Q&A: Timeri Murari
Fair play or foul?
Aug 29th 2012, 21:25 by E.C | LOS ANGELES
In “The Taliban Cricket Club” Rukhsana, an enterprising young female journalist who learnt the sport in Delhi, returns to Kabul to teach her male cousins how to play, while disguised as a man to avoid detection. This is a risky undertaking in a society which disapproves of women working or practising sport, but the stakes are high. If they are selected to be national players they will be sent to train in Pakistan, escaping their life under tyranny.
Mr Murari spoke to The Economist about civilian life in Afghanistan and why the Taliban are keen on cricket.
Have you been ruminating on the idea for this book since cricket was reintroduced in Afghanistan a decade ago?
I read this little squiggle of an article in 2000 saying that the Taliban was going to support cricket, which is as strange as you can get, because they virtually banned everything, including kite flying, chess, music, dancing, even clapping in the country. I thought: it’s such an oxymoron. Taliban and cricket are totally in conflict with each other. Essentially, they did it to get some diplomatic acceptance.
I thought about it then but I couldn’t figure out how to write it. Nobody in Afghanistan knew how to play cricket back then. But I grew up playing cricket in our garden in India with my sisters and cousins. And I had a niece who played cricket for India. So, I thought, why not have a woman teach them cricket?
Why did the Taliban allow cricket?
Cricket was ideal for the Taliban. You’re covered completely with clothing and you wear a hat—any other sport would expose the body. Also, there are so many unemployed youths, and it took a long time to complete the match, which kept them occupied for hours.
Soccer actually was played at one point but the men had to wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers to cover themselves. I was also told that during half-time they’d do executions in the stadium.
Do you intend to make a political statement with this book?
Well, I wanted to write a story about a cricket match and I saw the possibility of making a comment on cricket and also this political system. I didn’t set out to try to make a political statement, but it came out in the novel because cricket is a very democratic sport, in great contrast to the Afghan regimen and the Taliban at the time. So, it’s about a conflict between these two.
You visited Afghanistan when researching the novel—what was that experience like?
Yes, I went there in 2010. The first experience I had was in Delhi airport, actually. There was an Afghan man behind me at the check in counter who asked me where I would be staying in Kabul. He said, “Well I have a hotel too but it was bombed two months ago.” But quickly after, he cheered up and said, “No it’s ok. It’ll be open again in a few months.” So, even before I went to Afghanistan, there was a sense of hope that I saw in the people, their ability to overcome disaster.
I met many men and women there who told me their stories. I said to the women that it must be so difficult to wear a burqa. And they said yes, but we feel bad for the men as well. They have to grow a beard, pray five times a day, or they would be beaten. I was surprised that they were so compassionate for the men.
In the book, despite the sadness, oppression and loss, there’s a sense of hope and optimism. Did you see that there?
The Afghans were the most courteous people I’ve ever met. Like under any tyrant, people always have hope and will try to fight back. It’s human nature to fight against oppression. Whether you look at Syria, Libya, the Arab Spring, it all has a common thread. And I could see that people who live under such dictatorships live a life of secret rebellion. You can control someone’s physical body but the tyrant cannot control the mind.
Do you think the media do a good job of reporting on Afghanistan?
A lot of the reporting is about foreign troops and their dangers, with the occasional story on the life of the Afghans. It reminded me of the Vietnam war when we didn’t really know anything about the Vietnamese people. So I had no idea of what it was like for these people. I wanted to write more about the civilians.
Do you feel compelled to go back and write another book about this country?
In fact, yes, I am working on another book that is set in Afghanistan. It’s fiction. Non-fiction can restrict you but fiction allows you to explore your imagination, which you can’t do when you’re reporting.
Afghanistan is in many ways a “heart of darkness”—civilians are being killed from both sides by NATO forces and the Taliban. It is still very important, especially to countries in the region, like India, because whatever happens in Afghanistan over the next few years has significant implications. I want to explore this theme and look at how these people can fight back.
What message do you hope this book will give to readers?
Everyone must try and push justice in the system. The Afghan men and women were doing it through their professions, through sport, and small acts in their daily life. Now we can do so through blogs and the internet. Recently, there was talk of censorship in India on the internet and people began protesting. So even in democratic nations, young people are fighting for justice. It’s a universal story.
The Taliban Cricket Club. By Timeri Murari. Ecco; 336 pages; $24.99. Allen & Unwin; £9.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk