Part History, Part Memoir: Fariba Nawa’s Migrant Memoir Opium Nation as a Counter Narrative

Karthika B Nair
Dr. Lekshmi R. Nair

The significance of migration literature lies in the fact that it addresses the traumatic predicament experienced by the immigrants through various tropes. Opium Nation is a memoir that maps out the author’s journey to her homeland. The primary objective of the paper is to outline the distinct facets of migration literature in the memoir, by broadening the aspects like ambivalence, hybridity, identity crisis etc.  Historiography is also analysed in association with the genre of memoir, building on the post modern notion of history. Hayden White’s concept on the importance of multiple interpretations of past is explored. The notions of truth as subjective and the relevance of counter narratives of history are also studied in this paper. 

Key words: Migration, hybridity, ambivalence, historiography, interpretation, subjectivity

Afghanistan has always been a place of conflict and unrest.  The wars, monarchy, Soviet invasion, Taliban rule etc. had a devastating impact on the nation and its citizens. Afghanistan was invaded by Darius the Great, Alexander, Genghis Khan etc. in the ancient past. In the first Anglo-Afghan war (1829-42), Britain was defeated. But in the war of1878, Afghan lost its authority over external affairs to Britain, along with its territories. King Amanullah declared the nation independent in 1919 following the assassination of his father, Habibullah. After World War II Afghanistan reinforced its relations with the Soviet Union only to be invaded by the Soviets in 1979.A neutral Afghan state was formed in 1988 with the consent of the Soviet Union. It was the end of a war that killed thousands of people and turned 5-6 million people into refugees.In 1992, Afghans had to witness a civil war as a result of the differences between the mujahedeen and the government. After this war, an Islamic fundamentalist group named Taliban captured power in 1996. Their rule was a horrifying episode in the history of the country because of their oppressive method of control based on an extremist interpretation of Islam. The Taliban regime was dismantled by America and its allies in 2001.To the horror of the whole world, Taliban recaptured power in 2021. 

The history of opium trade in Afghanistan runs parallel to its political history. According to available data in 2021, Afghan produces more than 90% of illicit heroin globally. Compared to the previous year, the production was increased by 8% in 2021. A report by BBC dated 20 July 2015 says: “Nine years of intense fighting by international troops did nothing to stop the production. In fact it only became worse. The only difference was that it has been pushed out beyond the central populated zone to less governed badlands beyond the Helmand canal” (BBC). The parched climate, difficulty in transporting fresh produce etc were some of the problems faced in the field of agriculture. Opium is tolerant to drought, would survive long trips and above all, is highly profitable. These factors led to an increase in opium cultivation. 

The first production of opium in a considerable quantity was in the 1950s. During the period of the Soviet invasion, it increased tremendously. It was doubled to 575 metric tons between 1982 and 1983. When the Soviets left the country, the same cultivation was used to financially aid their military. It was during the Taliban rule that opium harvest reached its record of 4500 tons in 1999. But in 2000, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed declared that poppy cultivation is un-Islamic (haram). It was part of his collaboration with the UN to exterminate heroin production in Afghanistan. This ban was short-lived as Taliban was deposed from power in 2001. 

Fariba Nawa, an illustrious journalist elucidates the story of the opium trade in Afghanistan through her memoir titled Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Women’s Journey Through Afghanistan. Born in Herat, Afghanistan in 1973, her family left the country for the United States during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. She always had a sense of deprivation and nostalgia about her mother country. This led her to sneak into Afghanistan through Iran in 2000, while the nation was ruled by the oppressive Taliban regime. This journey is the backdrop of the book, where she portrays the changes observed in the country, the flourishing opium trade and its consequences on common people. The stupefying fact about poppy cultivation is that little girls are bartered as brides to payoff opium debts. She meets a girl Darya who is determined not to go with the man who had bought her as a wife. Encounter with Darya and her family history is a significant episode in the book. The aforementioned book received critical acclaim from all over the world. Santa Cruz Sentinel, a daily newspaper in California reported:

Sharing remarkable stories of poppy farmers, corrupt officials, expats, drug lords, and addicts, including her haunting encounter with a twelve-year-old child bride who was bartered to pay off her father’s opium debts, Nawa unveils a startling portrait of a land in turmoil as she courageously explores her own Afghan American identity. (11-13)

This paper intends to investigate the aspects of migration and displacement that the memoir recounts. It also studies how this narrative explains the impact of the opium trade on the lives of common men. Another motive is to closely read the history delineated in a memoir as distinct from traditional historical narratives, and how history can be reinterpreted in wake of personal recollection and retelling.

