In a society where many people view Afghanistan as a Middle-Eastern land devastated by war and nothing more, Christina Lamb’s heartfelt book The Sewing Circles of Herat brings the many personalities of Afghanistan to life. Readers follow Lamb as she travels through the desolate, sweltering country, contrasting Afghanistan before and after the attack of September 11th, 2001, and watch the tragedies of the Taliban and the hope of a new President favorable to freedom revealed before their eyes. The powerful personal account provided in The Sewing Circles of Herat will forever change a reader’s current and future perspective of the Middle East, making it an extremely valuable, important, and pertinent text to today’s International Relations students.
Beginning the book by describing her intent to revisit Afghanistan in October 2001 after past visits in the 1980s and 1990s which she loved, Lamb, a British reporter, soon merges into a much more daunting topic, describing her encounter with a Taliban torturer in a 2001 meeting. As the man describes to her how he was forced into the Taliban by the threat of his father being killed, and continues to describe gruesome punishments he has implemented such as breaking spines, readers are first exposed to the dark reality of many lives in other countries. From this first chapter on, feelings of superficiality and superiority are wiped away, as the endless
cycle of poor, uneducated people being taken advantage of and then taking advantage of others is uncovered. It is here that a pattern is started in the format of the book – at the end of each chapter, a letter or diary entry appears from a woman known as Marri, who accompanies Lamb’s voyages with her own observations of life in Kabul. This clever formatting of the book provides for an enjoyable progression of the story, and allows readers to see the tragedy and triumph through two pairs of eyes.
Lamb’s next chapters visit the unsuspected roots of this terror – seemingly honest, genuine religious leaders or mullahs she met on her first journeys in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The author learns that these men, who had taken her in and toured her around the country on motorbikes with utmost hospitality, ended up
becoming the Taliban’s founders, personal friends of Osama bin Laden, and creators of the first madrassa, or school, of many, which would become the source of 99% of Taliban members. She simultaneously ascertains that she had been in the same room with Osama bin Laden on multiple occasions. This shocking discovery emphasizes for students the life lesson that it is difficult to know who to trust and believe, sometimes even after knowing a person for years. This section of the book also highlights how corruptness can evolve so quickly –
from an almost nonexistent group in the early 1990s had sprung into a dominant regime in under ten years.
Lamb continues on to tell the story of Zahir Shah and the royal Afghan family, whose house was bombed by the king’s jealous younger brother causing them to exile to Rome, and later tells of the king’s return to Afghanistan after popular demand in 2002. Through these stories the author reveals the lengths some people will go to obtain power and the somewhat assuring sentiment that at times people’s voices are still heard and good does prevail, two essential ideas to keep in mind in an increasingly hostile and greed-rewarding global platform. Reaching the climax of her journey, Lamb is led to a disguised girls’ school in Herat, a city known for being the Afghan hub of knowledge. Intrigued by a sign labeled “Literary Circle of Herat”, the literary society’s leader guides Lamb to “The Golden Needle”, a shop that appears to sell sewing supplies, but secretly has
allowed 30,000 women to pass through its doors to take off their burqas and discuss advanced European literature, a subject strictly banned from universities and libraries all across the country. This true act of courage, for which the book is named after, stresses to students the need for risk takers and people willing to spearhead change in today’s world.
As she continues her travels throughout Afghanistan, the author witnesses the extreme, radical control sought after by the Taliban, for example in the newly-appointed President Hamid Karzai’s palace in which colorful peacocks on wallpaper had been hand-painted white one-by-one by the Taliban, and specific chunks of paintings had been sawed out for a lack of personal preference or presence of Islamic material. In the Kandahar Football Stadium, Lamb comes across a teenage boy washing out fresh blood from the field after years of gruesome public executions by the Taliban. For the first time in years, reforms are beginning in October 2001, for with a tide of new Afghan leadership, the first songbird in years has been spotted, public executions have been banned and Marri, the author’s Kabul pen pal, reports that kite-flying and laughing are no longer banned in the nation’s capital. After successfully talking with the family of the last man to be publicly executed under the Taliban, a father named Abdullah, and reflecting on her journey so far, Lamb decides she wants to find out where this kind of unimaginable suffering is caused, and arranges a meeting with two leaders of the Taliban through the mullahs she once befriended and now, as enemies, kept a close watch on. The men are surprisingly young fathers of many children, playing normal roles in their own families but are expectedly emotionally unattached to the families of their victims.
Lamb next meets with General Hamid Gul, the impassioned jihad supporter, who interrogates her overnight as to her intentions and by the next day has destroyed the place Lamb was staying in and has generated national headlines of her being a spy. The sheer courageousness of Lamb to subject herself simply to such close proximity to people with intentionally hideous records, nonetheless to hold interviews with and in some cases photograph these people, is a shining example of how meaningful one person can be and how much knowledge one person can spread if they make an effort, especially to potential leaders of tomorrow often found in International Relations students. Finishing her expedition, Lamb persistently searches for days to meet Marri, the woman she has been writing to but has not met face to face. Finally they meet, exchanging photos and discussing their hope for a bright future in Afghanistan, which is complemented by the release of
bright balloons into the sky by a man on the street. Christina Lamb’s pure, genuine account of her travels through Afghanistan bring life to a place which seems desolate on the surface, immersing students in
the history, culture, and reform of a country whose people are thirsty for something so simple as