The Widow’s Husband
In 1839, the British marched into Afghanistan, overthrew its king, and occupied Kabul. Three years later, the entire British community tried to flee Afghanistan over the Hindu Kush mountains, but only one man made it. The Widow’s Husband is a historical novel set against the backdrop of this First Anglo-Afghan War.
Other novels have been set against this historical background, but they have told the story from the British side. The Widow’s Husband is the first to tell it from the Afghan side. The protagonists are from the tiny village of Char Bagh: Ibrahim is the spiritually tormented headman, the Malang, a mysterious mystic, the headman’s nervous, djinn-haunted wife Soraya, and his charismatic sister-in-law, the widow Khadija.
The novel moves from the secluded world of Afghan peasant women—a world never before portrayed in commercial fiction—to the lush fortresses of Afghan rebel lords, and the labyrinth of Kabul’s Grand Bazaar, and those British compounds where, almost to the end, the chandeliers continued to burn and the memsahibs to host amateur theatricals as an Afghan insurgency kept mounting unnoticed outside the compound walls.
What is a Malang?
The malang of Char Bagh is a pivotal figure in The Widow’s Husband. What is a malang? Muslims in and around Afghanistan believe that once in a great while, God plucks some simple soul out of the grooves of everyday life and transforms him into a living embodiment of devotion. When this happens, woe to the man’s wife and children, his friends and familiars, for a malang loses all interest in the comforts and entanglements of clan and tribe. If he was a farmer, his crops go untended. If he was a merchant, he just walks away from his store, never caring that thieves might plunder the merchandise. If in a crowded bazaar you see a ragged, even naked, man with disheveled thickets of unkempt hair muttering incoherently to himself, you can be pretty sure you are looking at a malang. If you feel insecure about your standing with God Almighty, this is your chance to make up ground. You can touch the malang, you can seek his blessing; perhaps get an amulet from him. A malang will never go hungry so long as there are slackards in the world who need to make up for their spiritual shortcomings with redemptive charity. A malang is both like and unlike those revered Islamic mystics known as Sufi sheikhs. As the modern-day Sufi Abdul Hayy puts it: both are intoxicated by God, but the Sufi sheikh is someone who can hold his liquor.
In the 1830s, the British were consolidating their empire in India. Russia, meanwhile, was expanding south. Afghanistan lay between these two forces like a nut in a nutcracker. The British intervention began after Russian envoy appeared at the Afghan court, seeking trade agreements. The British ordered the king of Afghanistan to expel him and receive no further emissaries from the Czar. When king Dost Mohammed Khan balked at taking such orders, the British decided on regime change. They found Afghanistan easy to conquer—it took mere weeks. “The Dost,” as the British called him, fled north. A compliant new king, Shah Shuja, took the throne. The “forward policy” as the British called it, seemed successful. But when the British puppet lost control of his country, the British found themselves facing a mish-mash of tribal armies and no clear enemy to fight, much less any single leader with whom to negotiate.
The central characters in The Widow’s Husband are fictional but some real historical figures appear in these pages.
Alexander Burnes was the British spy chief in Kabul. As a young man, Burnes traveled through central Asia and wrote a book about it. He charged with rooting out conspiracies and foiling Russian agents in the country. He spoke local languages, affected Afghan dress, and considered himself quite an Afghan expert. On November 1, 1841, he assured the governor of India that Afghanistan was entirely pacified. “All is quiet from Dar to Bathsheba,” he wrote. Three days later, a mob dragged him out of his house and killed him.
William Hay Macnaghten headed up the mission in Kabul as Her Majesty’s envoy. He was to install the British puppet and consolidate his rule. Once the job was done he would be recalled. Burnes expected to succeed him and may have minimized the insurgency in order to hasten Macnaghten’s departure. After Burnes was assassinated, Macnaghten asked the Afghan chiefs to meet him and negotiate a gradual, orderly British withdrawal. A battle broke out at the meeting, and the chiefs killed and indeed beheaded Macnaghten.
Shah Shuja was one of many, many grandsons of the Afghan empire-builder Ahmad Shah Durrani, usually regarded as the founder of Afghanistan. In 1801, Shah Shuja attacked and blinded his own brother in order to seize the throne. He ruled until 1809 when he himself was toppled (by another brother) and fled to India. There he lived on a British pension until 1839, when the British brought him back to Kabul and put him on the throne again. He was assassinated in 1842, almost immediately after the British fled.
Wazir Akbar Khan , son of the ousted king, Dost Mohammed Khan. As the insurgency against Shah Shuja and his British sponsors mounted, young Wazir Akbar Khan emerged as a dashing hero among the Afghans. He led the attacks against the British in Kabul, but he was never the leader of a united Afghan force. After the British escaped the city, Akbar died in mysterious circumstances. His father may have had him poisoned, fearing his ambitions and his popularity.
Praise for The Widow’s Husband
“… a lavishly detailed and unfailingly engrossing story of loyalty, custom, honor, and love… This is historical fiction at its page-turning best…”
–Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner
Before the U.S. began its war on terror I had never given much thought to Afghanistan, thinking of it as the question to a Jeopardy answer: … And now, even more than when The Kite Runner was first published in 2003, Afghanistan is heavy on our minds. Afghanistan is not simply some sand-filled land in Far-Far-Away. It is a country rich in history and culture, a country that has often been the victim of invasion and conquer. In The Widow’s Husband, Tamim Ansary focuses on the 19th century British invasion of Afghanistan and the chaotic, unsettling results upon the Afghan people … The Widow’s Husband is a study in how easily different cultures can misunderstand each other and how easily those misunderstandings can turn to violence…
There are many strengths in this novel. Ansary switches between the voices of the Afghans and the British in a way where you can hear the cadence of each accent in your head as you read the words on the page. The characters, particularly Ibrahim, Khadija, the malang, and Oxley, a British soldier, are fully realized. Ibrahim is a well-developed protagonist. He is a case of contradictions, on the one hand devoutly pious, a man who would rather read poetry or his holy book than fight a neighboring village over necessary water. On the other hand, he is surprisingly indifferent towards his own wife while harboring love, and lust, over his widowed sister-in-law. There is a certain realism, a poetic correctness in the ending, even if it was not the ending I wished for.
If you are interested in 19th century Afghanistan history, in British invasions during the Empire years, or you simply wish to read a story about love, yearning, and struggle in the face of adversity, you will enjoy The Widow’s Husband.
— Meredith Allard The Copperfield Review
“…kept me up later than I’d planned—I had to finish it! A fascinating immersion into 19th century Afghanistan, its village life and its invaders….”
–Charlie Varon, author of The People’s Violin and Rush Limbaugh in Night School