To Salman Rushdie, “the distinguishing feature of our time” is “mass migration, mass displacement, globalized finances and industries” (425). Literature was influenced by the movement or displacement of people. Migration Literature deals with the subtle aspects of dislocation and relocation with specific focus on the nature of lived experiences of migration. The cultural conflict that migration entails is also brought within the ambit of migration studies. The resultant clash between the cultures of the host nation and the migrant population becomes central to the migrant experience. Nawa who immigrated to the United States finds school and students difficult. Intrigued by the fact that the school did not have a uniform for students, as in Herat, she decides to wear uniform to school every day. In the book Opium Nation she says,”I can choose one of my dresses that you made me and wear it every day. That will be my uniform, I decide. I feel more organized and focused with a uniform. It just seems like the right thing to do, since that’s what we did in Herat. Besides, we don’t have the money to buy the stylish clothes my classmates wear” (59). 

After two weeks of wearing the same dress, her classmate Sarah asked her, “You must be really poor, because you wear the same outfit every day. Is your family homeless?” (60). This was so painful for her that she stopped wearing the uniform. She also talks about her friends at school: 

In high school, I choose a group of culturally eclectic girlfriends- a Nicaraguan, an African American, and a Caucasian- and we indulge in being different from our classmates and families. We talk about boys, sex, politics, race, and our families. But I wish I had an Afghan friend with whom I could share my duality, someone who could feel the warm sensation when the word Afghanistan was mentioned, someone who listened to the famous deceased Afghan pop singer Ahmed Zahir and who ate shiriakh, the creamy Afghan ice cream. (62)

The dual identity of the author is reflected in the narrative at various points. Her family was settled in California which is the largest Afghan community in the US. She presumes that she is different from other Afghans, the reason being her liberal ideas. She supports gay rights, the liberation of women and the freedom to choose one’s religion that is unacceptable by the majority of Afghans. Yet, she cherishes a deep rooted sense of Afghan identity in her soul, “Sometimes I want to disown my Afghan identity when I see the inequalities between men and women, but I cannot. Being Afghan is deeply rooted in my soul, but it’s something I’m constantly trying to define” (66). 

The immigrants always had a struggle with adopting a dual or mixed identity. The author’s identity crisis is reflected at various places in the book. Nawa describes her personal experience of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center by al Qaeda masterminded by Osama bin Laden. It was her friend Osama who called her to the roof to watch the bombing. She saw the sky covered with ‘blackness and smoke’ (54). She knew that the United States will retaliate against this horrific attack. She was perplexed about an expected war between the two nations:”The two countries that form the basis of my dual Afghan American identity, the identity I have been struggling to merge, will finally go to war. I am numb” (57). She criticizes Samuel Huntington’s theory that conflicts in culture and religion will dictate future wars. He had divided the world into seven or eight major civilizations on the basis of what he calls ‘civilization identity’. He believes that Western and Islamic civilizations will collide due to the disparities in Islam and Christianity and due to the different religious identities that have been created in a divided world. Such theories disregard the existence of mixed identities as that of the writer. She states:

I am constantly struggling to combine Afghan and American, but that struggle has created a stronger individual in me, and it has allowed me to see the world from a more nuanced perspective. It’s scholar Edward Said’s response to Huntington that considers identities like mine. Said posits in his “clash of ignorance” theory that current conflicts are based on misinterpretations of religion, and he recognizes the complexities of identities and cultures. (57)

Said’s article ‘Clash of Ignorance’ offers a critique of Huntington’s idea. Said believes that Huntington based his concepts entirely on the book The Roots of Muslim Rage by Bernard Lewis. Huntington used personal assumptions rather than clear evidence to frame his article. Said refuted the argument by citing the example of several plural societies where people from both places live in harmony. 

