It’s a great, big, beautiful world out there and if there’s one thing I love, it’s reading about places I’ve never been. I love a book that takes me away, shows me new sights, feeds me delicious food, and teaches me about the traditions, languages, dress, and relationships of another people. Shooting Kabul does just that and today we welcome Naheed Hasnat (N. H. Senzai), author of this award-winning, fun and fact-filled middle-grade novel that will surely charm you.
Me: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Naheed!
Naheed: Thanks for inviting me!
Let’s start with a brief description of Shooting Kabul from Indiebound:
“In the summer of 2001, twelve-year-old Fadi’s parents make the difficult decision to illegally leave Afghanistan and move the family to the United States. But in the chaos of their departure, Fadi’s six-year-old sister gets lost in the crowd—and is left behind.
Adjusting to life in the United States isn’t easy for Fadi’s family, and as the events of September 11th unfold, the prospects of locating Mariam in war-torn Afghanistan seem slim. When a photography competition with a grand prize trip to India is announced, Fadi sees his chance to return to Afghanistan and find his sister. But can one photo really bring Mariam home?”
Me: Shooting Kabul opens with the main character, Fadi, and his family fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan. As they board the truck that will take them across the border to safety in Pakistan, the terror and confusion of the moment causes Fadi’s little sister to be left behind. Fadi blames himself. Not long after Fadi arrives in America, the country plunges into sorrow with the attacks on September 11, 2001. Shooting Kabul accurately and sensitively describes the sadness, anger, and bewilderment of that time. Fadi’s personal loss and guilt about his missing sister, his fear of fitting in to a new culture, as well as the tumultuous politics of the time worries him throughout the story.
Talk a little bit about why you were drawn to write this story and how your personal background influenced the emotion of the writing. What significance do you hope readers take away from the story?
Naheed: I actually didn’t want to write Shooting Kabul and resisted it for many years. Why? Because it deals with many sensitive and personal issues—9-11, the war on terror, Islam, Afghan culture and politics, coupled with my husband’s family’s escape from Kabul, Afghanistan in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded. Like Fadi’s father, my father-in-law had been a professor of Agriculture at Kabul University and earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was forced to make a terrible decision in 1979, like Fadi’s family, and they escaped Kabul and immigrated to the United States.
But no matter how much I resisted, the story niggled, so finally, I was compelled to tell it. My greatest challenge in writing the book was to make sure I didn’t resort to clichés and sensationalism when telling Fadi’s story; so after much thought I decided to write a fictionalized account of my husband’s journey while explaining the complexities and nuances of Afghan culture and politics in a way that could be understood by young and old alike. Also, I wanted to take a look at 9-11 and how it impacted all ethnic and religious communities. At a time when America contemplates its role in Afghanistan, my hope is that readers don’t automatically think of Afghans as “others.” Although the two countries are different in many ways, the people of both have the same hopes and dreams – security, education for their children, access to healthcare, employment and hope for a positive future. And kids are kids everywhere; they play, learn, form friendships, and pursue their passions.
Me: Shooting Kabul is full of rich references to Pukhtun culture, including traditional dress, food, rituals, and religion. Fadi lives in a section of Fremont in the Bay Area, California, called “Little Kabul.” The story is a snapshot of immigrant life in this neighborhood. How much time did you spend in “Little Kabul” while researching and how much of the setting is fictionalized?
Naheed: I did a lot of research while writing the book! Since I’m not an Afghan, I wanted to make sure I had all the details right. My in-laws, who are Afghan, were very helpful in getting the history, food and cultural parts correct – especially the concept of Pukhtunwali, the code of honor that the Pukhtuns live by. I also did a lot of research on the Internet, the library and talking to people. One of my biggest goals was to be accurate while writing about these subjects. As you can imagine, there is tremendous complexity in explaining things like terrorism, Afghan culture, Islamic practices etc. and I wanted to do it in a nuanced, truthful way. I live fifteen minutes away from Little Kabul and go to the stores and restaurants there often. Most of the places in the book are real and you can visit them, though I’ve changed the names of a few.
Me: Your descriptions of Pukhtun dishes are mouth-watering. What are some of your favorite foods from the story that you would recommend our readers try?
Naheed: Since I love to eat and cook, particularly Afghan food, I talk a lot about food and eating in the book. Afghan food is delicious – geographically it lies on the edge of Asia and the Middle East, bordering Pakistan, Iran, China and Central Asia. Afghan food is a perfect blend of Indian, Persian and Central Asia flavors. I would recommend going in to an Afghan restaurant, or better yet find an Afghan friend – they are very hospitable, and love to feed their guests. I mentioned many dishes in the book, like Kabuli Pulao (rice with lamb sprinkled with candied carrots and raisins), Bolani (a flat bread filled with spiced potatoes), and many Kabobs (fragrant, flavorful grilled meat) and of course one of my favorites, Mantu (an Afghan style ravioli) which is Mariam’s favorite dish and one that Fadi can’t bring himself to eat until his sister is found.
Ask an adult to give you a hand in the kitchen and try Fadi’s favorite dish.
