This is an “educational comic book”, French illustrator Nicolas Wild informs us in an early panel. If so, then they should all be so lucky to be as hilariously poignant and smart as Kabul Disco.
The book begins in Paris in early 2005, where a broke Wild finds in himself a new and burning desire to take in the sights of strife-stricken Afghanistan when informed by his zealously productive roommate that he’s shortly about to become homeless. After an unexpected and caviar-filled break in the unfriendly heart of Azerbaijan, Wild arrives in Kabul and enters the mysterious world of NGOs that work in war-torn countries.
His brief: to explain the Afghan Constitution to the overwhelmingly illiterate population, especially children, through comic books featuring the adventures of a war orphan who learns about the rights and freedoms of the new republic through his life with the kind man who adopts him.
His problem(s): several. Some pretty entertaining, others not so much.
For one thing, he has about 24 hours to catch up on the history, politics, customs, problems and Constitution of Afghanistan – a country about which he knows nothing. Also, Kabul is kinda freaky – people get kidnapped, it’s cold as all hell, and the threat of violence is omnipresent (although Afghanistan in 2005 sounds much better than the Afghanistan of 2010).
Over the next few months, he learns about the expat life, living with war, adjusting to a wholly different culture, and how to rub along with people with whom you have very little in common like pretty young women responsible for getting George Bush elected President. The resulting vignettes are witty, sad, informative and downright giggle-worthy.
But what really struck me about Kabul Disco is Wild’s ambivalence about his role as a Westerner teaching Afghans about their new Afghan reality when he can’t quite grasp it either. The artificiality of its construct is painfully obvious in the sequence of panels in which he finds out that there is no actual Afghan parliament as of his employment in Kabul. He’s nonplussed.
“What do I draw?” he asks.
“Make it symbolic by representing the ethnic balance: 45% are Pushtuns, 36% are Tajiks, 12% are Uzbeks, 14% are Hazaras, And then there are a few Nuristanis, of course. Draw some wearing shalwar kamiz with turbans, patoos or pakols. Then others wearing three piece suits. Out of the 300 members, 25% are women.”
“Of course,” he says. Only: “I just wanted to know, what do Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Nuristanisshalwar kamiz, patoos, pakols and women look like?”
Wild is particularly brilliant when he’s exploring the differences between the cultures of the people around him and his own. There is a screamingly funny dream about going back to France to find his mother and sisters in burkhas, for example. Or the the time he and his friends crash a celebration of Ashura and are all but certain they’re done for when one of them does the touristy thing and breaks out the camera flash, only to end up on a balcony drinking tea and musing on the differences between Christians with their Easter egg hunting and Muslims with their self-flagellation.
And yet, he understands the importance of his work, coming as it does after decades of unrest and violence. It might frequently be ridiculous and or even stomach turning as he finds his later work, creating propaganda to recruit Afghans into an iffy life in the national army, but it is a part of putting a country back on its feet. For good or for ill.
I don’t know if there exists an English translation of Kabul Disco Book 2: How I Didn’t Become an Opium Addict in Afghanistan, but if there is, sign me up! Kabul Disco is not the first book I’ve read about the challenges facing Afghanistan since the war began, but it is the first one that left me feeling something other depressed and hopeless. And that’s nothing to sneer at.