, but hardly any works have been produced during this time period. So it’s not the intensity of suffering that determines the production of humanitarian images, but geopolitics, and humanitarian images and stories are used, again and again, to justify military interventions. You are right, however, in suggesting that after 2001, there was a sense that Afghanistan was somehow “rediscovered,” and was an unmapped territory. This resonated with many writers who were invested in neo-imperial fantasies of “wild” Afghanistan.


Q: What motivated you to take on this subject?

Ivanchikova: The conflict in Afghanistan spans the entire course of my life. I grew up in the USSR during the Soviet-Afghan war. My early adulthood in the US was dominated by the crisis of 9/11 and the foreign wars that followed. In both cases, the true nature of these conflicts has been largely withheld from the public. I wanted to investigate. As a cultural studies scholar, I did my investigation mostly through analyzing cultural texts—fiction, memoirs, graphic novels, and film. I discovered that Afghanistan poses very specific representational difficulties: whoever writes on it, has to struggle with how to articulate various aspects of its past: its socialist history, the invasion by the Soviet Union, the role of the US in the fuming the flames of the “Afghan” jihad, and the failures of the US-led intervention that followed the Taliban ouster. Immediately and inevitably, one finds herself in the domain of not only history, but ideology.


Ivanchikova’s new book “Imagining Afghanistan: Global Fiction and Film of the 9/11 Wars”


Q: So given the nature of Afghanistan, it’s very hard to cover while maintaining the appearance of being ideologically neutral, or without espousing some kind of ideology?

Ivanchikova: Yes, that’s correct. Afghanistan serves as a litmus test of a sort, either revealing your political and geopolitical positioning, or revealing your confusion as to how to position yourself. In my book, I don’t argue for objectivity, however, but insist on the value of having many different stories. Unfortunately, the first wave of writing and screening Afghanistan, between 2001 and 2009, produced texts that told only one type of a story—the story of Afghanistan as a relic of soviet barbarity, to be saved by the West’s helping hand. This was in line with the official US view, as articulated by Donald Rumsfeld, for example. There was particular investment in, and fascination with, the figure of the suffering Afghan woman.


Q: Why is this problematic?

Ivanchikova: It is important to remember that the crisis suffered by Afghan women was a direct consequence of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (a socialist state that championed women’s rights) being defeated by ultra-patriarchal radical Islamist groups supported by the Reagan administration. This is an uncomfortable story to tell in NATO-centric contexts, because instead of making the reader/spectator feel good about liberating Afghan women, it implicates them into the very scene of crisis. So barely anyone wants to tell this story. But these stories needs to be told for any work of transnational reconciliation to begin. The other story that needs to be told is one of the Afghan effort to build socialism. Afghanistan suffers from the same problem that affects the entirely of the former second world: the absence of a language in which to talk about the defeated socialist projects in the aftermath of the Cold War’s end. We need more stories that bring into view the Afghan revolutionary subject—women and men who dreamt of and fought for economic and social equality and fought for the revolution rather than against it. We have tons of books that romanticize anti-statist (patriarchal) insurgency in Afghanistan—men who fought against communists. How many stories do we have that feature Afghan revolutionary women? Almost none. Ultimately, it is this very erasure of Afghan revolutionary history that results in a humanitarian capture of Afghanistan’s present.


Q: Where do you feel a person would find the most accurate representation of Afghanistan in contemporary culture?

Ivanchikova: I especially like Nadeem Aslam’s work as he tries to unpack the multiple layers of Afghan history present simultaneously in a landscape, like a palimpsest. In my book, I talk about his two novels: The Wasted Vigil and The Blind Man’s Garden. I also recommend Qais Akbar Omar’s memoir, In a Fort of Nine Towers. It is a very accessible, didactic work by a survivor of the civil war era—precisely the era during which Afghanistan became a dim object. It has particular relevance for the current moment: by describing what it meant to have lived through the destruction of Kabul as it was captured by the warring jihadist groups in 1992, the memoir gives us a glimpse into what it means to have survived the sieges of Fallujah, Mosul, Palmira, Raqqa, or Aleppo in the twenty-first century.



Get 30% off Imagining Afghanistan when you order through our website and use the discount code PURDUE30.

That Sheep May Safely Graze (March 2019, Purdue University Press), by David Sherman, brings light to the human story of Afghanistan, the disruptive impact that decades long conflict has had on rural Afghans, their culture, and the timeless relationship they share with their land and their animals.

David Sherman

The book describes the story of one of the most successful and lasting U.S.-funded development programs in Afghanistan since the start of American nation-building efforts there in 2001. It is a story of bringing essential veterinary services to a society that depends day in and day out on the well-being and productivity of its animals, but also a society that had no reliable access to even the most basic animal health care.

The author of the book, David Sherman, has worked all over the world to provide essential veterinary services such as animal health service delivery, veterinary infrastructure development, transboundary animal disease control, goat health and production, and veterinary and veterinary para-professional education. His work has brought him to over 40 countries, working for a variety of international agencies including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Bank, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), Heifer International, and Farm Africa.

Prior to the book’s publication, we asked David Sherman about his personal experiences in Afghanistan, the way the world views the country, and more.



Q: What made you want to write about your experiences?

David Sherman: Several things. The United States has been involved militarily in Afghanistan indirectly or directly since 1979 and yet Americans remain largely unaware of the country, its history and its people.  Having been involved in relief and development activities in Afghanistan since 1991, I have been able to gain a long-term experience with the country and its culture and I wanted to share that experience with a wider public. Also, for those who have followed events in Afghanistan, the prevailing view has been that billions of dollars have been spent on nation building with little to show for it. Therefore, I wanted to tell the story of our successful effort to provide sustainable animal health care in the country to a wider audience to illustrate that indeed, effective development in Afghanistan is possible.  Finally, I wanted to invite readers to get to know some of the fine and decent Afghans with whom I worked, so that they can better appreciate the warmth, grace and resilience of these people in the face of the tremendous hardships and losses they have suffered.


