Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

17 Nov 2003, 9:00 a.m.

Ann Marlowe in Salon today decries The Bookseller of Kabul…

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2003 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Ann Marlowe in Salon today decries The Bookseller of Kabul and writes about what's really going on in Afghanistan.

But the best epigram I've ever seen about Afghans comes from the first Afghan-American novelist, San Francisco physician Khaled Hosseini. "Afghans cherish customs but abhor rules," says a character in his moving debut, "The Kite Runner." When you consider that Westerners are nearly the opposite, the inevitable collision of cultural styles becomes clearer.

Hosseini's epigram can be unpacked to explain what I came to see as the Afghans' tragic national flaw: risk-aversion. Coasting on the familiar tide of custom, insulated from the need for organized institutions by their hundred cousins, Afghans have been motivated to develop only the merest skeleton of a civil society. A tendency toward consensual decision-making and risk-aversion means stasis. Especially for those born into higher-status families, there's more to be lost by trying and failing than there is to be gained by trying and succeeding.

Oddly enough, this propensity for risk-aversion, rather than a propensity to violence, may be the best explanation for Afghanistan's often-decried "warlordism": When thinking big is outlawed, only outlaws will think big. Most "warlords" in Afghan society are strivers from poorly connected, low-status families. Meanwhile, Afghan's khan class -- the landed gentry -- collect advanced degrees and impressive job titles like ornaments, and treat government posts with tremendous casualness.

Precisely because few people want to rock the boat, it's easily tipped over when someone does. Bad geopolitical luck, combined with the lack of strong civil institutions, leave custom and the gun as the two easy alternatives. Afghans can't seem to stop killing each other because, like a couple in a bad marriage, they've never tried the scary venture of learning how to have survivable fights.

We Americans, on the other hand, don't leave much to the realm of habit; we interrogate and debate everything; we are never satisfied. While we have created an immensely rich culture and a civil society that makes good on many of the utopian promises of 5,000 years of dreamers -- religious freedom! Legal equality of the sexes! Universal education! -- all too often we have the taste of ashes in our mouths. Cherishing rules over customs does not do much for the heart, and Afghans seem to understand this.