There’s no travel writing book as horizon-broadening and mind-opening as Selimut Debu by Agustinus Wibowo, at least in my limited reading experience. It gives us not only fascinating insights into what (actually) happens in the post-war Afghanistan, but also a deep perception of the dynamics of its society, the blend of religion and tradition its people hold dear, and the foreign interference in its internal affairs. Wibowo makes it as easy to read as an open book, so every bewildering, complicated aspect comes to bright light.
It’s 2006 and the second time Agustinus Wibowo set foot in Afghanistan, a geographically mountainous country with horrifying history, endless wars, shocking, tidily veiled traditions, and heaps of continuous problems. He takes us to every corner of the dust-blanketed land, from one direction to another, from one border to another. But Wibowo does not only show us what he really got from his grueling journey. Reading this book is like being dragged mercilessly into the secrets of the prevailing wars, the suicide bombs, the Western interference, and all the financial aid which goes to nothing. Yes, nothing. Here, we are forced to see, with eyes so wide open, the ugly truth about the circling dollars and the charity system that eventually do not make any difference at all. The people are still uneducated, the bombs are still exploding, the guns are still fired, and the wars are still going on and on. With or without Taliban, with or without those bunch of dollars, Afghanistan is, and perhaps will be, still a battlefield that won’t be getting anywhere.
Armed with fearless, unbiased narrative, Wibowo unveils what is behind veil, what’s inside the burka, something that people generally, and wrongly, comprehend. While the Western gender-concerned organization tries to hammer the idea of equality between men and women, of fighting the oppressive patriarchal social system and culture into the heads of the Afghan women during the “post Taliban” recovery, all they need is only their burka to cover them, to keep them safe. Outsiders in general, and Western people in particular, will never understand the need to cover women’s bodies in countries like Afghanistan, where women cannot trust their bodies to just anybody, anytime anywhere they like. It’s not about patriarchal or not, oppressive or not. It’s about making their own choices. And feminism is just about that. It doesn’t have to mean “you have to work” or “you have to fight your husband” or “you have to go to school” or “you have to put off your burka”. Sometimes it simply means wearing burka instead or staying at home or being married and having so many children at sixteen for their own sake. What women favor in one country doesn’t have to be the same as what other women choose in another. Afghanistan is not America, so you cannot expect it to have, or accept, the same ideas of gender and feminism.
Selimut Debu has also opened my eyes to the religious practice and belief of the Afghan people. Wibowo’s interaction with the Afghan society, from cities to untouchable villages, tells me much about how its people see their religion, which is nationally Islam. It reveals much about the opposing ways of Sunni and Syiah, but that’s not what interested me most. I was more drowned into how religion and culture cannot actually go separate ways. More often than not, people confuse religion with culture. Religion comes from God, but people cannot live without culture and tradition, therefore they feel the inevitable need to blend them and try to live with them in harmony. But that harmony often demands people to abandon the sanctity of their religion and, as a result, blur the holy lines. It happens not only to the Afghan people, but, I think, also to everyone of us. Sometimes we know that it’s not right, but we just can’t help it.
Selimut Debu is a wonderful package as a whole. Not only did I find Wibowo’s fluid, humorous, smart writing style captivating, but his perceptive mind and observant views are bedazzling as well. He does not have any tendency whatsoever in his writing, and he tries to be honest as much as he can. Here, he’s not only a travel writer, but also a cultural observer with sharp eyes and indubitable intelligence. So far, I never doubt his works, nor his ability to produce a great one. This book is also equipped with beautiful pictures, in a way creating mental images in our minds that strengthen the descriptions inside it. Everything seems perfect to me, although some typos got in my way of enjoying it thoroughly.
In short, Selimut Debu is something you must read to see beyond what people “force” you to see, something that will certainly drive home to you the unknown, veiled facts about the present Afghanistan.