Set during the War in Afghanistan, new romantic thriller The Leopard's Daughter: A Pukhtun Story by David Raeburn Finn is a heart-stopping journey into a modern-day military heart of darkness.
By Timothy Arden
Brilliantly written, often harrowing in content and devastatingly timely, The Leopard’s Daughter: A Pukhtun Story by David Raeburn Finn offers a literary portal into the side of the Afghan War we in the West never got to see.
A vital antidote to jingoism and Islamophobia, the ambitious novel covers the Afghan war largely from the point of view of the Pukhtun people of Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan.
It is reckoned that over the course of the war, which ran for 20 years from 2001 to 2021, some 1.2million Pukhtuns and Pashtuns died, with the vast majority being civilian casualties.
The Americans, however, put this figure at 40,000 and in the West, little is known of this ethnic group. At worst, people might assume they are part of the Taliban; at best they are given little to no thought at all.
This novel, which falls within the thriller genre, seeks to restore them to the forefront, highlighting the existence of the Pukhtuns (members of the Pashtun group separated only by a different dialect) and demonstrating their commitment to greater tolerance in both religious and social concerns.
It is under this bleak and disturbing backdrop then that The Leopard’s Daughter is set. In many ways, it is a broad story—a sweeping and devastatingly cinematic portrayal of this period of dark period in history.
Yet is also drills down into a smaller scale, focusing primarily on that most primary of human bonds: love.
The novel focuses on Mohammed, a skilled American Muslim surgeon of Pashtun descent. We first meet him when he is lost in life. Under pressure to find love and highly impressionable, he goes against his parents’ wishes and embraces the idea of using his medical skills to help in Afghanistan.
Accordingly, he joins the US Special Forces as a front-line medic at a secret base in Kunar, Afghanistan.
The Leopard’s Daughter: A Pukhtun Story by David Raeburn Finn features a Muslim army medic who travels to Afghanistan with US forces only to discover that innocent civilians are deliberately being caught in the crossfire.
What he doesn’t know, however, is that his background and faith have brought him to the attention of US intelligence, with Mohammed being placed on a covert CIA ‘watch programme’.
As the story progresses with Mohammed on the ground in Afghanistan, he cannot be help be drawn further into the world of the native Pashtun people.
With a sworn duty to preserve life, he is disgusted to witness the sickening treatment of the Pashtuns, not by the Taliban but by his own side, the supposed ‘good guys’ in this military equation.
This, of course, is interpreted negatively by American forces. His base commander, in particular, becomes highly suspicious of his true loyalties as Mohammed converses and prays with, then physically defends, Afghan civilian villagers against bloodthirsty company soldiers intent on murder.
Unaware he is now a target by his own side, Mohammed survives a cross-border ambush in Bajaur, on the borderline of Afghanistan and Pakistan, before becoming swept up in the lives of a local Pashtun family he is trying to help.
One of these characters is young widow Shahay, the titular Leopard’s Daughter and a knife-wielding force of nature who, along with her brothers, comes to his aid when the ambush takes place.
In the process she suffers serious wounds, which only Mohammed with his medical training can help repair.
To aid her recovery, Shahay’s brothers invite Mohammed to their home, where he inevitably becomes more involved and intertwined with Shahay and her family.
As a romance begins to take root between Mohammed and Shahay, little do they know that there will be dire repercussions that will bring further horror, tragedy and death to the residents of Bajaur.
Propelled by a compelling, emotive storyline and sympathetic protagonists, The Leopard’s Daughter rises above its genre to become a classic contemporary anti-war novel.
Essentially, in fictional form, it highlights atrocities conducted by American troops, especially illegal torture and gross military incompetence, and demonstrates that as far as innocent civilians were concerned, the Pashtun Taliban certainly acted no worse than the Americans who invaded their homeland.
The novel also tackles wider themes of racism and Islamophobia, showing through the theatre of war how such ignorant prejudices, writ large, bring only destruction and carnage.
On a more positive note, there is much to enjoy and learn about the vibrant culture of the Pashtun people.
