Letters from Afghanistan
by Eloise Hanner

Branden Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0-828-32083-2.
Reviewed by Lee Ambrose
Posted on 01/14/2003

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

In 1971, Eloise Hanner and her husband, Chuck, joined the Peace Corps and headed off to Afghanistan. During her time in Afghanistan, she wrote to her family on a weekly basis. Those letters were saved and bound in a leather notebook upon her return to the States. Then they were tucked away for safekeeping and not given much thought until the events of 9/11 brought Afghanistan into the living rooms of all Americans who watched nightly news.

In her prologue, Hanner writes: " ... I slowly began to read. I tried to reconcile those letters with the nightly news clips of bombings and machinegun-toting Afghans. They didn't seem to be the same place or the same people... So much was missing. I realized through my letters I could let a reader see Afghanistan through my eyes, and experience as I did, the daily life, with all of its obstacles, all of its incredulity and all of its humor. While the letters gave my family a look at Afghanistan, they also told a larger story, that of our lives as Peace Corps volunteers."

In less than 200 pages, Hanner presents a completely different country than the one we think we know since 9/11. Her experiences in Afghanistan took place a long time before the Russians invaded or the Taliban had formed. Afghanistan was a country with a funny sounding name in an unknown place back in 1971. Life there as an American Peace Corps volunteer was full of challenges, but it also provided Hanner and her husband with an opportunity to not only change lives but have their own lives changed. They lived in adobe houses and interacted on the most personal of levels with the local residents.

Hanner's letters were written in the intimate and newsy fashion of family communicating in a time before e-mail. Her challenges, disappointments, frustrations, rewards, and insights can be found in the pages of this book. And, even though they were written over thirty years ago, they have a contagious sense of purpose and enthusiasm that seems to exude from the written word. Black and white photos document the modest place she called home, the bazaars, the view of downtown [pre-war] Kabul, residents, camels, and such—bringing Hanner's letter more fully to life.

Additionally, the author gives her family (and now her readers) the opportunity to laugh at life as she knew it in Afghanistan, to find humor in some of the biggest challenges she encountered and to enjoy the unique way in which she tried to bring new experiences into the lives of her Afghan students...

"Discovered last week in student discussions that students here had never heard of dinosaurs in the past or of contact lenses in the present. They were incredulous on both accounts. I had to bring a book on dinosaurs from the Peace Coprs library to convince them that I wasn't making the whole thing up."

On the subject of a picnic, Hanner shares: "We're going with some students next week on a picnic and we said we would roast hot-dogs, trying for traditional American picnic food. Can't say they will get the genuine experience since we don't have real hot-dogs, or buns, or mustard or catsup. The only REAL picnic item we have are the ever present ants!"

Hanner's weekly letters are more than journal-type entries shared with family members. They capture the pure essence of her experience in Afghanistan. Insightful thoughts and profound observations set these letters apart from the typical letter one might expect to read from a young woman in her early twenties.

Upon her return from a vacation in India, she writes,

"... I can't decide if I'm more struck by how much I've learned about the history of India and Nepal or by how little I knew about it in the first place. You would have thought that somewhere along in my education, there would have been a course on Asian history. Looking back, it seems every course started with Egypt and went west. An American student (unless they are a history major) never learns one thing about any country from Turkey all the way to Japan!"

"... I know that we are supposed to be here changing the lives of others, but I wonder if our lives aren't the ones that have changed the most. Learning to do without and realizing how happy you can be without 'things' will be something I will carry with me forever. I don't think I would have ever understood the problems and third world countries unless I had lived here and come face to face with it on a daily basis."

Hanner's view of Afghanistan brings a new perspective to this reader's idea of the mysterious country which has made its way into almost daily conversation. This book allows readers to "see" the real people of Afghanistan—their human nature, their trials, the foods they eat, the values they hold highly.

Thank you, Eloise, for showing us the kinder, gentler side of a country about which most of us know little. This book is a gift to its readers and to the Afghan people who inspired it.

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