Transnationalism is a key aspect of migrant literature. It is the process in which a person leaves her/his country for another, but still maintains a deep attachment towards the home land. It is “being here and there at the same time” (Cano, 1). The author experiences the same chaos in mind. One important feature of transnationalism is family obligation. It is common for the migrants to feel repentant for the people they have left behind. In Nawa’s case, they were fleeing the country because of the perilous circumstances prevalent in Afghanistan. Since the people who are left behind are always under threat and danger, she felt guilty about leaving them. This can result in doing whatever aid possible for the home land and people. Nawa’s journey to Afghanistan was intended to offer help for the marginalized through her career as a journalist. She could make the voices of the downtrodden heard in the whole world through the book Opium Nation. She undertook dangerous trips in Afghanistan to save Darya. Her investigation on opium cultivation was also risky. Another feature of transnationalism is the sense of belonging. The migrants are usually treated with hostility because of their colour, race or nationality. Even though this element is not elaborated in the book, it is visible in Nawa’s early school experiences. She couldn’t adjust to the students there and hence befriended some students who are from different countries like her. 

Assimilation and acculturation are two terms that can be read in association with study of migration. The terms designate the psychosocial changes the immigrants experience in the process. A transformation in culture happens when the immigrant adapt to the host culture and systems. This development in which cultural differences gradually vanish is termed as assimilation. “An individual is assimilated if they acquire other external features and fuse them with what they already have” (Scholarly Docs). But as a result of acculturation, both the host and immigrant culture may change. According to Bhugra, acculturation is “a process that may be voluntary or forced, requires contact between culturally divergent groups of people and results in the assimilation of cultural values, customs, beliefs and language by a minority group within a majority community” (13-17). Even though one culture dominates over the other, changes in various facets can occur in both cultures. Nawa and her family had to undergo this process while migrating to United States. The Afghan culture overpowers her parent’s consciousness even while adapting to the new culture. They also allowed their children to pursue their own freedom and choice. Nawa was more progressive with attitudes more similar to the American culture, yet preserved a high regard for Afghanistan and its values.

Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of hybridity in Postcolonial criticism is valid in this context. The person who had moved to an entirely different nation experiences perplexity in witnessing their culture, language, social situations, and beliefs tested in a foreign terrain. After moments of contradictions and complexities, they will reach a space of merged identity which Bhabha calls ‘third space’. According to him, such a milieu place the person in “the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion, [for]  there is a sense of disorientation, a disturbance of direction in the beyond” (Bhabha 1). Even with a fragmented self, they can formulate a novel identity that exists in a liminal space. Bhabha asserts that hybridity is a third space that enables other positions to emerge. 

Ambivalence is a pertinent theme of migration literature. There is always a conflicting duo inside the migrant- two contrasting experiences of distinct nations. He/she is unable to take a stance that is biased towards either side. A solution for this confrontation is purposeful adjustment with the new nation and its culture and embracing the hybrid third space. In the memoir, Nawa expresses a longing for her past and herAfghan identity even when she lives as a US citizen accepting the culture and norms of adopted nation. She maintains integrity by maintaining an outlook of her own without being a passive adorer of either culture. This is apparent in her views on women’s rights and freedom, religion etc. The author’s concern for Afghan civilians as she hears the news of US bombing in Afghanistan reflects her identity crisis and regard for the birthplace:

The US started bombing”, Rasheed, a colleague from Agence France Presse, tells me, “You need to come down and work”. I do not tell Rasheed how sad I am to hear the news; I don’t share my feelings of ambivalence about the war. I want the Taliban defeated, but without any civilian causalities, which I know is naïve. I simply say okay, slip on my shoes, and walk out the door. (66)

Being a journalist, she had to work even as she is disturbed by the news of the death and devastation of her native people. This reflects the emotional alteration she had achieved to come to terms with her lived reality. Ambivalence can be understood as a process that redefines oneself and one’s identity. It is common among immigrants to experience disintegration of their inner self in the new space. It is conveyed in the narrative through the sudden apprehension Nawa and her parents experience as they encounter cultural differences in the United States. Paul White in his article ‘Geography, Literature and Migration’ written in 1995 suggests that the intricate worlds that we all dwell in are represented in migrant literature. The same idea is expounded by Jacobs K: “the experience of migration acts as a catalyst and conduit for nascent feelings, a re-conception of our sense of self and our relationship with others” (142)

