In Aimaq’s The Opium Prince (Soho Crime, Dec.), an Afghan opium kingpin blackmails a U.S. diplomat into undermining poppy operations in the months leading up to the 1978 Soviet-backed Saur revolution.
Why is this story significant now?
As the U.S. State Department talks about trying to find some sort of peace that involves the Taliban, people like me who grew up in Afghanistan have very mixed feelings. I wanted to show that what’s going on there is still relevant and where it came from. I would like to see peace, but the Taliban is one of the true horrors of our time. The second point was opiate addiction and the way the world approaches it. Why is it that we approach the drug problem by just eradicating fields? This is how it’s been ever since Nixon’s war on drugs. It’s been catastrophic in Afghanistan. If we weren’t creating the demand, we wouldn’t have the supply.
How were you able to show all sides of the Afghan conflict in a balanced way?
I wanted to show how many different perspectives there were looking at something that too many Americans might think is very straightforward. Being anti-communist, which was an obvious thing for Americans during the Cold War, was not that obvious in hindsight. Laila, an Afghan doctor who helps the Soviets, brings that perspective into the story. Laila is an educated, intelligent person and, in many ways, ahead of her time. She is a pro-communist. She even finds ways to put the violence in context. For someone like her, who lives in a culture that was so profoundly misogynistic, it’s not surprising that communism would appeal to her, even the Soviet model. She might think that things are inevitably going to be violent. So, it’s better if it’s violent towards a revolution that creates equality rather than oppressing people further.
What surprised you during your research?
I discovered some of my own biases that I didn’t realize. I was writing about the Kochi people as they had seemed to me and the way I’d heard them talked about when I was growing up. The more I researched the various groups and spoke with Afghan scholars about nomads, I realized I didn’t know what I was talking about. They were exoticized in my mind in a way that, in hindsight, was kind of offensive and obnoxious. It was an eye-opener to see that I had my own lens. I was very privileged there. My father was a very privileged person. I think it’s been amazing because, in some ways, I know more about Afghanistan now than my father did.