Mary Smith interview: My Afghanistan

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WHEN Mary Smith, a lone western woman, travelled with her toddler son to stay in a remote village in Hazara Jat,a rugged mountainous region in the centre of Afghanistan, she worried she would be single-handedly responsible for bankrupting the local people.

"They were so welcoming, so hospitable that every night they would prepare a banquet for me. Every day a sheep or a goat or a chicken would be slaughtered in my honour," says the Islay-born writer, recalling this period of her life in the mid 1990s.

Then one evening a lamb went missing from one family's flock and the entire community – all five households – turned out in force to look for it.

"I heard my name listed as one of the searchers and I thought, 'Yes!' Finally, I'd been accepted; I had lost my guest status. Thankfully, after that the enormous feasts were no longer a daily occurrence, although the kindness and generosity of the people continued until the moment I left," says Smith, 54, who returned home a decade ago to Castle Douglas, the town where she grew up, after spending ten years living and working in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

She may have left both of these deeply troubled lands behind – she last visited hermany friends in Afghanistan three years ago when she and her husband, Jon, were almost certainly the only tourists in that vast country – but her heart remains with the families she befriended, and about whom she writes with compassion and understanding in her first novel, No More Mulberries. The book, which paints a vivid portrait of everyday rural life, tells the story of Miriam, a Scottish nurse and midwife,whomarries the love of her life, an Afghan medical student. After his brutal murder, she remarries, this time to an Afghan doctor, because she wants her son to grow up in his father's country and culture. But the marriage descends into crisis when they move to her husband's tribal village.

Many of the characters in the novel are based on Smith's friends and acquaintances and the stories she tells are rooted in reality, such as that of the young girl who gives birth to an illegitimate child –when she and her mother trek back to their village in shame, they abandon the child to die in the stony wilderness.

Then there are the women who still live by ancient rules, such as the Smith remains in internet contact with all her Afghan friends and there has been a flurry of e-mails in the wake of recent events, with "liberated" Afghanistan apparently unravelling – and the US President, Barack Obama, endorsing talks with the Taleban – as well as international outrage over a new law condoning marital rape and child marriage.

The Shia Family Law,whichapplies to 15 per cent of the forbidding women from leaving their homes without their husbands' permission. Ask Smith about the storm over the newlaws – the Afghani president, Hamid Karzai, has promised to amend the legislation–and her response is measured. "I've read only the newspaper reports, not the actual legislation. Our friend Jawad, who heads the organisation we used to run, e-mailed to say that the Shia Muslims are delighted that for the first time they have legislation, because they've been an oppressed minority for centuries.

"There are also many other laws that have now been enshrined, not just the two that have caused such controversy.

I'm not condoning them, but I do think Gordon Brown has enough on his plate without saying we could not tolerate that situation.

"Of course, I e-mailed Jawad and asked what his wife thought. He replied without any mention of her thoughts, so I imagine she's not too happy. I do know that he's not a husband who would ever force his wife. Suddenly, though, there's this perception that every Afghan woman is going to be raped at night. That's not the case.

"I do question our right to impose western values on other cultures. Yes, we must stand up and decry tyranny and torture,but first theWest shouldput its own house in order. I think a lot of men in this country still believe rape within marriage should be legal."

She pauses, then says: "It would be stupid of me to say that the situation for women in Afghanistan is good. For some, it's much worse than it is for others. It depends on the geographic area, the culture, the religious outlook. In some of the Pushtun areas the women's lives have probably not changed, either before, during or after Taleban, and they will probably never change. In the cities,there'saneducatedclass,many of whom have, sadly, left. They are the ones who are needed now, of course.

"But lookat thework ofDrSima Samar, chairwomanof the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission. She's a Hazara (a predominantly ShiaMuslim ethnic group] and he's now one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. She's from a small village yet she's very well educated, an amazing, inspirational woman."

Over the years that she spent there, fromthe late 1980s until 1999, Smith has seen people face tremendous challenges in Afghanistan.

"I was working for Oxfam when I went to Pakistan on holiday and fell in love with it," she says, adding that she also met her husband there. He was with the leprosy and tuberculosis health education organisation Lepco. Their son David, now 18, was two when they moved to Afghanistan to open clinics. Then Smith began training women in basic healthcare in villages in the foothills of the Hindu Kush.

Her office was based in Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north of the country, but she would spend weeks on her own in villages that were days fromanywhere, with David as the only English speaker around, although he became fluent in Dari. "I came to know the women in Hazara Jat and Mazar very well," she explains.

While she was in the country she also watched the rise of Taleban,when they took control of Kandahar and then Herat. "They were at the gates of Kabul by the time we left," she says.

On returning to Scotland,Smith had a wealth of stories about the country where she has a "second son" – Sultan, a young man whose education she and her husband funded and who is now a director of education and determined that girls will be educated – so she began writing and has since done an MLitt in creative writing at Glasgow University.

She has drawn heavily on her own experiences for her novel, a deeply-felt response to bestselling works of fiction about Afghanistan, such as The Kite Runner and The Bookseller of Kabul, as well as the often brutal images seen in television and newspaper reports.

"There is this perception that Afghanistan is a breeding ground for terrorism and,with Pakistan, the source of all terror plots," she says. "First of all, Afghanistan is an enormous country.Huge! I don't knowall of it, but not all thepeople arewar lords.Mostpeople are just trying to get on with their lives, raising families, making homes. But you would not know that from some of the fiction (published recently].

"All of these novels are beautifully written and I've enjoyed reading them," she concedes, "but I don't feel that they deal with the reality of life there, especially for villagewomen.

I felt I had to write my book because I wanted people to know the real Afghan people, the women I've sat with in their warm kitchens, whose good food I've eaten, whose children have played with my son."

Smith is already the author of an authoritative non-fiction book, Before the Taleban: Living With War, Hoping For Peace, which she's just updated for Kingston University Press to take in events since the "victory" against Taleban seven years ago.

She sighs: "Sometimes, I fear nothing's ever going to change.

"All the time Iwas therepeople said, 'Oneday there will be peace again.' It's a mantra. They still say it and I hope that it will be so, because there's something about Afghanistan that gets under your skin."