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Opium Season: A Year on the Afghan Frontier Paperback – Bargain Price, May 5, 2009

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Editorial Reviews


"A wrenching account of lofty hopes and bitter disappointments."--The New York Times
"One of the best books written about modern Afghanistan."--Asia Times

"Laden with urgent information and stinging political insights."-- Booklist
"His personal narrative gracefully introduces this complex and troubled land."-- Publishers Weekly
"The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 has resulted in another wretched chapter in the recent history of that volatile country. Six years after the overthrow of its fundamentalist Taliban government, chaos and uncertainty characterize daily life there. Notwithstanding elections that have led to the establishment of a nominal central government in Kabul, the country continues to exhibit all the hallmarks of a failed state. The opium trade has once again become the most important source of revenue in Afghanistan, where a combination of opium growers and the so-called warlords exercise more political and socioeconomic control than do the country’s elected officials and its government. This very readable and engaging book recounts the harshness of daily life in Afghanistan, as seen from the vantage point of an American who spent a year in the country’s rugged Helmand province for an aid organization seeking to train farmers to cultivate other crops than opium. The author, who has published articles on Afghanistan, describes in a diary format his experience of violent political intrigue and criminal alliances resulting in the murderous drug trafficking, and the impossibility of his mission, in that country. Recommended for public libraries."
—Nader Entessar, Univ. of South Alabama, Mobile, Library Journal

From the Inside Flap

Opium Season is the story of a young American working on the brutal fault line where the war on terror meets the war on drugs. Joel Hafvenstein didn’t know what he was getting into when he signed up for a year in Afghanistan’s rugged Helmand Province, the heart of the country’s opium trade. He was running an American-funded aid program with two goals: to help tens of thousands of opium poppy farmers make a legal living, and to win hearts and minds away from the former Taliban government.

The author and his friends were soon caught up in the deadly intrigues of Helmand’s drug trafficking warlords. He found himself dodging Taliban in poppy-filled mountain ravines and arguing with murderous, AK-47 toting bandits in police uniform. He saw both the stark beauty and the terrible cruelty that Afghans live with every day. At the height of his team’s success, the Taliban attacked, killing his colleagues and destroying their work. These ambushes heralded a Taliban resurgence across the country; they also showed the weaknesses in America’s strategy that continue to undermine every American accomplishment in Afghanistan.

This is a riveting story of intrigue, adventure, and tragedy at the far edge of the world. In the tradition of The Places In Between and The Kite Runner, Opium Season examines the odyssey of an American chasing a seemingly impossible goal in the midst of chaos and describes this shattered, beautiful country and its deeply divided people.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Lyons Press (May 5, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1599216213
  • ASIN: B005M4X4ES
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.8 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,010,987 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Joel Hafvenstein was born in Minnesota in 1976 but grew up in Nepal, where he picked up the habits of reckless exploration, voracious reading, and climbing to the tops of things. His family moved back to Minneapolis in 1990. Joel went to Yale University, spent a few years drifting around San Diego and New York, and eventually got an M.A. in International Relations & Religion from Boston University.

In 2000, while revisiting Nepal and trying to avoid a Maoist strike, Joel found himself in the same guest house as Fiona Mackay, a British family friend from childhood. They stayed in touch, fell in love, and were eventually married at St. Paul's Hammersmith in London in 2006, where they still attend church.

In 2003 Joel traveled to Afghanistan for the first time, sparking an enduring fascination with and passion for the country. He worked there on and off for the remainder of the decade, finally returning to the UK for an indefinite stay in 2010. Joel's first book, "Opium Season," an account of an ill-fated aid campaign in the poppy-growing province of Helmand, was published by The Lyons Press in 2007.

Joel currently works as an advisor for the UK charity Tearfund. In his spare time, he is writing an interactive novel for Choice of Games and a more traditional novel about aid work in southeast Asia.

His favorite authors include Marilynne Robinson, China Mieville, Jason Elliot, Neil Gaiman, Peter Rollins, and Raymond E. Brown. The most compelling book he's read recently has been "An Autumn War" by Daniel Abraham.

The photo shows Joel outside the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Masoud in Panjsher, Afghanistan (photo credit: Zach Warren, 2009).

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By E. Blockley on October 29, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Joel Hafvenstein's first book somehow manages to juggle the anecdotal familiarity of an autobiographical travellogue with the clinical objectivity of a historical text... somehow leaving the "clinical" by the wayside.

