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Thursday, October 6, 2016

October 6, 2016: AmericanStudying The Americans: Afghanistan

[Earlier this year, I belatedly but excitedly got into The Americans, the FX drama about two KGB agents (the great Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) living in deep cover as a married couple in Reagan’s 1980s America. It’s a wonderful and very AmericanStudies show, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy five issues and themes to which the show connects. Leading up to my latest Guest Post on another set of pop culture texts and questions!]
How four kinds of cultural texts can help us understand the impossibly complicated, vital 20th and 21st century histories of the US and/in Afghanistan.
1)      80s Action Films: As I highlighted at length in that post, both James Bond and John Rambo found themselves in one of their respective 1980s exploits fighting alongside the Mujahideen (and against the Russians) in Afghanistan. Besides inducing squirms in American audiences when we realize that Bin Laden and company might as well as have been the friendly and brave Afghan allies with whom Bond and Rambo serve, those elements of these films help remind us of both the shifting realities of war and, most importantly, of our undeniable presence and influence in even the communities and histories that feel most opposed to our own national ones.
2)      The Americans: In many ways the Afghanistan plotline in the show, which took center stage in season 3, offers precisely the opposite lesson: a reminder of what both the war and the US/Mujahideen relationship looked like from the Soviet perspective. When we meet a particular Mujahideen leader whom Elizabeth and Philip Jennings turn to their own advantage, he’s a violent extremist, one perfectly willing to turn on his “allies” if he believes they’re not as pure as he. Yet the show’s depiction of the war isn’t just about this alternative narrative of the Afghan resistance—we also learn (SPOILERS) that Philip has a son serving in the Soviet military there, giving the war a very different, human link to this American character and family.
3)      The Siege: I said most of what I want to say about Ed Zwick’s uncannily prescient 1998 film in that post. Here I’ll just reiterate that by making the film’s terrorist villains an Afghani group who had been trained, funded, and then abandoned by Annette Bening’s CIA agent (and the agency as a whole)—yet a group who remain explicitly villainous—Zwick and company succeed at complicating and enriching the conversation about Islamic terrorism and the Afghan histories to which it connects far more fully than do most depictions in American media (or politics).
4)      Afghan American authors: No conversation about the US and Afghanistan would be anywhere near complete without engagement with how Afghan American authors and artists represent those histories and issues. One such author, Khaled Hosseini, has become of the most popular and prominent 21st century novelists, which is of course a good thing but also could be a limiting one if he became the solo representative of a broad and diverse community of figures and voices. So the more we can also read Tamim Ansary’s West of Kabul, East of New York, and Qais Akbar Omar’s A Fort Of Nine Towers, and all the writers collected in the anthology One Story, Thirty Stories, among many others, the more we can make sure this conversation is as multi-vocal as it needs to be.
Last AmericansStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other AmericanStudies shows you’d highlight?

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