Another notable theme of migration literature used in Opium Nation is abandonment and return. This is a way of illustrating the travel from homeland to the new nation and the yearning for return. This is reflective of the writer’s complex emotions aroused during a visit to the native place. This also concerns the traumatic experiences of the migrant during their flight and the disgrace or pain they feel in a new country. The author shares her survivor’s guilt and reminiscence of her homeland that she had left at the age of nine. The United States was a haven for people from war inflicted countries like Afghanistan. But nothing could substitute her feeling of loss. She portrays this intricate state of despair and guilt in the Prologue:

In 2000, I made my first trip back to Afghanistan in eighteen years, during Taliban rule, to search for something I had lost- a sense of coherence, a feeling of rootedness in a place and a people, and a sense of belonging. I had many unsettled emotions toward my homeland, which I had to flee at the impressionable age of nine. The strongest feelings were aching nostalgia and lingering survivor’s guilt, which my parents and siblings did not share. I was the youngest, with the fewest memories of the war-torn land, but I longed for it the most. All that my adopted home, the United States, offered me could not make up for the loss I felt in leaving Afghanistan. (2)

The author also describes their flight from Afghanistan in 1982, during the Soviet invasion. The family had to face several extreme situations as they travelled to Iran and then to Pakistan. She says that she had never ceased dreaming of a homecoming since she left. Her passion for her birthplace is astonishing even though she had only spent nine years of her life there. She contemplates about her nine years as “a mixture of blissful childhood innocence ruptured by the bloodshed of war” (7). She also mentions the songs of Farhad Darya who also wrote his lyrics out of the painful experience of exile. Darya is the name she had given to the child bride met at Ghoryan district since she couldn’t expose her real name for fear of impending consequences. Jacobs writes about the predicaments of migration in his contemplation on the novel titled The Home Crowd by Graham Kershaw. The protagonist of the novel experiences emotional complexity on his return to England. He always wanted to return to England to reinstate his former life and its connections. Even while living a full life in Australia, this deep sense of twinge pulled him back to his homeland. Jacobs pens down his experience as follows: 

In Fremantle it would be different, I knew; the humid aftermath of summer would be blowing away. Fresh afternoon breezes and maybe showers, at last, giving the lawns some respite. “Three days”, I keep saying to myself, I’ll be there in three days”. But no matter how sweet the thought of sunshine there, and no matter how cold my aching feet, the thought brought no joy; only the creeping sense of time overtaking me, panicking me to…what? What was I rushing back to? (Kershaw, 2002:112; cited in Jacobs, 151)

Many works of literature highlight this notion of indestructible ties attached to the home land. While some migrants attain a mediated identity in the process of transformation, some fall behind, adjusting with their situation and sporting an ambivalent identity.Thus they will be in a constant desire for return. The perception of the home has a remarkable role in our lives. The separation from the mother country is often uneasy for many people because of various reasons. According to McLeod who wrote Beginning Post colonialism, “The concept of ‘home’ often performs an important function in our lives. It can act as a valuable means of orientation by giving us a sense of our place in the world. It tells us where we originated from and where we belong. As an idea it stands for shelter, stability, security and comfort” (210). In Avtar Brah’s opinion given in Cartographies of Diaspora, it is a mystic space where there is no possibility of return, even when one can visit the geographical territory that is considered as the place of origin. That is why people are accompanied by a sense of loss throughout their exile. The ambivalence, identity crisis and guilt of leaving, make them suffer even when they feel comfortable and safe at the new place. This aspect is manifested in most of the literature characterizing migration. An examination of the memoir by placing it in the context of migration and displacement offers fresh insights into the nature of the immigrant identity.

Opium Nation by Fariba Nawa is an outcome of the author’s journey to her childhood home and the investigations she had made there by visiting the place and conversing with her people. The history and the current status of the opium trade are available in nonfiction books, websites, journals, newspapers and various other sources. How Nawa presents opium cultivation in Afghanistan stands unique in terms of the personal dimension it offers. The context of the deep-rooted evil is pictured through the lives of several persons. The focus here is its effects on the lives of common men. One crucial consequence was child brides who were used to cover the opium debts of the father. Many women lost their husbands and sons who were part of the opium chain. Some women had to resort to poppy cultivation to earn daily bread for the family. A totally strange world is unraveled in the memoir. Her journey also made her apprehend the power of Afghan women in overcoming their problems. She observes: 

The Afghan women who live there are not weak, voiceless victims they are so often made out to be in the Western media. Since they see themselves as part of their family units, Afghan women rarely demand individual rights, as women, something uncommon in the West. During my time in Ghoryan, these women, including Darya, showed me just how powerful they are, and how capable of overcoming their problems. (3)