Personally, I loved learning snippets of the Pukhtun language, such as “peghore” (“taunt”), “ezzat” (“honour”) and “charre” (“dagger”).
The Leopard’s Daughter: A Pukhtun Story does an admirable job in restoring the humanity to the Pashtun people of Afghanistan, typically perceived in Western rhetoric as the ‘enemy’.
I also enjoyed the intensity of the plot—it is a thriller, after all—and how the anti-war rhetoric is skilfully weaved into the story of Mohammed and Shahay without ever overpowering it.
Canadian author David Raeburn Finn clearly spent a lot of time researching his subject but lifts it with a clear talent for narrative fiction. It’s hard to believe that prior to this novel, he had only written one other work of fiction, a children’s book.
The language used is always clear and descriptive but adapts to the dramatic needs of the situation, such as this passage when Mohammed needs to help Shahay following an ambush.
Disinfectant. Gloves. Can’t see. Raise kameez. Widen partoog slash. Expose wound. Three inches long. Deep. Arterial, vertical. Praise Allah, inch and a half. Extend surrounding flesh. Spread. Isolate artery. Sop up blood with tamponade. Pry artery up. Gently. Gently. Need vein. There. Tie off. Section two and a half inches. Slit open. Seat over slash. Suture. Thirty stitches. Not too tight. Release tourniquet. Good pulse. Check seepage, again. Check. Good. Close. Heparin, Cefotan into line. His knees and legs were numb. He fell backwards, eyes closed, head spinning, silently grateful. Praise Allah. Let her live…
As you can see Finn, a former philosophy professor whose interests include Pashtun anthropology, Islamic gender dynamics, and American foreign policy, manages to convey the sense of urgency while embedding us in the character’s thoughts.
Whether you are more concerned about the dramatic agonies of love in wartime, or for the intelligent literary exploration of xenophobia, military transgressions and identity politics, either way you will be well served.
An unforgettable journey into a modern-day heart of darkness that I can’t recommend enough, The Leopard’s Daughter is an honest and engaging depiction of the horrors of war that will make anyone a pacifist.
The Leopard’s Daughter: A Pukhtun Story by David Raeburn Finn (Lemahouse) is out on Amazon in hardcover, paperback and eBook priced at £26.95, £17.99 and £9 respectively. For more information, visit www.davidrfinn.com.
Q&A INTERVIEW WITH DAVID RAEBURN FINN
We speak with Canadian author David Raeburn Finn to learn more about his gripping new anti-war novel The Leopard’s Daughter: A Pukhtun Story. While David should not be viewed as a spokesperson for the Pashtuns or as an ‘official’ expert on their culture, his extensive background research into the War in Afghanistan and the lives of the Pashtun people has resulted in, possibly, the most accurate fictional representation of the impact that the US-led military invasion has had on this proud ethnic group.
Q. What do you hope readers take from your novel?
A. Propaganda immunizes us against those targeted by our wars. I hope readers of The Leopard’s Daughter: A Pukhtun Story may feel they’ve glimpsed into the hearths and realities of those most affected by the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Pashtuns of these countries.
Q. Tell us how you went about researching your novel?
A. Over the space of several years, I reached out to numerous Pashtun friends and correspondents with questions. Among them were a brilliant Cambridge anthropologist, a Kabuli mujahid of the Soviet-Afghan War, an erudite polyglot Swati Pashtun living in Canada, a talented Pashtun PhD student and blogger who writes under the moniker of “Orbala” (which means “Butterfly”), a Pakistani journalist whose contact with the Taliban and unflinching courage sadly saw him assassinated, and a widely respected Pakistani journalist and news editor famed for his interviews with Osama bin Laden, and many more.
Q. The West tends to have an over-simplistic view of the Pashtuns. Can you briefly provide a clearer picture of these people?
A. Pashtuns follow Islam as their faith, and Pashtunwali, (the Pashtun code), as their practice. Belief is assumed. Pashtunwali is lived.
