Studies on modern Afghan fiction writing are few. In this respect, an article dedicated to Muhammad Abd al-Qadir Affandi’s Taswir ‘ibrat ya Bibi Khura Jan (The Warning Portrait or Bibi Khura-Jan), arguably the first full-fledged modern Afghan novel, is good news. A grandson of Shir ‘Ali and heir apparent to the Afghan throne, Affandi (born 1888) was sent into exile in India after the change of power and remained “a king in waiting” thereafter. However he was able to take advantage of his training in foreign languages to gather inspiration from Western authors in writing his own translations and novels. Taswir ‘ibrat was published in 1922 and became one of the most successful novels in modern Afghanistan. Through the “vivid” depiction of upper-class Kabulis and the life of the female protagonist, Bibi Khura-Jan, herself a member of the royal family and wife to the governor of the Maimana province, the book relates the collapse of the old social order witnessed by Affandi in the early twentieth century. F. Bezhan appraises the import of the work, in which the structure of the western novel, he argues, meets the local tradition of storytelling to shape a peculiar “novel of manners”, Afghan style. The narrative provides an insight into the position of Afghan women, “lifetime imprisoned” in the domestic space, and confined to ignorance and superstition by a harsh polygamist and patriarchal society in which the rich cling on to power by the means of force and bribery, whereas the folk is kept in a state of wretched misery and backwardness. Unfolding a woman’s world as viewed from a woman’s perspective, the fiction, supported by an explicit preface, enables the author to claim his sense of social justice, and to foreshadow the downfall of this archaic world.
Unfortunately, Bezhan’s commentary is disappointing and falls short of the expected historical and literary analysis. Not a word is said about the reactions the novel induced when it was first released, or on its historical audience. And whereas his survey of the book as a social manifesto is relatively conclusive, Bezhan proves unable to articulate a stylistic explanation for the contrasted use of formal and colloquial language in the novel. Though he mentions such distinctive features of traditional storytelling as verse insertion, or the direct address of the narrator to the audience, he fails to point out the specific achievement of Taswir ‘ibrat, which owes both to the Afghan folktale and to the Western novel. Moreover, reference to the key-notion of “novel of manners” is hazy, and poorly introduced by second-hand descriptions of unrelated Western narratives, which at times lead to downright misunderstandings. Clearly, the first Afghan novel deserved a more careful handling, but it can be hoped that such a challenging topic will breed other, more successful studies, in the near future.