A DOOR IN THE EARTH
By Amy Waldman
In a 2001 article in The New York Times, Amy Waldman, who was then reporting for the paper from Afghanistan, described the crowds of men who gathered around her there whenever she exposed her face. “Haven’t you ever seen a woman’s face?” she was tempted to ask. But for five years, during which most of Afghanistan was effectively ruled by the Taliban, they had not, at least not in public places, and Waldman recounted her difficulties interviewing women in burqas: “Faced with an impenetrable wall of pale blue polyester where a human being should be, you learn to look for clues.” In the privacy of their homes, some of the women removed their veils and told her about feeling trapped by early marriages and frequent pregnancies. Waldman went on to become a novelist, but she’s clearly drawing on her experience as a journalist to shape her new book, “A Door in the Earth,” a story about America’s endless war in Afghanistan that layers moving storytelling onto penetrating reportage.
Waldman’s previous novel, “The Submission” (2011), explored the contradictory treatment of Muslims in post-9/11 America. Her new book is bravely situated in Afghanistan itself, eroding the myth of the good occupier and of what is termed in the novel “kind power.” The setting is a small mountainous village in 2009. Most of the inhabitants are hungry; only one household has electricity; there’s no running water. Yet dominating the landscape is a large, sparkling clinic — painted “a white so bright that it looked primed for sunburn” — built by Gideon Crane, an American white-collar-criminal-doctor-turned-philanthropist in order to right a wrong: the death of a local woman named Fereshta in childbirth, which Crane failed to prevent, despite his medical training. Crane’s best-selling book “Mother Afghanistan” has attracted American donations to the clinic. And it’s because she’s read the book that Parveen, a 22-year-old aspiring anthropologist, arrives to stay with Fereshta’s husband, Waheed, armed with power bars and a yoga mat.
“A Door in the Earth” tells a convincing story of misplaced do-gooding from across the political spectrum, and the passages that Waldman includes from “Mother Afghanistan” seem depressingly realistic. “I imagined a clinic that could have saved Fereshta, and then I built it,” Crane writes, celebrating imagination as “the highest capacity we human beings have.” Parveen is a first-generation American, born to Afghan parents; her father — her mother has recently died — is ambivalent about her return to the country he fled. She speaks Dari, and is thus able to converse with the villagers in a way that Crane couldn’t. Quickly, she discovers that the clinic is a waste of resources. Despite its high-tech equipment, it’s closed most of the time because there are no female doctors prepared to work there — only a once-weekly volunteer physician from a neighboring town.
Over the course of several months, Parveen is accepted by Waheed’s two new wives and children, and learns that almost everything in Crane’s book is false. Yet the book itself continues to have consequences. A villager Crane wrongly accused of being a member of the Taliban is captured and interrogated by the American military, and, inspired by Crane’s notion of “kind power,” an Army unit appears in the village to build a road.