Most Americans saw it on the news that a group of aid workers were killed in Afghanistan in May of 2005. But if that's the extent of your knowledge about aid projects or Afghanistan, ten pages of this book could change your entire perspective on the event. Each chapter introduces you to the aid workers of Chemonics, both Afghani and foreign, with Hafvenstein's signature warmth of loving description. Every page details the near-impossibility of the glass mountain that they climb, endeavoring to help underprivileged agricultural laborers in a country where almost all of the power is in the hands of those who have a vested interest in opium. Every page is a heart-rending yet hopeful account of the unending work that they do in the face of results that may or may not, in the end, be meaningful to the people who need help the most. And as you get to know the people he introduces you to, and as you grow to truly appreciate the dragons they face, you suddenly realize that this book is a true story... and that at the end of this book, some of these characters you have grown to love will die.

Hafvenstein has immortalized for the world several lives that may otherwise be forgotten in the endlessly fickle noise of the evening news. As it turns out, they are lives well worth reading about.

And once you've encompassed the content of the book, the rest is merely a discussion of the talent of the writer. I found that this account of life and work in Afghanistan nearly reads itself...
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Louna on October 23, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This vivid memoir both tells a gripping story and demonstrates the enormous problems with the U.S.'s current approach to aid and development work in Afghanistan. Despite the best of intentions and the heroic work efforts detailed in this book, Chemonics and its Afghan workers ultimately not only failed in their attempt to provide alternative livelihoods for opium farmers but, in some cases, lost their lives in the struggle. At best, they provided a brief respite from the chaos and terror that has now returned to the province of Helmand. It's amazing that the author has retained his faith in international development and his love for Afghanistan.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By M. Gould on June 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I just retired as a USAID Foreign Service Officer after 26 years of service. Although I didn't work in Afghanistan (I just spent the last 3 years in post tsunami Sri Lanka) I have the experience to critically consider Joel Hafvenstein's Opium Season and in my judgment it is an important contribution to development literature as a personal account. It is well written and hard to put down. He has woven into the chronological account his thoughts and emotions allowing the reader to understand the personal challenges and dangers of working in Afghanistan. He has also developed a clear understanding of deficiencies of programs to reduce poppy production through cash-for-work programs. His criticisms of USAID and its politically driven agenda set by State Department are on the mark. The basic problem is that any real progress will occur over a long period of time -- too slow for the bureaucrats -- with a carefully developed and implemented strategy. Meanwhile there are hundreds of millions of dollars to be spent quickly to meet targets that have little connection to real political or social progress. Throw into this mix contractors who see a major opportunity to make a tidy profit and everybody wins --- except the Afghan people -- and the contractor staff who are so exposed as Hafvenstein describes. I should also add that although he worked for a "for profit" contractor I would expect a "not-for-profit" organization to behave not much differently. Contractors do not establish strategy -- but rather implement the programs designed by the donors such as USAID.

Opium Season is an important contribution and should be read by anyone thinking about working in a post conflict country although the general public would also enjoy it. Hafvenstein has clearly demonstrated that although he wasn't a bad administrator in Afghanistan that he is a very talented writer.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Mike B on June 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover
A very sad story, but simply and strongly written.
Mr Hafverstein worked in Afghanistan as part of a U.S. foreign assistance program to help in the development of this poor war-weary country. Mr. Hafverstein's book is written at the grass-roots level. He describes the tribulations and heart-aches of trying to accomplish development in Afghanistan. Part of the purpose of the project he was working on is to take Afghani's off the cultivation of opium and to grow `legal' crops - a difficult enough task in most countries. Their project hires people to pave roads, clean and renew irrigation canals. They employ engineers from Afghanistan and people from the local community for the manual labour. They travel far and wide through the Helmand province of Afghanistan observing many poppy fields. Eventually many internal antagonisms within the region lead to tragic consequences. As one reads - one wonders - who is using whom - are the drug lords happy that water is now reaching their poppy fields - but what about the labour that is being removed from the needed harvesting of the poppy fields.
It is not the role of the NATO forces to provide protection to civilian development groups like the one Mr. Hafverstein is working for. Therefore they need to hire protection - employing from the local police forces or the community, which is a miltia amalgam that has shifted alliances several times in the last years. This protection consists of AK-47's. grenade launchers,... Sometimes the areas where they work promise protection - they may or may not follow through.
Often these development groups do not want to be linked directly with foreign military forces, but in Afghanistan this can be a lethal Catch-22.
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