The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam

912qeLmN6vLFiction — print. Vintage International, 2008. 302 pgs. Purchased.

Nadeem’s novel was selected by my professor for our U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East class to read; an odd choice considering this class centers around diplomatic history and fact rather than fiction. In the novel, the role of the British, Russians, Americans, and the Afghans in relatively recent Afghani history plays out in the interactions between Marcus, Qatrina, Zadeem, David, Casa, and Lara.

“The country was one of the greatest tragedies of the age. Torn to pieces by the many hands of war, by the various hatreds and failings of the world. Two million deaths over the past quarter-century.” (pg. 11)

Lara is visiting from Russia; attempting to find her lost brother who defected from the Soviet army during the war. Marcus, an Englishman, lost his wife Qatrina and his hand after the rise of the Taliban, but he refuses to give up his search for his daughter Zadeem, who disappeared the night Soviet soldiers (including Lara’s broter) showed up at his door. American David loved Zadeem despite the treats from the Taliban, but she disappeared once again and David has been helping Marcus find Zadeem’s little boy. In the midst of all of this is the American war on terror and the rise of jihad.

“Even the air of this country has a story to tell about warfare. It is possible here to lift a piece of bread from a plate and, following it back to its origins, collect a dozen stories concerning war — how it affected the hand that pulled it out of the oven, the hand that kneaded the dough, how war impinged upon the field where the wheat was grown.” (pg. 43)

At first, I thought Nadeem’s prose was beautifully, but the heavily detailed descriptions became cumbersome to the story. I found myself reading pages and pages over again. What’s more, orientalism plays across the pages as the only “good” Afghans in this story are the ones portrayed as “Westernized.” The rest are made up of an assortment of crude, illiterate, egoistic, and chauvinistic characters. The Soviet soldiers are portrayed in much the same way, but I think this might be because of Aghani perception of Russians rather than American.

The story does have an interesting portrayal of Afghanistan, which shows how much the country has been shaped by the actions of the British, Russians, and Americans. But it seems disjointed at times; written in a stream-of-consciousness as the story unfolds in fits and starts, jumping from past to present.

(Side note: I did not notice this, but several people have committed on GoodReads that Aslam misused quotes from the Islamic holy book to fit his storyline. Once again, not something I noticed myself but something to think about.)

Others’ Thoughts:


  1. Eva

    That’s too bad it wasn’t better. 😦

    I took a Sociology of War class in which the professor had us read 1984. He had grown up in the Soviet Union and said nothing he’d found better illustrated the effects of totalitarianism.


    • Agreed. I find novels help illustrate points in history classes, which is why I’ve read Animal Farm for several classes including economics. One the one hand, I can see why he picked it because the novel does show how much of a melting pot of outside influences have shaped Afghanistan. On the other hand, the novel firmly embraces orientalism about the Middle East, which is what he discussed at the beginning of the course and he seems to be firmly against it.


  2. I got excited until you mentioned the Orientalism part and it all went downhill from there. I guess this is going on my “avoid” list, since I will probably only annoy myself by reading it.


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