When Peace Corps volunteer John Sumser was briefly taken captive during the 1978 Communist coup in Afghanistan, the headline over the San Jose Mercury’s reporting of the story read, “San Josean seized as spy in African coup freed.”
Afghanistan, a Central Asian nation, has a considerably higher profile in America today than it did in 1977 and 1978 when Sumser was there teaching English. The reason is that it’s been a place of almost unceasing conflict since the 1978 coup—conflict manifest most recently in the United States’ overthrow of the Taliban in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and an insurgency against the current government and occupying NATO forces that continues today.
When Sumser first arrived in Afghanistan, however, the nation was hardly synonymous with armed conflict. In fact, in the book published this year relating his experiences there, A Land Without Time: A Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan, Sumser recalls that the Afghan soldiers who detained and interrogated him didn’t even know how to throw a punch when they ineptly attempted to brutalize him into confessing to being a spy.
“No one,” Sumser says in a recent telephone interview, “could be afraid of an Afghan in those days…They walked around and talked about themselves as warriors but no one ever took it seriously. But anyone can learn.”
During the almost 30 years of violence that have engulfed Afghanistan since, its people have clearly learned to fight. And Sumser fears that’s all the world knows of Afghanistan after so much strife; his book, he writes, aims to combat his fear “that Afghanistan is becoming less the name of a place and more the name of a war.”
So, while A Land Without Time includes an account of Sumser being detained, beaten and threatened with a pistol to his head, the episode does not consume the book. In fact the scene is striking because it contrasts so boldly with the ably conveyed congeniality and curiosity that characterizes most of Sumser’s encounters in the city of Kabul and outlying areas in which he worked. By the time a reader gets to the point where Afghans are rudely interrogating a stranger on a street without even exchanging greetings or pleasantries, Sumser’s captors’ lack of decorum is as disconcerting as the detention.
The first three quarters of A Land Without Time relate events ranging from Sumser’s flippant decision—prompted by Sumser and another volunteer taunting each other with chicken noises—to spend his Peace Corps stint in Afghanistan to his hard-earned lessons in how to comport himself as a teacher in an academic environment where being friendly to students dishonors the entire faculty. Along the way, Sumser integrates himself with Afghan culture, internalizing the glacial pace of winter life by drinking tea, talking little and huddling in a circle with other residents of the northern town of Kholm to keep warm during the depths of the cold season. By the time of the coup, Sumser has shed his destination-obsessed American persona and become the sort of person who stops for hours to watch a game—a variant of Chinese Checkers played on sand with pebbles—simply because he has never seen it played before.
Sumser, who finished a master’s degree in philosophy and a doctorate degree in sociology upon returning to the states, now chairs the communications department at California State University, Stanislaus. He describes his research into mass media and culture—“determin[ing] how conceptual frameworks are spread around a society”—by saying, “I talk to people who watch TV and…see how they use TV to make sense out of the world.” In particular, Sumser examines the role that visual stereotypes play in television, how representations are set up “so we can determine people’s moral worth by what they look like.”
When he looks at what’s being shown on TV of Afghanistan, Sumser, as someone possessing more than a passing acquaintance with the place, didn’t like what he saw. In the introduction to A Land Without Time he writes, “The photos show us that there is almost nothing left of this country, making it hard to imagine that there was ever anything before this period of pale brown destruction and thin-fingered desperation.”
Sumser says supplementing the stereotypes being created by American news and pictures from Afghanistan was his objective in transcribing stories from his time passed there. He seeks to “round [Afghanistan] out so that people realize it is a place and not just a disaster,” he says. “That’s all. That’s my lofty goal.”
John Sumser reads from and signs A Land Without Time: A Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan at 7 PM on Thursday, July 27, at Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton.