I was substantially put off by the didactic tone of Amy Waldman’s The Submission, but I quite like her new short story, a sad Afghan Christmas tale, in the Financial Times. It centers around Aziz, a translator working for American forces trying to build a road that’s consistently thwarted or destroyed by the forces of a local warlord, who’s extorting the Americans for the resources he needs to build a private army in exchange for holding back attacks. What works about it, I think, is that unlike The Submission, where all the characters personalities and personal lives are bent to serve the cause of representing political positions, this is a story about how public events interact with private needs. Aziz finds the way he translates changing based on the personal goals that he brings to the project: making enough money to pay the bride price and for the wedding he hopes to have, and surviving working for the Americans long enough to do it:
Had the map documented the pace of work, its picture would have been less hopeful. The paving of the 80-kilometre road had started out well: 30 kilometres in the first three months. The pace had halved in the next three, and in the past two months, only seven kilometres had been completed. The insurgents weren’t just interfering with construction. They were blowing up “red” – sections of already-completed road – almost as fast as the contractors could build. Explosives erupted from new, ingenious hiding places: culverts and cliffsides, the asphalt barrels themselves. Assailants haunted the hills, hunted from them. A night raid on the road workers’ camp left 13 Afghans and four Nepalis dead. A sniper shot felled a respected Turkish engineer, and stopped work for two days while American and Afghan forces combed the rises.
The colonel tried to take more territory alongside the road just to get it built, but terrain cleared was soon lost: the heights couldn’t support a continued military presence. A war to win a battle, Aziz sometimes thought, but he held his tongue. Winter had arrived. Soon the snows would come, stopping work until the spring. Aziz was beginning to despair that he would be grey-bearded, and still a virgin, before the road was complete.
It’s also just worthwhile as a story about Christmas, and how it looks to people who don’t celebrate it, and the power the cultural practice exerts anyway. There’s a lot of good culture about Christmas, but not a lot about Christmas as part of a larger tapestry.