S & M Publishing House, $19.99
The military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 marked the U.S. as the latest occupier to fail at making a lasting intervention. A cartoon released in The Spectator in September of that year crystallised the politico-media discourse surrounding the withdrawal: Afghanistan is a challenge, a game — existing in the Western imagination only as a site for power struggle and strategic gain.
RGJ in The Spectator, 11 September 2021.
Sharifullah Dorani’s new novel, The Lone Leopard (2022), asks a Western reader to set aside the impulse to centre foreign influence in our readings of modern Afghanistan. Set over a thirty-year timespan from the early 1990s to the mid-2010s, The Lone Leopard tells the coming-of-age of Ahmad: a quiet, pious Afghan teenager whose entry into adulthood is forged in violence and displacement. Beginning at the unravelling of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the story follows Ahmad and his three friends – Bakhtash, Wazir and the defiant young woman Frishta – as their intersecting, often conflicting paths are shaped by years of civil war, Taliban rule and American occupation.
By narrating the central characters’ stories over three decades, The Lone Leopard is able to contextualise America’s involvement in Afghanistan at the same time as positioning Afghanistan at the forefront of the narrative: while the States’ presence certainly hums along in the background, this is not a story of a foreign policy project, but one of young lives, teenage angst, human affinity and grief. The novel takes a certain joy in narrating the quotidian; its attention to food, especially, finds pleasure in the ordinary:
‘Mir Maftoon sang with much banging and scratching music out of half a metre-long loudspeakers at a restaurant. Beneath them, white-aproned waiters prepared shiryakh, grilled sikh kebabs, juiced carrots, pomegranates and mangos. Young men and women, standing hand in hand, enjoyed the taste of mango and shiryakh, while young children washed their Corollas or Mitsubishis on the other side of the road in shadows of the trees of the Shar-e Naw Park.’
The sense of place generated in moments such as these establish a core sense of Afghan culture and identity. It is this sense of Afghan-ness, emergent in throwaway sensory experiences and ordinary exchanges, which sutures the novel’s three main time periods together and brings Afghanistan to the fore despite shifting geopolitical conditions.
Dorani’s emphasis on the nation and culture of Afghanistan leads him to elide a significant moment in Ahmad’s story where he travels from Afghanistan to England, after the outbreak of the Afghan civil war. The story skips ahead from the moment of Ahmad’s departure to fifteen years into his life settled in England – an interesting decision which omits a direct narration of the channel crossing. We learn from fragments of speech that Ahmad and his family made the crossing in a small, overcrowded boat. This is a story sadly known all too well; there is the sense that the novel is asking the (Western) reader to piece together this part of the narrative through the countless headlines, photographs and soundbites that inform our relation to the refugee crisis. We can also read the omission of this central event as a means to articulate trauma: it filters through later, in memory and excerpts of dialogue, rather than sitting bulbous and stubborn at the centre of the narrative consciousness. But most of all, the empty space in the narrative for the channel crossing ensures that our attention remains on the story of Afghanistan and its citizens: the refugee ‘crisis’, after all, is as much about Britain (and its achievements but, more pressingly, its many failings and cruelties) as it is about those who are displaced. By omitting this part of Ahmad’s story, The Lone Leopard paints Afghan identity in a way which refuses definition by refugee status and media spectacle.
One of the most immediately visible impacts of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 was the reversal of women’s rights. A pervasive sense both of nostalgia and hope for women’s emancipation runs through The Lone Leopard, but is concentrated in the character Frishta, a friend and contemporary of Ahmad. Dorani stages generational and political divides surrounding women’s rights through discussions between Frishta and Ahmad’s traditional, conservative mother – gesturing to the complexities that women have faced in finding unity and securing opportunities to further their rights and interests. Indeed, in its attention to several characters occupying a range of political positions, the novel speaks to Afghanistan’s diversity, historical turbulence and future uncertainty. Nevertheless, the novel’s ending is hopeful, albeit heavily didactic – a political speech to a crowd doubles as a message to the reader:
‘We’re stronger when we fight corruption. Stronger when we support our heroes, the men and women in our security forces. Stronger when we sustain and build our institutions, civil society, free media, human rights groups. Stronger when we work with our international allies.’
While it explores differing viewpoints, The Lone Leopard seems to end hitting one note, and it reads as if these final few paragraphs are intended to represent the author’s voice. The novel is Dorani’s first, following the publication in 2019 of his academic monograph America in Afghanistan: Foreign Policy and Decision Making from Bush to Obama to Trump. As such, the prose bears some stylistic awkwardness and disjuncture at moments, and there are places where the plot becomes weighed down by heavy dialogue. Nevertheless, The Lone Leopard is a generous, sensitive, well-researched novel which offers an informative perspective on Afghanistan’s past, and projects a strong sense of hope for the future.
Listen to Sarah’s USSOCast interview with Sharifullah Dorani here.
 RGJ in The Spectator, 11 September 2021. <https://www.spectator.co.uk/illustration/reset-all-pieces-to-original-positions-start-again->
 Sharifullah Dorani, The Lone Leopard (S & M Publishing House, 2022), 253.
 Ibid., 402-3.