Royals to Refugees: Roots of an Afghan Family

Book review: Crossing the River Kabul, by Kevin McLean

Author Kevin McLean adopts the voice of Baryalai Popal to tell his dramatic true story, spanning decades, of escaping Afghanistan in 1980 during the Russian invasion and war, and his eventual trek to America.

Now an American citizen, Baryalai (called Bar) was born into one of the two historic royal families of Afghanistan. Bar’s family history and their deep roots in the country are recounted as a beginning, leading up to the Russian invasion and his flight. These stories include the work of his father, Abdul Rahman Popal, as both a tutor and political advisor to various influential figures and his time studying in Paris.

Throughout the years and through Bar’s family stories and memories, McLean spins tales  of a very different Afghanistan than the one we know from contemporary media. It’s a refreshing change and a fascinating perspective. As McLean explains in his author’s note, he was fascinated with Bar’s amazing story of returning to Afghanistan after twenty years living as a refugee in foreign countries. “Bar’s stories became the threads from which I would weave the history of his family and, with it, the history of Afghanistan.”

Bar’s and his family’s stories are not only fascinating but helpful, as their experiences are a kind of microcosm for the country’s history as a whole. It’s much easier to understand Afghanistan’s complicated history, which seems to be an unfortunate series of foreign occupations over and over, when viewed through the lens of one family, separated and uprooted, trying to land somewhere safe but still maintain a connection to home.

Regarding the difficult resistance put up by Afghan fighters (mujahideen) against the invasion by Russian Special Forces, McLean deftly describes the situation: “As foreign powers have discovered over the centuries, taking charge of Kabul is like grabbing an octopus by one tentacle and thinking you have the octopus securely in your grip. Your fight has only begun.” That’s what makes this so worthwhile, not only as memoir and triumphant tale of a refugee achieving the elusive American dream, but the impacting simple-but-powerful literary style used to tell these stories and to rope the country’s history into the narrative.

McLean devotes a good portion of the book to explaining national history, tribal connections and Afghan culture, but the material is mostly presented in a readable, clearly narrated way.  It’s an excellent historical study and makes the family’s stories stand out more powerfully with such a clear historical context. The strongest sections are those that show the relationships between Bar and his family members, especially his father. He gained so much wisdom from him, some of it filtered through Afghan lore and traditional sayings, and it made for touching, fascinating reading.

“My father would have reminded me that every important decision should be made with the head, not the heart. Returning to Afghanistan would be a decision of the heart, and no doubt he would have considered it a foolish thing to do. In the end I only had ears for my heart.”

His father also explains to Bar a wise observation on whether democracy can ever work in troubled Afghanistan: “Democracy after a monarchy is like a diver rising from the ocean’s depths after a long dive. He must come up gradually or risk great pain, even death. If democracy is to succeed in our country, it must proceed gradually, or the rapid expansion of the air of freedom will kill it…Democracy is government by the people, and people are not perfect, so you should not expect democracy to be perfect.” We’ve learned, or tried to learn this lesson, again and again – history indeed repeats.

Bar’s escape route leads him away from his wife and children when pressure on him builds thanks to his familial connections. He flees into neighboring Pakistan, where he struggles to adapt as a refugee. Eventually he’s able to escape to Ankara, Turkey, then on to Germany, calling on the aid of friends he and his family have made over time and his own quick thinking and skills in translation and interpretation. Through a combination of cleverness, luck, and favors owed, he’s able to establish a life and send for his family to join him. Eventually, they immigrate to America, where he’d dreamed of going when his journey first began.

But his roots and his family’s legacy and memories remain in Kabul and Jalalabad, and a few years after the shock of events on September 11th, he’s able to return and embarks on the task of reclaiming their properties from corrupt warlords who have taken them over. He’s already shown throughout his incredible stories his aptitude for rising to challenging tasks, but the toughest ordeal is facing what remains of his country and heritage.

Speaking of a friend he visits upon his return, he tells his driver that the friend is alive, but “…had many sad stories to tell.”
“Afghanistan is the land of sad stories,” 
the man responds.

That may be so, but Bar and his family have a lot of incredible, hopeful stories, too.

Crossing the River Kabul: An Afghan Family Odyssey
by Kevin McLean

published June 1, 2017 by Potomac Books (University of Nebraska Press)

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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