Nawa also provides statistical records of the trade intertwining them in the stories. Helmand, Kandahar and Nangarhar, the provinces under mujahedeen control grew more poppy. In 1932, opium production was 75 tons that escalated to 8,200 tons in 2007. She explains the situation of Ghoryan district in detail. It was Ghoryan that was affected worst by the opium trade. Several occupants of the district are drug dealers, widows or addicts. The drug dealers virtually rule the place since the local government was ineffective and corrupt. Men who are trafficking opium carry them on foot and on donkeys. They had to cross the Iran borders without being caught by guards. The stuff will be handed over to dealers who later sell them in Iran. It is distributed in Turkey, the Gulf, Europe and then, United States. Many of the men are killed in fights or get executed in Iran. If so, their family will remain in huge debt which is the fate of many families in Ghoryan. The number of men capable of earning a living is few in the village. Some are old, boys are too young for work or addicted to drugs, thus women are responsible for the family. From the data collected from the Ghoryan hospital, the number of women who burn themselves to death increased from the year 2001 to 2003. Nawa also gives a glimpse of the study done by Afghan Parliament member Gul Ahmad Amini :

… as many as 5630 Afghans are currently in Iranian prisons, with more than 3000 sentenced to death. The majority of those on death row are alleged drug traffickers. Iranian officials say the number is much lower, but they refuse to disclose the exact number of Afghan men who will be executed for drug crimes. Iranian law states that if an individual is caught three times with as little as half a kilo to as much as twenty kilos of opiates, he or she may receive the death penalty. But some of the Afghan inmates on death row say they haven’t even had trials. (101)

These figures had become more realistic when she heard the stories of various women who had lost their beloveds. Some are still entrapped in the debts, not knowing how to repay them. In chapter five of the memoir, she depicts the story of Darya, an important character. She lives with her mother Basira and her five siblings. Dariya has been sold to a man to pay the debts her father had incurred by indulging in the opium trade. Even though she is twelve, she is very strong-willed not to go with the man. Nawa met this man once when he came to take Darya. She shouts at her mother that she is not going. He was good enough to wait till the girl is ready to accompany him and hence returned. It was only Darya’s luck. In many other cases, girls are given no options other than going with the man. The writer feels hatred towards all who are simply allowing her to be sold off. But they couldn’t do anything to resist as they are powerless. Darya was hopeful that the writer could help her from this entrap. Nawa also felt a deep attachment towards the little girl as she says “Darya has become a part of my life, not just a character in a story” (124). Later the author came to know that Darya had gone with Haji Sufi, a year after her visit to Ghoryan. Her father returned and persuaded the little girl to accept the marriage she hated. The pleading eyes of Darya forced the writer to embark on a dangerous journey to Helmand. Darya’s husband is a poppy farmer in one of the districts there, but no other details or address is available. The people who helped tried to warn her of the impending danger of this journey. But she was unwavering in her decision to give it a try. The urge to find the girl is so intense in her mind that she believes it is a form of salvation:

If I find her, at least she will see that I cared enough to come back; she will know that she matters and isn’t a slave. I want her to know that she can fight back and change her life. Most important, I want her to know that there’s someone out there who will listen to her and who is concerned about her. I also want to know her more: What is her favorite subject in school? Does she like to dance? Does she resent her father for what she did to her? What does she want to be when she grows up? Is she anything like me? (289)

Darya did not get help from any of her beloved ones, not even her mother. The family was indeed utterly helpless in the matter. Even when she was irresolute about rescuing the girl from the marriage, Nawa wanted Darya to know that she cared for the little one. Despite her search, she failed miserably. 

