‘Occupation’ by Omar I. Ismail is a political novel that comments on the ongoing war in Afghanistan since the US invasion in 2001. In the last two decades dozens of such novels have been published. The theme of the political novels that we have seen so far was mainly a justification for overthrowing of the Taliban government and US occupation. Most stories were about oppressed women and minorities under the yoke of oppressive Sunni Pashtuns. These novels were instrumental in creating consent among Western audience for the occupation of Afghanistan.
Author Omar L. Ismail departs from what has become the norm and chooses to provide a counter-narrative. ‘Occupation’ is a fictional story describing how the Western invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent instalment of a new government is seen as corrupt and oppressive and how it has created more problems for Afghanistan. The title of the book, ‘Occupation’ is by itself quite a feat. Even after two decades most people wouldn’t dare to use the term ‘occupation’ when describing the situation in Afghanistan.
‘Occupation’ is the first book authored by Omar L. Ismail. It is highly commendable that he has chosen to write about such a highly controversial subject in his first attempt to write a book. While the book indeed has many shortcomings that will be discussed later, it is worth mentioning that this book is ground-breaking. It is a bold and courageous step by a Muslim author to challenge the pervasive narrative.
About the author
Omar I. Ismail was born in the United Kingdom in a Pakistani household. He has closely followed the news about Afghanistan in the last 25 years. His political novel is mainly a critique of the type of narrative that has been pushed by the mainstream media since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Ismail has studied film and screenwriting and has a particular interest in thrillers and mysteries. Before venturing into writing ‘Occupation’ he has written several long stories.
Like many other Muslims, the author had his share of criticism of the so called ‘War on Terror’ and the benefits of military interventions in the Muslim countries after 9/11. Naturally, due to his Pakistani background he has a particular interest in current affairs of both Pakistan and Afghanistan as both countries’ politics are often intertwined.
Criticism of the book
‘Occupation’ is a work of fiction and written by an author about a country that he has never visited. Neither does he speak any of the languages spoken in Afghanistan. For this reason the book has many issues. The author’s lack of knowledge and personal biases seriously hamper his storytelling. There are also some literary problems with this book.
First of all, the voice of the narrator is confusing. While the narrator is telling a story, he is also explaining a lot and providing socio-political context. The switching between storytelling and providing context doesn’t flow naturally into one another. In order to read this book, it requires a lot of effort from the reader to stay focused and follow along as some passages can at times be quite incoherent.
The author can’t escape the fact that he is a British of Pakistani origin. His ethnic background is apparent in the way he describes certain contentions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For example, he mentions the Durand Line and then claims that it is preferred by the ‘Western backed Afghan government’ to refer to the British era colonial boundary as such. Fact of the matter is that Afghans from all strata don’t recognize the line as an official border. Even the Taliban, whose relationship with Pakistan is well known, don’t recognise the line.
The author also employs stereotypes. For example he describes rural Pashtuns as ‘hillbillies’. This is also a stereotype often heard from Pakistanis. In their perspective, Pashtuns are noble savages. While they admire Pashtuns as a ‘martial race’ they also believe that Pashtuns are primitive and less intelligent people than Punjabis or Muhajirs. Ismail has also other typical Pakistani/Western stereotypical view of other Afghans. For example, he writes about a character Fahim who is an ethnic Tajik. He describes how his father eats ‘naan bread and kebab’. That’s something someone would say who may have eaten at Afghan fast food restaurants. A native author would have described more typical meals of Afghans consisting of rice and various vegetable dishes. Ismail also makes a common mistake by confusing ethnicity with tribe. Tajik is an ethno-linguistic group and there are no tribes amongst Tajiks. Pashtuns, Baloch, Turkmen and Hazaras consist of different subtribes. But they are all different ethnic groups with distinct cultures and languages.
The author describes the Afghan traditional clothes as Khet Partug. While that is how it is described by some Pashtun tribes in South-East Afghanistan, people generally use two other names for men’s garments. Kamiz Partug in Pashto and Peraan Tumban in Dari.
Ismail also tends to overplay the ethnic tensions in his story. He describes the government as dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks. That may have been the case shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban but in most part of the last two decades, there were many Pashtuns in dominant positions in the government. For a few years, Pashtuns were underrepresented in the armed forces and the police but that has changed since the mid 2000’s.
The author also overplays the role of India in Afghanistan’s affairs. Which also reveals his Pakistani bias. For instance he describes how Afghan defense minister Wahid wants to deal directly with the Indians in response to attacks by the Taliban. While India certainly has a hand in the current Afghan government, its role is exaggerated by Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s inception, the country has been embroiled in an existential conflict with India. This has strongly influenced how hawkish officials in Islamabad and Rawalpindi see the world. In their eyes, there is an Indian RAW agent hiding behind every rock.
Lastly, the author lacks knowledge of how government in Afghanistan conducts its affairs. For example, Ismail tells the story of a major ambush in Paktika province. After the attack, defense minister Wahid talks to his assistant over the phone and tells him that he wants to deal with the Indians directly. While the Afghan government may be extremely corrupt and notoriously mismanaged, even by current standards, it makes no sense for a minister to mention something of this nature over the phone to an assistant.
In conclusion the book can be described certainly as an interesting read because of the subject matter. The fact that the author has dared to pen down a blistering critique of the ‘War on Terror’ is enough reason to purchase this book and read it. However, since this is the first book by Ismail, it has many flaws. The author may want to rewrite this book after traveling at least once to Afghanistan and discussing some of its content with Afghans. A revised version of this book would certainly appeal to a wider audience if the author also employs professional help from seasoned editors.
Author: Omar I. Ismail