1 1/2 lb ground beef
1 tbsp salt (as needed)
1 tbsp pepper (as needed)
1 ½ tbsp coriander ground
¼ tbsp cumin ground
2 cups chopped onion
1 package wonton wrappers
2 tbsp tomato paste
6 tbsp oil
¾ cup yogurt
¼ tbsp dried mint
2 mashed garlic gloves
1) Mantu Filling: Heat 5 tbsp oil and add 1 ½ cups onion. sauté till softened. Add 1 lb ground beef, salt, pepper, cumin, coriander and 1/2 cup water and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes or until all the water is absorbed. Let it cool off.
2) Place wrappers on a cutting board and keep a cup of water in a bowl nearby. Take a wrapper and dip your index finger in the bowl of water and rub the edges of the wrapper to make it wet. Place one tablespoon of the beef mixture on the bottom half of the wrapper. Bring the other half on top of the bottom half making a triangle. Take two opposite corners each in different hands and seal them together making a bow. Place oil in a bowl and dip the bottoms of the filled mantu and place them in a steam cooker. Steam the dumplings for about 25 minutes or longer, on a medium heat.
3) Sauce: In a medium saucepan heat tablespoon oil and sauté onions till translucent. Add remaining beef and brown for 5-8 minutes over medium heat. Add with tomato paste and cook on medium-low heat for 10 minutes.
4) Yogurt: Add garlic, 2 teaspoons water and salt to taste, mix.
5) To serve, pour a layer of the yogurt on a flat serving plate then place the mantu on top. Place another layer of yogurt on top and add a layer of the beef sauce. Sprinkle some fresh or dry mint on top of the plate.
Me: I can’t wait to try Mantu! In Shooting Kabul, Fadi forms a small but diverse, multicultural group of friends at school yet he faces bullying because his family is Muslim. You confront this issue with grace. How is Fadi a typical American middle school kid and how is he different?
Naheed: For thousands of years, Afghanistan has been a battle ground for outsiders – Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan came with their armies, as did the British and the Soviets. All attempted to conquer and occupy, yet failed. Internally, the country has faced ethnic tensions between various groups—Pukhtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, and others. Coming to America, it would be natural for Fadi to adjust to a multicultural community. So in this regard, he is a typical kid, fitting into a new place. And initially the bullying against Fadi and his friends starts out not because of ethnic issues, but over money, where the bullies make the younger kids give them their lunch money. But after 9-11 the mood of the country changes, and this affects children as well. What they hear around them is reflected at school. So, in the story, this highlights that Fadi is targeted because he is “other” – Muslim, Middle Eastern.
Me: What would you like to say to readers about bullying?
Naheed: Bullying is never okay. My definition of bullying is that if someone says or does something to you that makes you uncomfortable, then that is a form of bullying. Combating bullying should be a task for an entire community which involves parents, teachers and the children affected. Sadly, bullying is on the rise and the roots causes of bullying need to be understood. Children affected by bullying should be empowered to realize that there is nothing wrong with them and that they need to find the support to end it.
Me: *nods and agrees and hopes anyone in fear finds a trusted adult to help* The word “shooting” in your title refers to photography. Fadi is a budding photographer with a keen eye for detail. Along with classmates, he enters a prestigious regional photography contest to try to win a trip that will take him to a country close to where the family suspects his sister is trapped. Why did you choose this talent for Fadi’s character?
Naheed: The idea to include photography in Shooting Kabul came to me when I found an old copy of National Geographic I had had for many years, which has a picture of an Afghan refugee girl on the cover. It is a photo that inspired me to take up photography as a hobby. Here it is:
Naheed continues: Steve McMurry is the renowned photojournalist who took this image of the “Afghan Girl”, who was on the cover of the National Geographic on June 1985. Steve had taken the picture of girl with the haunting green eyes at the refugee camp in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After the magazine came out, thousands of people contacted Steve to know about the girl – they wanted to help her, adopt her, or even marry her.
Steve looked for her for many years and couldn’t find her. Finally, 17 years later, he finally did.
They confirmed it was her by using the picture of her iris – the blood vessels acted as a fingerprint, identifying her, since no two people have the same layout of blood vessels. As I looked at pictures of refugee children, I thought how horrible it would be if, in the process of escaping, a brother were to lose his younger sister when her hand slipped through his. With that thought, the plot of the book developed, and I knew photography would lead the final resolution of the book. After I wrote the book, I sent a copy to Steve McMurry, since part of the inspiration for the book came from his picture, and photography plays an important role in the book. I’m happy to report he loved the book and gave it a glowing review.
Me: That is so cool, Naheed. I have the feeling you’ve just inspired young photographers! Shooting Kabul certainly inspired me in many ways, for many reasons. I’ll bet you get a lot of questions from readers. Will you share one of your favorites?
Naheed: One of the most interesting questions I’ve had was from a student who wanted to know if my in-laws were happy with the book and whether anyone thought that I’d written something wrong. I told her that thankfully, they were all happy and I was in their good graces still!
Thank you for joining us today, Naheed, and it was a pleasure meeting you!
It’s a great, big, wonderful world out there and if you’d like to ask Naheed a question about Shooting Kabul or Afghan life as Fadi sees it, she’s agreed to stick around for a couple days. Just post your question in the comment section below. Don’t forget to check out her website and blog at: www.nhsenzai.com and http://nahasen.blogspot.com/
Diana Greenwood is the author of INSIGHT, Zondervan, 2011. She lives in the Napa Valley and through books, travels everywhere in the world. Visit her at www.dianagreenwood.com