Another story of a woman named Gandomi is narrated in the book. She belonged to the Soltanzi family that reigned supreme in the opium trade. They could easily cross the borders and no other smugglers could offer competition to them. When Iran fortified their laws on drug control and mafias started controlling the opium market, the family lost its power. Gandomi talks about the people in the photographs placed on the wall of her house, in a narrative that reveals her pain and sense of loss:

On the left is my husband, Shayan, and my son Baitullah, both executed in prison in Iran eleven years ago. My oldest son, Tanai, died in a battle against the Soviets. My son Noman was captured by the Iranians and has left me with a huge debt. My other son, Wais, is a drug addict on the streets of Iran, she says nonchalantly, as if reciting her grocery list. (111)

There are a huge number of women with similar stories of loss and struggle in Ghoryan. The author also talks about a province named Badakhshan, where Parween, a poppy farmer lives with her nine children. Poppy cultivation had been practiced in this area for centuries and it has spread to thousands of acres of land. Parween’s story elucidates the pros and cons of opium farming. She had improved her life through this business. Her husband is unable to work because of a health issue and she had taken over the responsibility of the family. Parween was quite different from other women she had met at Heart. She is strong and more confident. Parween earned $800 for 20 kilos of opium in 2003. With this money, she bought her son a car, which he uses as a taxi. She bought a new frame for carpet weaving, clothes for all family members and above all, they could eat food three times a day, a rarity. She told the writer that her crops were destroyed by the government. Even though poppy farming was illegal, every influential family had a farm. Soldiers are paid to destroy the farming. But the ones with power and influence in the government circle are safe and the poor people suffer. On one side opium destroyed many families and on the other, poor families especially widows can live a better life through its cultivation. The writer found it strangely complicated. She gives a brief glimpse of French expert Pieree- Arnaud Chouvy’s observations he had made in an article for Jane’s intelligence on drug trade: 

On the one hand, the war economy has favoured the growth of the drug economy and opium trafficking has given warlords the means to perpetuate conflict. But, on the other hand, the opium economy has made survival possible for many farmers and contributed a great deal to the overall country’s economy. Hence, to some extent, the opium economy has helped stabilize a country coming out of over two decades of war and facing a derelict economy. (141)

This industry has obvious benefits for individuals as well as the nation, but we cannot disregard the devastation it caused to many families. The majority of the families suffered in one or the other way because of the trade. From the years spent in Afghanistan, the author was able to construct a distinct history of the opium trade. This was history from a personal point of view- confected through conversations with common men, drug dealers, women etc. She also gives a detailed account of the known history of opium cultivation with figures and statistics. According to her, the forced stopping of poppy cultivation should be targeted only on the wealthy owners, with priority given to voluntary elimination. The farmers should be supplied with alternative seeds and fertilizers and they require a legal banking system. She criticizes the salaam system which is not fair to the farmers. Drug trafficking can be controlled by decreasing the demand. The ideal way of dealing with addiction in some countries is “tolerance, treatment, and legalization” (310). She also shares her hopes, 

Afghanistan’s drug trade can become irrelevant over time, a generation’s time. It took Thailand thirty years to solve its opium conundrum. It has taken Afghanistan that long to build a strong opium trade, and it should be expected that it will take the country at least that long to destroy it. There are no short cuts, quick fixes, or shock-and-awe solutions. (310)

The author, like her parents, had to leave Afghanistan taking into consideration her child’s safety. She writes about a bomb blast that forces her to return to the United States. She doesn’t want her children to witness war and bloodshed. She decides to visit again and preserve her rich heritage. She realizes that Afghanistan is a part of her and there is no need to worry about losing it. She can ditch her nostalgia for the mother nation with memories of the seven years she had spent there. At the end of the narrative, she attains peace through reconciliation of the two cultures: “My evolving relationship with Afghanistan has allowed me to reconcile my two cultures and strengthen my Afghan identity. I no longer need to prove that I’m an Afghan to myself, to anyone” (313).

According to Merriam Webster memoir is “a narrative composed from personal experience” (Merriam Webster). In the beginning, memoirs have been considered as a subcategory of autobiography/biography. From the 20th century, it was studied as a distinct form. Autobiography/ biography tell the story of life but memoir depicts the story of a particular event or episode in life. Since the narrative is based on real events, a memoir can be considered as a form of history. Fariba Nawa’s memoir Opium Nationis constructed from her journey to Afghanistan, her homeland. It was her love and nostalgia for the country that tempted her to undertake this expedition but it turned out to be an exploration of the history of the opium trade in Afghanistan. It fictionalizes characters from real life who can share significantly about the crisis unleashed by opium cultivation. Often traditional history books present history from an academic point of view. It is supported by facts and figures. The uniqueness of this book lies in its portrayal of the life of the common people who are directly or indirectly involved in the trade. Women and girls have to suffer the consequences of the debt created by men who are employed in drug trafficking. The interview with drug dealers, widows, opium brides etc revealed considerable information about the cultivation. Supported with the available data on drug trafficking in Afghanistan, her experiences at various districts helped create a comprehensive idea of the intricate nature of the opium trade. 

