A Land Without Time
A Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan
by John Sumser (Afghanistan 1977–78)
Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers
June 2006
205 pages

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1965–66)

    “AFGHANISTAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN the space between countries,” John Sumser writes in his introduction. In one succinct sentence, he nails the major problem Afghanistan faces in attaining legitimacy. Toward the end of Sumser’s tour in 1978, the Afghan communists toppled the nation’s president. To his credit, though, Sumser avoids political sermons, while chronicling his impressions of Afghanistan’s people and harsh physical environment.
         Sumser also avoids burdening readers with moral lessons. This is not another book about idealistic do-gooders who want to change the world. But it is in many ways a book about contrasting cultures. Sumser offers interesting vignettes of Afghanistan’s Islamic-based society.
         Sumser provides insight into Afghan social interaction with his characteristic ironic humor. He details the bartering nuances in the marketplace. To get a price quoted, the vendor must weigh the product. There are a variety of objects used to determine a weight, including truck parts. Sumser then explains the major philosophical dilemma. The standard used to determine weight was flexible: “[B]oth the weight of the object purchased and the weight of the object used as the criteria for weighing were in question. Every thing was negotiable.”
         This bargaining in the marketplace is culturally significant because it provides the core of Afghan social interaction with strangers. Sumser contrasts this with American culture, which defines “social life as private life, or personal life. . . . social life in the sense of public life dwindles to almost nothing. And so we develop a society in which interaction is unnecessary.” Afghans learn strategies for dealing with each other in this negotiating culture. And, as Sumser writes, “It was never adversarial. It was always an effort to come to some agreement about what was best for both the people involved.”
         Sumser’s concludes his memoirs by describing the rough-handed treatment he received from the Afghan communists in their 1978 coup. He was picked up by soldiers who were in the process of overthrowing Mohammad Daoud, the nation’s president. A Vietnam Vet and in top physical shape, Sumser fanaticizes James Bond escape plans. Finally he faces his interrogators. Sumser’s description is Chaplinesque:

    “Stand up!”
    I’d stand up.
    “Where did you get the photographs [of the ex-King of Afghanistan]?”
    “I don’t have any photographs.”
    He’d punch me in the chest. I’d fall on the sofa.
    “Stand up!”
    I’d stand up.
    “Tell me the names of the Afghans you know.”
    “I don’t know any Afghans.”
    He’d punch me in the chest. I’d fall on the sofa.
    “Stand up!”
    I’d stand up.
    “Who do you work for?”
    “I work for the Peace Corps.”
    He’d punch me in the chest. I’d fall on the sofa.

    This routine was repeated over and over. Finally, the officer put a pistol to Sumser’s head and threatened to pull the trigger if Sumser didn’t confess where he got the photos. Apparently the officer was convinced of Sumser’s innocence and he was released after several hours of this near-tragedy.
         This book will not provide insight into the rise of the Taliban, the Soviet occupation, or the rise of al-Qaeda. What Sumser’s book does best, however, is demonstrate the resilience of many PCVs who often work under nearly surreal conditions.

    Tony Zurlo is a writer/educator living in Arlington, Texas, with poetry and short fiction published in more than seventy five journals, magazines, and anthologies including recent issues of Red River Review, November 3rd Club, Open Window, All Info About Poetry, VerbSap, and in The Cynic. He also has published nonfiction books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria. His Op-eds and reviews have appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Democrats.US, Peace Corps Writers, Online Journal, Writers Against the War, Dissident Voice, and OpEdNews. He is currently finishing a book about the U.S. Congress.