“Love and War in Afghanistan”

love-and-war“Love and War in Afghanistan”
By Alex Klaits and Gulchin Gulmamadova-Klaits (Seven Stories)

“Even though I was Taliban, I think few people here in our village hold any grudges against me… Everyone understands that in order to have survived here over the last 25 years, it’s been necessary at times to do things that we can’t be proud of.” As a reluctant employee of the Taliban, the things Gulbuddin did include cutting off the hands of thieves, stoning adulterous women, and driving trucks over the bodies of the Uzbek opposition to create a shallow mass grave. At times Afghanistan resembles a Tom Waits song–every soul is tarnished but compassionate.

Read the complete article at the Portland Mercury.

Tom Bissell Interview: Kyrgyz Uprising


Originally published in Alternet, April 2005

A mere three weeks after a mass uprising which resulted in a parliamentary upheaval, little Kyrgyzstan seems to have faded into the background — losing ground to the Pope and Terri Schiavo.

The former Soviet republic, sandwiched between Kazakhstan and China, has been the site of what many have been calling a democratic revolution comparable to those seen in Georgia and Ukraine. After observers reported rigged parliamentary elections, an uprising began in the southern part of the country and quickly spread to its capital, Bishkek. On March 24th protesters raided the presidential compound and president Askar Akayev fled to Russia and later resigned in a videotaped speech.

After the initial fanfare, the bloom may be off the rose. As politicians vye for power in the new government, the democratic ideals that may have sparked the uprising are getting short shrift. Meanwhile, the West’s attention lags; Kyrgyzstan is of little strategic interest, aside from its potential to spark a Democracy domino effect throughout Central Asia.

Author Tom Bissell has focused his fiction and nonfiction energies at the Central Asian region. Once a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan, he has gone on to publish two books about the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. His first, a travelogue called Chasing the Sea, encompasses everything from environmental disaster tourism to smuggling money to the families of dissident journalists, all of it set to a soundtrack of pirated copies of Eminem and Depeche Mode. His most recently work, God Lives in St. Petersburg, is a collection of short stories about the region. His writing is full of uncomfortable truths, brilliant dexterous language and skeptical of any and all political ideology. He speaks with Ben Bush on the lingering effects of Soviet domination, rampant corruption, religion and American influence.

Ben Bush: In your book Chasing the Sea, you have a fairly positive portrayal of [former Kyrgyz president Askar] Akayev, how has that changed in light of recent events?

Tom Bissell: As relatively liberal as Akayev was, he came of political age in the Soviet system, which was as corrupt and perilous an environment as any, and I think in recent years he began to look around at his fellow Central Asian autocrats and dictators and realize that his slightly more open approach to governance wasn’t doing him or his country any good. Rather than have the life of an admirable failure, he just decided to grab onto everything he could. Kyrgyzstan had been known as the nicest place to go to in Central Asia, where the cops were least likely to shake you down, and I think a lot of people attribute that to the atmosphere Akayev had created, but I have been really shocked by the corruption of the last four years. It had become a distressing situation and I’m happy with the events in Kyrgyzstan, but it is unfortunate that the one guy who least deserved it has been chased out of his country. Karimov, Turkmenbashi, or Nazarbayev – I would have preferred to see any one of those three go. It does seem Kyrgyzstan is in a bit of a jam, and it’s very nerve-racking to see what’s going to happen next.

Read the complete article at Alternet.

Tom Bissell “God Lives in St. Petersberg”

god-lives-in-st-petersburgPublished in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Tom Bissell is the best of The Believer‘s formidably ingenious staff of essayists, but in God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories he has turned to writing fiction about tiny former Soviet Central Asian countries you’ve probably never thought about. Bissell was a Peace Corps English instructor in Uzbekistan until he had a culture shock-induced breakdown and shipped out early, only to later return as a reporter for Harper’s magazine. As the United States began its attack on Afghanistan in autumn 2001, Bissell was stranded there, held back by what he describes as the bribe-hungry Uzbek border patrol. As one of Bissell’s characters, the spoiled son of a U.S. ambassador, puts it in one of his stories, it was “the kind of place that was so corrupt you had to bribe yourself to get out of bed in the morning.”

Bissell, examines the region through the eyes of visiting Americans in all of their various guises: North Face-clad outdoor adventure tourists, war correspondents, Christian missionaries, and United Nations scientists. These are tales about American privilege abroad, and perhaps first and foremost among these privileges is the ability to leave when things get the least bit unpleasant. The reader is linked with the protagonists in mutual naïveté about the region, and we learn its rules and systems through violating them as the characters commit blunder after blunder. Wounded in a car wreck and stranded at the mercy of an Afghan warlord, an American and an English war correspondent busy themselves by demonstrating their cringe-inducing paternalism and incapacity for gratitude before learning the full implications of losing their status as observers. Bissell’s writing is full of uncomfortable truths, brilliant wit, and dexterous language, skeptical of any and all political ideology. The collection is hit-and-miss, but also ambitious and likable enough to compensate for it.