Historiography is the study of how historians have fabricated their idea of the past. It is important to note the ways in which certain events are selected and represented in the works. History is always an interpretation by the historian who stands in between the past and the reader. The narration of history is affected by various factors like personal preferences, political ideology, commercial motives etc. Keith Jenkins in his Rethinking History states: “History remains inevitably a personal construct, a manifestation of the historian’s perspective as a ‘narrator’. Unlike direct memory (itself suspect) history relies on someone else’s eyes and voice; we see through an interpreter who stands between past events and our readings of them” (14). Each historical narrative can be analyzed as the product of the author’s politics. There are certain guiding factors that constitute the interpretation of the subject. In White’s opinion, “It should not be forgotten that history is always both the history of something (history of) and history in favour of something (history for)” (104). 

History expounded through memoir can be explored in this perspective. Here, the experiential history can act as a counter history which rewrites the past or fill in the gaps offered by conventional histories.  Opium Nation fills the missing parts of traditional history, by providing an account of the real life of common people in Afghanistan. Hayden White’s postmodern notions of history are relevant in this study. He emphasizes subjectivity and plurality of narratives and hence disowns the concept of a single grand narrative. For stating this, White analyses Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance and observes, “[Burckhardt’s] intention was not to tell the whole truth about the Italian Renaissance but one truth about it” (44). Each narrative is thus proposing one truth or interpretation of history. This idea proposes significance to subjectivity and imagination of both author and reader. In Metahistory, he states: 

In my view, “history,” as a plenum of documents that attest to the occurrence of events, can be put together in a number of different and equally plausible narrative accounts of “what happened in the past,” accounts from which the reader of the historian himself, may draw different conclusions about “what must be done” in the present. (283)

One best way is to elucidate history through the study of various available narratives. The reader can use their discretion in omitting the illogical or contradictory parts and can have a coherent understanding of history. Every narrative has its significance. Ghasemi’s observations are valid here: 

Under these circumstances, the readers are no longer passive recipients and consumers but active participants and producers of meanings from history transcripts. They play a creative role in the process of decoding and constructing meanings as they are required to go through this process of meaning-making, and naturally, the meanings they make may greatly differ from one another. In this climate, postmodernism can be seen as a departure from one single monolithic interpretation and the arrival of miscellaneous interpretations. (3)

Fariba Nawa’s memoir Opium Nation addresses the traumatic quandary of immigrant living. Placed within the context of migration literature, the memoir explicates her profoundly felt longing for her motherland which incidentally triggers her return, only to find the nation deeply entrenched within the folds of an oppressive regime. In a daring exploration of her own Afghan American identity, Nawa recasts the turbulent history of a nation heavily dependent on an opium funded economy. The memoir narrates the lived experiences of migration, dislocation and the cultural ambivalence that is central to the migrant experience in unequivocal terms. The hybrid nature of her identity engenders an internal strife that eventually culminates in the emergence of a strong, distinct personality, alive and sensitive to the subtle nuances of a complex identity. The memoir reinterprets the history of the nation in relation to personal experiences of subjugation and suffering, especially those endured by women and children. The postmodern approach to historical readings is evident in the use of first-person narrative that genre memoir adopts for a retelling of history. The American trade news magazine, Publishers Weekly remarked that Fariba Nawa “writes with passion about the history of her volatile homeland and with cautious optimism about its future” (Publishers Weekly). The war-torn face of the country has been familiarized to a wider audience via popular fiction and media representations. Nawa’s narrative brings to life the ordeals of a people victimized by fate and circumstance. The memoir can be regarded as an unconventional historical record where interviews with the subjects and narration of personal experience structure the core content. As a counter narrative the memoir contributes to the repertoire of conformist historical documentation, offering an alternate interpretation of the nation’s historical past.

Works Cited

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Karthika B Nair
Research Scholar
Department of English
Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam
Pin: 682011
ORCID: 0000-0002-2599-6110 
Ph: +91 9495445760
Dr. Lekshmi R. Nair
Associate Professor of English
Government College, Kottayam
Pin: 686 013
Ph: +91 9846440008