Q: What is the best story that didn’t make it into the book?

Sherman: Oh, so many it is hard to choose. But there was one that epitomized the challenges of doing development work in Afghanistan. I was able to organize a collaborative effort between my employer, the Dutch Committee for Afghanistan, US Army Civil Affairs officers, a British NGO and several volunteer veterinary practitioners from the US to refurbish the teaching clinic at the Kabul University Veterinary Faculty and restore their desperately needed clinical teaching program for veterinary students. Unfortunately, after we had it up and running and farmers were bringing their livestock and expats were bringing their dogs and cats for treatment, the clinic was bulldozed to make way for the newly created American University of Afghanistan!


Q: How do you feel the world’s perception of what is going on in Afghanistan lines up with your own experiences there?

Sherman: Sadly, what the world hears about Afghanistan – widespread corruption, ineffective governance, the opium trade, instability, poverty, insurgency and violence are all true, but the tragedy is that the world hears only about these things. Afghanistan is a country of 35 million people, the vast majority of whom get on with their lives, demonstrating a remarkable inner strength. Every day, they go to work, to market, to school, to the mosque to pray, to the fields to tend their crops, to the pastures to tend their animals, to funerals to mourn their dead and to weddings as an affirmation of their hopefulness for a better future. What the world does not hear about is the dignity and humanity of these Afghan people and their desire for peace and a better life for their children.


Q: How would you explain the importance of the work you did to a layperson?

Sherman: Through our work, we were able to establish reliable access to clinical veterinary services throughout Afghanistan. This was a vitally important achievement. Afghanistan is mainly a rural society whose people still depends largely on agriculture. It is estimated that the livelihoods of up to eighty percent of the population depend directly or indirectly on livestock. Nomadic herders, of which there are millions in the country, depend almost completely on their livestock to survive. Since the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the prolonged fighting that followed to this day, what little veterinary service that had been available to farmers and herders through government had essentially disappeared. As a result, the nation’s livestock had succumbed to a wide range of preventable and treatable diseases due to lack of vaccines and medicines and personnel trained in their use. The livelihoods and well-being of livestock owners as well as the national economy suffered as a result.

While there were numerous relief efforts over the years to provide veterinary services through various donor projects, these interventions were not sustainable because the service was provided for free and the personnel were paid salaries. When the projects ended and the free medicines and salaries disappeared, so did the veterinary services. We took a different approach, recruiting and training young men and later women from their home districts, providing them with a six-month training along with the necessary equipment and supplies required to provide good quality clinical services to their home districts once they returned after training. We made it clear from the beginning that we would pay no salaries and that these trained paraveterinarians would have to charge for their services so that they could earn enough money to provide their own income and to purchase their resupply of additional medicines and vaccines to continue working. This private sector, fee for service model worked very well. Since the first paraveterinarians were trained in 2004, almost 90% of them continue to provide animal health care services to the farmers and herders in their districts, some now for almost 15 years. As a result, hundreds of jobs were created for paraveterinarians, the health, welfare and productivity of Afghanistan livestock have been improved and the livelihoods of rural Afghans enhanced throughout the country.

David Sherman (center rear) in Afghanistan


Q: What are the most important ways your work affects the general public?

Sherman: Throughout the developing world and even in some parts of the developed world, tens of millions of animal owners do not have access to reliable animal health care. There are many reasons – remoteness, lack of roads, telecommunication and other infrastructure, war, civil unrest, misguided policies, insufficient numbers of veterinarians, lack of economic incentive for veterinarians to serve small holder farmers and nomads, poverty and inadequate knowledge of the benefits of veterinary services. The fee for service, private sector, community-based veterinary paraprofessional model for sustainable animal health care delivery that we refined in Afghanistan can serve as a model to improve access to veterinary services around the world.

The benefits of regular access to reliable animal health care are many, particularly in developing countries. Healthy, vaccinated animals offer protection against the disaster of unexpected loss of flocks and herds to disease, improved food security, better nutrition, increased income, expanded opportunities for value chain development in the livestock sector and even social stability for communities that depend on animals for their survival.


Q: If you could have readers take one thing away from this book, what would that be?

Sherman: If I may, I would like to quote a passage from the book to sum up what I would like readers to take away from it. “Sadly, despite so many years of American involvement, the Afghan people remain largely invisible to most Americans, and their hopes and aspirations, so similar to our own, remain unknown. My life has been enormously enriched by the many years spent in their midst and I have grown to love some individual Afghans as if they were my own family. The Afghan people are not faceless ciphers, conniving thieves, ruthless terrorists, and rabid fundamentalists. All societies are complex and contain undesirable elements. It is true of Afghan society as it is true of our own. The Afghans I worked with and came to know well are decent, hardworking people. They are generous, hospitable, good-humored, trustworthy, and devoted to family and community. They have deep and abiding religious faith. Afghans are proud of their country’s beauty, its varied cultures, and its long, rich history. Most of all, Afghans are resilient. They have suffered in ways over the past thirty years that most of us cannot even imagine. They want and deserve better. They want and deserve peace, security, prosperity, and a hopeful future.”

As I write this, the American government is engaged in peace talks with the Taliban. I pray that respect for the quality of life and the basic human rights of ordinary Afghans, especially Afghan women, is on the agenda.



That Sheep May Safely Graze: Rebuilding Animal Health Care in War-Torn Afghanistan is available now. Check out a free preview of the book.

Get 30% off when you order directly from the Purdue University Press website and enter the code “PURDUE30” at checkout.