I’ve always been an advocate of the benefits of reading. It increases your vocabulary, exposes you to strange syntax and the Methods of Metaphor, fuels your imagination, and banishes bus stop boredom without fail (unless you finish your book and don’t have a spare). I also encourage reading because I like to write, and I ain’t writing to the wall, damnit.

I’m also, now, an advocate of reading the news. Because there are only so many books in the world, but newspapers are constant, and frequently amusing – especially if you read The “Bunch Of Filthy Liberal Tree-Hugging Hippies” Grauniad (Disclaimer: I am a Filthy Liberal Tree-Hugging Hippy. I read The Grauniad.).

The topics of my book reading and those of my newspaper reading, though, tend to be significantly different. I read mostly read fantasy, some sci-fi thrown in – but my staples are Trudi Canavan and Terry Pratchett. However, I recently found myself reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, and then Khaled Hosseini’s other novel, The Kite Runner. I won’t review them; they’re both excellent books, and there is surely a plethora of reviews already available. I thoroughly enjoyed them both.

They do bring with them, though, a somewhat uncomfortable home truth. I, and probably most of their other western readers, am utterly ignorant. Afghanistan has never been a topic I’ve professed to know much about, but I did think I knew the basics of its history and some of the cause of its ongoing wars. Reading these two books has proven otherwise in a rather stark manner.

Of course, the sequence of events hasn’t changed from what I knew – the succession of kings, presidents, and a coalitions which are largely to blame for the violence in Afghanistan are as I had remembered them. But the less easily quantified differences; relationships between the different regions, the conditions under each of these governments and the experience of the population during transitions between them; are all worryingly new to me.

Since reading Hosseini’s books, I’ve also read a few journalistic articles about Afghanistan – it makes me somewhat uncomfortable to read them and realise that, were it not for two works of realistically-set fiction that I happened upon by chance, I wouldn’t understand them nearly as well. The difference between reading “she is from Hazarajat” and thinking “Oh, right then.”; and reading it and thinking “That’s interesting, until not too long ago she would have been considered a second-class citizen, even more so because she’s a woman. She probably also comes from a family whose version of Islam conflicts with that of many of the people she’s now living with, and certainly with that of the government…” is worryingly immense. It puts the information in a whole new light.

And yet, knowledge of differences like these is common knowledge in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries – not knowing these things would be like a Westerner not knowing that Switzerland has banks, or that French culture involves lots and lots of wine, or that the US has a problem with racism and homophobia.

It makes me feel stupid, to be honest. I’ve been forming opinions based on knowledge that I knew was basic, but that I considered reasonably sufficient for the kind of general questions I’d considered – turns out, it was nothing of the sort. It makes me inclined to read more, before I make myself look like a complete twazzock to someone more informed than I am.

That wasn’t a very geeky post, was it?

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