Roots of the Novel
I wrote the first draft of Love and War in the Land of Cain in the summer of 1983, under the title War in the Land of Cain. After witnessing 42 years of war in Afghanistan, I decided it was time to emphasize the love, and so I decided to retitle the novel.
My trip as a journalist into Afghanistan's Kunar Province with the mujahedeen in spring 1983 was fresh in my mind when I started writing, and I felt an urgency to tell a fictional story that would help people all over the world to understand the character and struggle of the Afghan people. I wanted readers to care as much as I did about the plight of a people under siege from the Soviet Union, and the millions who had fled as refugees into Pakistan and Iran. At the same time, I wanted people to care about the ordinary young men of the Soviet Union, some ethnic Russian and some from what were then the Soviet Republics of Central Asia. They were mostly draftees, told they would be fighting American and Chinese troops. Instead, they found themselves fighting against people much like themselves. Ultimately, Love and War in the Land of Cain is a profoundly anti-war novel, observing the horrors and absurdity of war as a means of resolving conflict.
I had the perfect writer's retreat in 1983, a simple lodge in Pahalgam, Kashmir, long before that region also descended into the chaos and violence that prevail till today. Classical music, Western and Indian, floated through the rain-scented air amongst the cultivated and wild flowers as I typed on my portable manual Olivetti typewriter. I wrote only during the day to avoid disturbing other guests. Evenings were filled with stimulating conversations with travelers from all over the world, passing through the crossroads of Asia.
I finished the first draft in August. My first reader was my friend Althea Maddrell, a British woman who would later teach English in Tibet, and still later become a wandering sadhu in India. I headed up to Ladakh in a rickety bus with her and her partner Richard Lanchester while she read the only copy of my manuscript.
As I wrote the novel, the characters came alive to me. The book is definitely fiction—by no means my own story—but it is informed with the idealism and horror of the Afghan struggle against the military might of the Soviet Union. At that time no one could foresee that there would be an additional period of 20 years of U.S.-led occupation after a period of civil war that never really stopped no matter who was in power.
I'm not the successful war correspondent Elizabeth Owen, and I didn't fall in love with a Dr. Yusuf or meet anyone quite like him—though I confess to hopeful fantasies. All of my characters “exist” as independent beings, though many are composites of the hundreds of Afghan men, women, and children I came to know both during my brief sojourn in Afghanistan in 1979, before the Soviet invasion at the end of that year, and in the early 80s in Pakistan.
Althea and other early readers were deeply moved by the book and its essential message of peace, but I did not find a publisher in the 80s. One of the issues may have been that a critical plot point turned on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan—an event that was not to happen until February 1989.
In the meantime, I was able to accomplish my purpose of increasing public awareness and understanding of the Afghan people's struggle through my June 1985 National Geographic cover story, “Along Afghanistan's War-torn Frontier.”
Becoming an Historical Novel
After the Soviet withdrawal in early 1989, publishers' interests changed. It was never quite the right timing for a novel on Afghanistan, but my book of travel memoirs, Sisters on the Bridge of Fire, was first published in 1993 by Burning Gate Press, followed by the Schaffer Press edition in 2002.
Thirty-eight years later, Love and War in the Land of Cain has become an historical novel.
Over the years, I revised the manuscript a number of times as I became a more skilled writer, a more effective storyteller, and a more acute and compassionate observer of the human condition. But what never had to change was the original structure of the plot. Although details of who was in control of the Soviet Union or Afghanistan had to be updated, certain truths held.
Afghanistan remains today a playing board of the Great Game, an historical struggle between powers-that-be. In the 1800s the stakes were empire, natural resources, and the Russian drive for a warm water port. Well into the 2000s, the stakes are corporate empire, and still and again control of natural resources. The South Yolotan natural gas deposit in neighboring Turkmenistan is thought to be the second largest in the world—leaving aside whether we should be drilling for fossil fuels at all in light of accelerating climate breakdown—and during the days of Taliban rule in the late 90s the multinational oil company Unocal was angling for a pipeline to the Indian Ocean through Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the world inexorably warms, a warm water port is less of an issue for Russia, but control of water resources and outdated fossil fuels remains a crucial goal for the borderless multi-national corporations that increasingly dictate the foreign policies of once-powerful nations. Afghanistan contains approximately $1 trillion worth of non-fuel mineral wealth, including copper, iron, lithium, and the rare earth minerals currently foundational to our communications devices.
The Possible Future
The human cost of the decades of war in Afghanistan—Soviet, civil, and US-led—has been high. It is estimated that 1.5 million Afghans died in the Soviet war, and 241,000 since the US invasion of 2001. The players change, but the mountains, valleys, deserts, decimated orchards and villages, and now-teeming cities are still the chessboard, and the Afghan people still the pawns. Religion—fundamentalist or mystic—and politics—fundamentalist or pragmatic—are merely costumes and sets for the ongoing conflagration.
In late summer 2021 the future looks dark for those Afghans who believe in freedom, human rights, women's rights, free expression, art, poetry, and democracy. Afghans, and the world, wait with bated breath to see whether the Taliban will honor their promises to let their people go and allow those who wish a different life to flee to other parts of the world in the second tsunami of a diaspora that began in the early 80s.
So far, the signs are not encouraging. But what gives me hope is the fact that a generation of young Afghan women and men have grown up with the expectation, at least in cities and even provincial capitals, of the right to education, professions, jobs, creativity, and independence. And this generation, under 25s, is somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the entire population.
I want to visualize a future in which Afghans transcend the legacy that gives my novel its title: the land where the Biblical Cain fled after killing his brother Abel. Afghans are bright, passionate, creative, and hospitable. They are no more inclined to war, drugs—or fundamentalism—than any other group of people. Afghanistan has often been called a nation of poets and builders, and this is the birthright that I believe they will choose, in time.
As we live through the uncertainty of the present moment, a Sufi story comes to mind:
“There was once a king who commanded his wise advisors to make him a ring that would make him happy whenever he was sad, and sad whenever he was happy. They thought and thought, and finally decided that the ring should simply be engraved with the words, 'In hamah b'guzerad—This too shall pass.'”
Thus these terrible times for Afghanistan must pass, as all previous occupations, invasions, coups, and cruel regimes have passed.
May Afghanistan once again become the Land of Lilacs, the heart center of the Asian continent, and the crossroads, not of conquerors, but of ideas and dreams.