Bookmonger: Seattle author gives an insider's look at Afghanistan

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 1, 2014 

In 1968, Suzanne Griffin traveled to Afghanistan as the bride of an American Peace Corps Field Officer who had been assigned there. She fell in love with the country, exploring its cities, rural areas, religious sites and cultural landmarks on a kind of extended honeymoon, as her husband undertook his work and she taught English.

Griffin returned to Afghanistan in 2002, less than a year after the United States and its allies had launched an all-out military effort to dismantle al-Qaeda following the attack on New York's World Trade Center. This time she was a widow. But Griffin was committed to rebuilding her life following the loss of her husband, and to helping rebuild the country where they had begun their married life together.

In the intervening years, she had raised a family, earned her PhD and worked in Washington state educational agencies, so she had the confidence, experience and tools to begin the work.

In the dozen years since, she has split her time between Seattle and Afghanistan, returning to Central Asia regularly to continue to increase access to education for women and girls, improve the training of Afghan teachers and university instructors, and upgrade health care, especially for mothers and newborns.

"Lessons of Love in Afghanistan" is Griffin's memoir about her activities on the other side of the globe, and the people she has worked with and befriended along the way.

What a contrast to the stark images we get on the nightly news! Seen through her eyes, Afghanistan is a place of nuanced cultural behaviors, fragile beauty, aspiration and democratic principles embedded in the shura, a tradition of group consultation.

This book gives us the privilege of entering into the homes and lives of citizens in a country that our mass media has tended to portray in black and white and sandy beige. But Griffin takes time to describe sensory delights - the food, clothing, gardens and art - as well as the customs, and the ethnic and tribal variety.

That said, this account so focuses on Griffin's personal experiences in the rebuilding efforts of non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan, that the reader may hardly recognize that this is the same place where American military involvement continues up to the present day. Although this book is a memoir, Griffin might have done more to provide at least basic American military/political context for readers (if my assumption is correct that the targeted readership for this book is American.)

The book appears to be loosely organized by region - in which case, a map or series of maps might have been helpful. Another note on illustrations - most of the photos in the book were taken by Griffin's colleague Peter Bussian, a seasoned documentary photographer of refugees and international development issues - but the small, black and white reproductions do not do justice to his work.

These complaints aside, "Lessons of Love" does indeed convey worthwhile lessons - about the importance of providing education, and about the humanity we share.

THIS WEEK'S BOOK

"Lessons of Love in Afghanistan," by Suzanne Griffin

Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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