Book Review: The Blind Man's Garden

15798312The Blind Man’s Garden was our Wink 3 August Book Club choice. Prior to this, it was graciously provided by Random House Canada for our review. So, I offer my thanks to you RHC for sending this our way. I myself have not read any of Aslam’s earlier works so this was going to be my first foray in to his writing. I say this as The Blind Man’s Garden has received a very mixed bag of reviews, many comparing this novel to his previous novels either for or against them. These reviews were read were before opening the pages to determine for myself.  It has been given enthusiastic ratings for its beautiful, poetic and descriptive writing to railing against it for its overuse of this descriptive prose making so much pointless in the story. For me however, I confess I fall in to the branch that exclaims of its beauty and more so for its importance. Here’s why:

We read not just only for entertainment but as a way to expand our horizons and gain knowledge of other experiences, cultures, viewpoints, etc. There are many sayings and quotes discussing how reading takes you to far off places, allows you to travel to countries and cultures all within the pages of a book, etc. Also, recently, there was an article in Forbes magazine featuring LaVar Burton also discussing why reading/literacy is so important. He spoke on his 30-year involvement with The Reading Rainbow, what the movie Roots meant to him, and why literacy is so important to him. This one part of his interview so aptly explains why The Blind Man’s Garden had such an impact on me:

This summer has marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Reading Rainbow brand. Our  first episode aired June 30, 1983. So I’ve been doing this for thirty years – Reading Rainbow in one form or another. And I continue to be committed to it, and I’ve been committed to it for as long as I have because I get the power of the medium. The Roots experience was one that really showed me the power of the medium of television. I mean, in eight nights of television, I watched this nation become transformed around the issue of racism, which is the legacy of slavery. And in experiencing that power when the idea was presented to me to use the medium of television to steer children back in the direction of the written word  it just made so much sense. It was a no-brainer. I believe that this very powerful communications medium is an incredibly effective tool for spreading awareness, education, inspiration. (Full Forbes article can be found here.)

The Blind Man’s Garden is really just that type of book. It is definitely not for the close-minded set, no, not at all, as some may find controversy or upset in what he has written.  It does depict another perspective of the terror attacks of 9/11, that of the people living in Pakistan and Afghanistan following these attacks. Where Mr. Burton talks of the nation transformed around the issue of racism garnered from Roots, I feel that Aslam has accomplished the same here in The Blind Man’s Garden, concerning the issue of terrorism, Islam and how so many are victims outside of the US of the terror attacks that occurred on American soil on 9/11. The people in Afghanistan and Pakistan have suffered greatly, if not more so, as a result of those spearheading these terrorist actions. Here is where some may take affront, but Aslam provides a story so filled with compassion and understanding about how the Pakistani people are fighting to live through Taliban rule.  The Blind Man’s Garden also offers many things: a love story, a story of faith and a story of great pain, fear and terror, and a story of survival and hope.

While I was reading, I felt that Aslam beautifully demonstrated the dichotomy and struggle they must fight between embracing the beauty of their faith against the horror of how the extremists have twisted it into something ugly and war-based. For the characters in this tale, the expectations of this twisted and altered faith has led to events so ugly they cannot stand to be a part of it. For many, it has turned Muslim against Muslim. If you are not fighting with the Taliban and training to be a warrior against the West, you are then labelled a “bad” Muslim. However, the West has arrived to “help” and have painted every Muslim a terrorist and Taliban supporter.

What strange times are these, says Tara as they wend their way through the dead to safety, when Muslims must fear other Muslims.

You will say that the hostages here in this school are Muslims. But we know what kind of Muslims they are. We know that they and their kind approved of the destruction of the Taliban regime. Anyone over the age of thirteen who takes up arms against Islam can be erased. Any Muslim who approves of the West’s actions in Afghanistan, and follows it into this Crusader war by providing material or verbal support, should be aware that he is an apostate who is outside the co9mmunity of Islam. It is therefore permitted to take his money and his blood, as worthy of death as any American general with his braided glory… (terrorists that took over the school where Jeo’s sister and brother-in-law work) 

Aslam has shown the confusion and sacrifice being made by the Pakistani people as they attempt to survive through terror and a war-based life. On the one hand they must fight against the despised Taliban rule and on the other, battle the double-edged sword the US offers.

The US President used the word ‘crusade’ in the first speech he gave after the terrorist attacks, he says. And they said if Pakistan did not help them in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban, they would bomb us back to the Stone Age. These were their exact words.

Afghanistan is liberated and American troops are being handed sweets and plastic flowers by the free citizens of Kabul, music shops are being reopened, but while men are shaving off their beards, the women are choosing to remain hidden in their burkas for the time being. And Tara knows they are wise. During her adult life there has not been a single day when she has not heard of a woman killed with bullet or razor or rope, drowned or strangled with her own veil, buried alive, poisoned or suffocated, having her nose cut off or entire face disfigured with acid or the whole body cut to pieces, run over by a car or battered with firewood. Every day there is news that woman has had these things done to her in the name of honour-and-shame or Allah-and-Muhammad, by her father, her brother, her uncle, her nephew, her cousin, her husband, her husband’s nephew, her husband’s cousin, her son, her son-in-law, her lover, her enemy, her lover’s enemy, her son’s enemy, her son-in-law’s enemy. So now Tara commends the women of Kabul for being wise enough to stay in their burkas, because more often than not there are no second chances or forgiveness if you are a woman and have made a mistake or have been misunderstood.

Toward the end, Aslam introduces the American perspective:

There are American military bases in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary, Bosnia, Tajikistan, Croatia, Afghanistan, Kazahkstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia – a base in each vicinity, ready to mobilise and put down possible threats. And it is no longer a case of American happiness, American freedom, American interests, the American way of life. Now it is about the survival of America itself.

To me, these two perspectives were very well drawn and demonstrated how propaganda is spread to all parties, all derived to spread hate and intolerance. The Blind Man’s Garden opens us to understanding, realization, compassion, and empathy for this particular family, and their role as so many play as victims to these hate-and-fear spreading warlords. Yes, The Blind Man’s Garden may seem to be too lengthy and there were times it was mired by unnecessary and overly descriptive prose, but I cannot deny I wasn’t completely drawn in and did find this to be a deeply affecting novel. 4 stars.

It is sure to provoke varied discussion at our book club meeting next week, as some have finished reading and have a very different rating and reaction than mine. As well, here is another review of the book, by Tanya at 52 Books or Bust. She falls in to the camp outside of mine and did not “feel” the book like myself. 52 Books or Bust’s review is here. 

And no, while this is not a news story about Pakistan or Afghanistan, I’ve included it here to show the serious unrest in the Middle East. This is not something we here in the West experience on a continued basis and again following the reading this novel I reflected on and gave thanks for the country I live in. This is an article about the continued unrest in Egypt, where today it has been reported that thousands have been injured and hundreds have been killed due to political unrest.