SHOOTING KABUL by N.H. Senzai. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Hardcover. 288 pages. $16.99.
Shooting Kabul is inspired by Senzai’s husband, an Afghani immigrant, and his flight from Soviet-controlled Afghanistan as a child. Senzai’s origins are in the Indo-Pak subcontinent, though her parents migrated to the United States in the sixties.
Senzai says her father-in-law made the perilous decision to leave Kabul in secret, without telling anyone.
“They fled with the clothes on their backs and made their way to the United States.”
The book, which targets children between the ages of eight and twelve, is a rich tapestry. Senzai weaves together a tale that shimmers darkly at first and lightens toward the end, giving her readers the opportunity to delve into Afghani culture, the Taliban, war, immigrant issues, life after 9/11, and schoolyard bullying.
Shooting Kabul also helps those unfamiliar with Islam understand that it is a religion worthy of respect and that true Muslims do not condone the violence perpetuated by extremists.
Senzai’s book takes on a multiplicity of controversial topics, but manages to retain the easy readability required of a children’s book. Using an 11-year-old protagonist named Fadi, the book engages the reader and takes off like a magic carpet.
The novel opens with Fadi’s family fleeing the oppressive Taliban and seeking better medical treatment for Fadi’s ailing mother in the United States. The stakes are high for Habib, his father, to protect his family, as his honor as a Pukhtun depends on keeping them safe. On the perilous journey Fadi’s sister, Mariam, gets left behind.
Fadi’s family had originally lived in the United States and Habib, who has a Ph.D. in agriculture (like Senzai’s father-in-law), had returned to Afghanistan at the Taliban’s invitation to help solve the problem of opium cultivation and its damaging effects on Afghan society. But Habib soon becomes disillusioned with the Taliban as they close girls’ schools and require women to wear burkas and men to grow beards. Worst of all, book lovers like Fadi are forced to buy books on the black market, since they have been banned. As Noor, the older sister, says in her outburst, “The Taliban is oppressing everyone with a version of Islam that they’ve cooked up. They’ve banned everything! Music, movies, books, photography, and kite flying—show me where it says that in the Qur’an? Show me!”
The excitement and suspense of the first few chapters unfold to a slower, steadier pace while Senzai beautifully depicts immigrant life with its struggles and tensions. Fadi faces bullying at school, which worsens after 9/11, and, like most victims, he is afraid to divulge the names of those who are mistreating him. Adding to the problems of adjusting to the family’s new life in America is the fact that they are unable to locate Mariam. After one failed scheme to get to Pakistan to search for his sister, Fadi desperately tries to win his school club’s photography contest prize—a free trip to India. He hopes once he’s there, he’ll be able to cross the border and find Mariam. Senzai says, “Like my husband, Fadi is a determined person with a streak of stubbornness. Both try to accomplish their goals, no matter what the obstacles, once they set their mind to it.”
The novel has an unexpected denouement, reflecting life’s capacity to surprise, and Senzai skillfully executes it. Replying to a question about her greatest challenge in writing the book, Senzai says, “I didn’t resort to clichés and sensationalism when telling Fadi’s story—I wanted to write an accurate, truthful portrayal of Afghan culture, history, and politics with both its beauty and its flaws.”
The best fiction transforms actual events into a reality that has more meaning than that those imagined from reported facts. At a time when Afghanistan is constantly making news, Shooting Kabul fills the void of ignorance about the country and its culture. Senzai’s novel will surely get the attention it deserves from children and critics, and perhaps even snatch honors and awards.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts.