September 2006

Chris Winters

nonfiction

A Land Without Time: A Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan by John Sumser

John Sumser starts off his Peace Corps narrative with the telling phrase, “Every place mentioned in this book is gone.” Afghanistan, where Sumser spent his service in the late 1970s, is a “space between countries” that has been overrun, destroyed and abandoned by everyone from the armies of Alexander and the Mongols to the British, the Soviet Union, the Taliban and the U.S. The population, meanwhile, has endured in one form or another over the centuries, often ignored by the outside world.

Sumser, a sociologist at California State University at Stanislaus, writes that his intention is to present Afghanistan as something more than just a disaster and staging area for foreign armies, but also something less than a grand narrative. It’s simply the story of the young Americans in the Peace Corps who found themselves in this remote land at a crucial time in its history.

Peace Corps Volunteers are a unique breed: they sign up for two-year assignments in far off places, are given intensive language and professional training, and once on the ground in the host country, they are expected to live alongside the locals and do their best to fit in with society.

What any observant volunteer encounters is the somewhat contradictory nature of their mission: they are in the country to help that country grow and develop, and yet they are warned away from an American-way-is-the-right-way attitude. Volunteers are expected to adapt, with the hope that being a good example will have a positive influence on the locals. How a volunteer straddles this fencepost can determine how successful they will be, both in their job assignments and in their social lives in the country.

Sumser knows this now and he knew it then. In some country assignments the task is made easier by closer cultural affiliations with the developed world. Afghanistan in the 1970s was about as far away as he could go, and that is partially why he signed up.

“For a Peace Corps volunteer to stand on a the street corner, doing nothing, his hands in his pockets, was to erode Afghan society,” he writes. “That’s one of the reasons volunteers were suspect. It made no sense to many of the Afghans I talked with that someone would leave the United States in order to live in Afghanistan, especially if the Americans weren’t being paid very much money. It was widely assumed that we were either being paid substantial amounts of money that we were choosing not to spend or that we had ulterior motives, like spying.”

The story that Sumser is telling in A Land Without Time is a mix of travelogue and memoir. Once in Afghanistan he doesn’t travel very far or engage in the “extreme adventure” that populates much travel writing today. His reportage is a mix of wry observations of local character and oddities, his and other Americans’ reactions to them, and occasionally, what he learns about himself as an American.

In the Afghans’ bartering culture, buying a watermelon involves not just haggling over the price per pound, but also what a pound is, as is determined by what size of a cast-off gear from a Bedford truck will be put on the scales. Sumser notes that in every interaction the social elements of life are extremely important, and the end result is not just a commercial transaction but a meaningful exchange of social capital, in which the price you paid is likely different from what the last person paid, but that’s probably for the best for everyone involved.

“Life from this perspective is a fluid thing. American life is amazingly rigid. We have reduced the levels of uncertainty so that we don’t have to spend time thinking about mundane things. When you buy a watermelon in Afghanistan, you have to be engaged, your brain has to be in gear. This is very different from going into McDonald’s and asking for a Number Two Value Meal. Or going to the supermarket and having the clerk scan your watermelon, where it’s quite possible that neither you nor the grocery clerk are conscious of how much you actually paid.”

The concept of time is equally fluid, hence the title of the book. Part of the reason is that almost no one has a clock or watch, but another part of it is that the future is in the hands of God. Getting an Afghan to keep an appointment is notoriously difficult, but students are still punished for being late to school, adding to the overall uncertain nature of daily life. Afghans, walking a donkey along, would ask the Americans what time it was, and Sumser would make a production out of looking at his watch and telling them, as if it actually mattered. He muses a more appropriate response might have been, “You want to know what time is it now? Hmm, it appears there is no time right now, but if you wait a while then, inshallah, there will be time again. Perhaps tomorrow.”

There’s more to the story than just marketplace tales and one-liners. Sumser is initially stationed in Laghman, but gets kicked out of town after having dinner with someone who he didn’t know was out of favor with the local governor. He gets reassigned to Tashkurgan, one of the last places in the country (at the time) with a traditional covered bazaar, but he ends up being pulled back to Kabul by the Peace Corps office after he more or less cracks, whether out of isolation or the pressure of the job or navigating the delicate social web of the community is not clear. Then a Communist coup in 1979 results in his arrest for being a spy. He is interrogated and released and he uses that as his signal to go home.

Sumser tells these stories in a straightforward, unadorned manner. He’s not a stylist, although his descriptions of landscapes, social interactions and events are vivid. With 25 or so years of hindsight, he has a wry sense of humor about those events, even his arrest and interrogation, which comes across as a bit comical when a heavily-medaled officer hits him in the chest hard enough only to push him down on a couch:

“I had an almost overwhelming desire to teach them how to do this. Hadn’t they ever seen a movie? ... Get over this grade-school phobia and hit me in the face. Nothing like a bloody nose, split lip or a swelling eye to make one rethink things.”

While Sumser shows affection for Afghanistan and the people, he doesn’t fawn over the natives for their repressive behavior toward women, or how homosexuality is deeply closeted in society while being the only real sexual outlet for many unmarried men. He doesn’t shirk away from the day-to-day horrors, from being overrun (literally) by rats at night, living with insects, trying to find something edible, and reflecting on the different attributes of frozen urine and frozen shit.
 
A Land Without Time is in the end a useful window on a part of the world that is only ever paid attention to when it gets invaded, and only from the point of view of the invaders. Sumser has provided a voice to the average Afghan and lets us get a much closer of look at a country that our government has singled out for change. Sumser doesn’t provide easy answers or explanations, but reading this book, you learn that anyone who offers those about this part of the world is simply not paying attention. Sumser did, and we benefit from it.

A Land Without Time: A Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan by John Sumser
Academy Chicago Publishers
ISBN: 0897335430
205 pages