"The Taliban Cricket Club," by Timeri N. Murari (Ecco)
Writing a novel about Afghanistan can be a difficult, unenviable undertaking.
Ideally, the result will be well-informed, nuanced, stylishly written, surprising and free of cliches. At worst, the book will simply perpetuate stereotypes, even "good" stereotypes that to this day frustrate and confound Afghanistan's relations with the world.
Timeri N. Murari's attempt at the Afghan novel genre falls somewhere in the middle. It strives to teach the world about the lives of Afghans under Taliban rule — pre-9/11 — and has a clever, even intriguing premise. But it ends up trying too hard: The various characters and plotlines are almost too perfect, too convenient, as if a bunch of Aesop's fables were bundled together.
The narrator is Rukhsana, a headstrong young Afghan woman who works secretly as a journalist — secretly because the Taliban ban women from working. Rukhsana is engaged to an Afghan who is living overseas, but that is due to a family arrangement. Her real love is a young man in India, where she lived for a while, attending school and learning to play cricket.
The last bit is especially convenient. The Taliban, who have banned sports along with other forms of entertainment due to their severe interpretation of Islam, have decided to try to seek some world acceptance via cricket. They announce they will host a cricket tournament, and that the winning team will then get a chance to play in neighboring Pakistan. Rukhsana and several of her male relatives see this as a ticket out of hell.
Murari is a writer, filmmaker and playwright living in India. "The Taliban Cricket Club" is billed as his first novel to be published in the United States, and he says he got the initial idea for the novel in 2000 after reading that the Taliban had decided to make cricket an exception to their "no sports" rule.
The book follows Rukhsana as she tries to teach her band of not-so-merry men to play cricket well enough so that they can win the initial matches in Afghanistan. All while trying to hide the fact that she's a woman. And while taking care of her dying mother. And while waiting for her arranged fiance to send for her, and pining away for her gentleman admirer in India. Oh, and did we mention that a top Taliban official has decided he wants to marry her?
Every few pages in the book, the reader is treated to an anecdote or a character that in ways almost too obvious lay out the strengths, but mostly weaknesses, of Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The plucky Afghan woman who once worked as a beautician, and who still puts on makeup in defiance of a government that shrouds her in a burqa, for example. Or the noble household servant whose loyalty includes displaying discretion.
For a reader completely unfamiliar with Afghanistan, this approach may be enlightening. But at a certain point, especially for anyone who knows a bit about how complex Afghans and their history are, it borders on condescending. "Afghanistan" does not consist of the neat and tidy concepts and characters that make up "The Taliban Cricket Club."
The novel's saving grace is that you will want to know what happens to Rukhsana and her cricket team. There is a twist in the tale (of course) — and it is a clever one. In the end, you may even wish it was a true story.