In brief, a guest (“melmast”) is perceived as a gift who will be treated with extraordinary hospitality, being considered as a feather in the host family’s cap (“pakol”). Revenge (“badal”) is taken for injury of or perceived insult to a family member. Elders, listening to all willing speakers, settle interfamilial and intertribal disputes; women organise contacts for celebratory occasions (births, marriage, educational achievements) and condolence (deaths, illness, burials). Attendance is required on pain of being shunned. Conservative customs such as second-cousin marriage and the seclusion of women (“purdah”) are common but are slowly changing in urban societies. By tradition, a Pashtun may at his discretion give protection (“nanawati”) to a supplicant pursued by a third party. If so then the protector and his village will be bound to defend the protected man against all comers.
Q. The War in Afghanistan came with a tragically high death count within the Pashtun community, the majority being civilians. Can you explain more about just how bad it was?
A. Nicholas Davies and Medea Benjamin of US-based pacifist and social justice organisation Code Pink put Afghan and Pakistani deaths caused by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the multinational military mission, at 1.2million. Virtually all bombings in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan were directed at Pashtun areas. So-called 500lb ‘Precision Paveways’ guided bombs are routinely imprecise; B-52 bombing from 41,000 feet obliterated villages with surrounding livestock while cluster bombs seeded death below. Exploded depleted uranium rounds have seeded cancer-causing and mutagenic particles for eons.
If 120,000 (10%) of the total casualties were combatants, over one million were civilians. Future deaths from cancer, lung diseases and yet more from aborted pregnancies are certain. As an aside, a recent US precision drone attack in Kabul killed 10 people—a man and nine children (the same ratio 10/90 ratio). The man, however, was an NGO employee, not a combatant as initially claimed by US Command.
Canadian author David Raeburn Finn spent almost a decade researching his new novel, romantic thriller The Leopard’s Daughter: A Pukhtun Story.
Q. Do you think your depiction of the War in Afghanistan as one marked by military atrocities, torture and mistakes will shock readers, and if so is that what you wanted to achieve?
A. War’s central reality is death. Western soldiers, including coalition special forces, have committed atrocities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ditto for the Taliban (Afghanistan) and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), alternatively referred to as the “Pakistani Taliban”. Today, America’s CIA and military continue to torture the same Guantanamo prisoners held against international law for 20 years.
It must be noted that special forces are trained not simply to kill, but to torture. Because military success is defined by body count, torture is thought to act as a body-count-multiplier: it yields more targets to be killed. So, it’s deemed valuable tool in special operations forces (SOF) expertise.
Q. What is your own take on the War in Afghanistan? Should it have taken place?
A: The Afghan war was perfectly justified only if robbing Afghanistan of its resources suffices as a justification. America’s CIA relied on a Russian study noting the vast untapped mineral wealth of the country. Military publication Jane’s Defence reported US plans to make war against Afghanistan in April 2001, months before it actually started. The invasion had nothing to do with 9/11.
Q. Your book depicts the Pashtun culture as being divided, with some supporting the Taliban but many against it. How do you think these people will fare now that the Taliban is back in control?
A. Pashtuns are predominantly a rural population: villagers, tradesmen, students, teachers, shopkeepers, farmers. Broadly, as in similar populations, they are religiously and socially conservative, so less prone to the liberal influences affecting the urban Pashtun community and Westernized Pashtuns of the Pashtun diaspora.
Pashtun culture uses conflict resolution readily, more widely and, in many respects, more wisely than Western societies. Court cases are rare. Most often social pressure alone, rather than policed enforcement, settles disputes and differences.
Q. Which one author or book has been the most inspirational to you across your writing journey?
A. Sorry, it has to be two! Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte for the glory of its English prose and its courageous heroïne, and British Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid for his wonderfully twisted subcontinental irony in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Q. What one key piece of writing advice do you live by?
A. Don’t write about what is familiar. Chances are it will bore you and everyone else.
Q. With the publication of your novel, where will your writing career go from here?
A: I currently have two projects on the go. One relates to fiction and the other to an historical book. Both are, in different ways, focused again on the Pashtuns.
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