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Zen Under Fire: How I Found Peace in the Midst of War Paperback – June 4, 2013
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A human rights lawyer with some experience working in the Gaza Strip, Elliott accepted an assignment with the UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan in 2005. On her first day, she is left in charge of the office when the leader of a tribe at war with another tribe is assassinated, signaling the failure of the UN’s attempt to negotiate peace. The intertribal strife is a proxy for tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Her experience with researching human rights abuses has not prepared her well enough for the mental and emotional turmoil she will face as she confronts the perils of war and threats of kidnapping. Elliott finds comfort in friendships, particularly with the women of Afghanistan; a sometimes rocky romance with a fellow UN worker; and yoga as she searches for calmness and assurance in her efforts to bring peace to a war-torn nation. After returning home to New Zealand, Elliott reflects on the psychological and emotional challenges of humanitarian work and the importance of bolstering the spirits of those who perform it. --Vanessa Bush
"Elliott reflects on the psychological and emotional challenges of humanitarian work and the importance of bolstering the spirits of those who perform it." - Booklist
"An activist's candid account of the hardships she endured working as a human rights officer for the United Nations....Elliott describes her experiences with an open-heartedness that is admirable
" - Kirkus
"This book touched my heart, soul and intellect. Marianne is vulnerable and fearless in offering this sincere account of her experience in Afghanistan. She asks important questions and does not shy away from complex issues with no clear answers. Marianne takes the reader on an intimate journey that is raw and inspiring. I enjoyed every minute of it!" - Hala Khouri, M.A., Co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World
"This is an amazing book, kind of like if Eat, Pray, Love had happened in Afghanistan and the stakes were life and death."" - Susan Piver, New York Times bestselling author of Wisdom of a Broken Heart
"I could not put this book down...Marianne's story plunged into my heart but made me see I can make a difference, too. There is magic in these pages." - Jennifer Louden, author of The Women's Comfort Book and The Life Organizer
"In Zen Under Fire, Marianne Elliott doesn't just settle for narrating the dangers and dramas of her time as a human rights officer in Afghanistan, she displays uncommon skill in exploring the complexities and contradictions inherent in working across cultures and a rare and soulful vulnerability about her personal struggle to forge balance and find love along the way." - Lisa McKay, author of Love At The Speed Of Email
"A stark and valuable glimpse into one humanitarian's effort to bring peace to the Afghan people and herself" - Shelf Awareness
"For anyone looking for a better understanding of what it's like to live in a war-torn country, Elliott vividly explains the trials of daily life and the challenges to change in the region. It is easy to be enthralled by the perilous and picturesque villages of Afghanistan, ... both horrifying and inspiring." - Whole Life Magazine
"Elliott provides an excellent guide to the war-torn region in Zen Under Fire, taking readers by the hand and leading them into a new understanding of a part of the world that Americans know too little about." - Chicago Review of Books
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The power of her book lies in the personal stories of men and women she encounters, the tightrope she walks in helping them without losing herself. Foreign conflict goes from abstract to personal as Elliot copes with brutality and injustice, a young woman who kills herself after being beaten by her father for running off with her boyfriend, a justice system where practitioners rule from culture rather than law. We learn as Elliot learns, her present tense writing bringing us into the story.
And so I learn something about Afghanistan, abstract, faceless truths that Elliot makes real in the very people and dilemmas she faces. The book was a satisfying read not only because I learned something about the country, but because I felt something. Humanitarian work is about our humanity. To learn without feeling is easy. We have history books for that. This memoir will make you care.
I'm pretty sure Fahim is happy with the story she told. It will stay with me.
“Recounts”, though, seems the wrong word for what Elliott does. Told in the present tense, Elliott doesn’t seem to remember this time of her life in her memoir as much as re-live it, leading her readers alongside her:
“…the phone rings again; it’s a journalist from Reuters. Word of Amanullah Khan’s murder and the reprisal of the attacks is spreading. ‘How many dead?’ he asks. ‘We are hearing anything from forty to a hundred and forty.’ No one seems to know, least of all me.”
The effect is an immediacy, an urgency, in the of telling her story that engages the reader and keeps them transfixed. The reader shadows Elliott through upheavals both public and personal and the restoration of what passes for peace and calm in a country ravaged by conflict. When outward order returns, though, Elliott’s inward odyssey begins. She describes coping with the stresses and sadnesses of work, life and love in Afghanistan with disarming honesty and vulnerability:
“I try to stop crying, but it only results in dramatic intakes of breath followed by renewed sobbing. It is the first time I have cried since the day of Amanullah Khan’s murder, and now that I’ve started there seems to be no stopping it.”
Images of water recur throughout the memoir, lending lyricism to her narrative: as the tears over public and private losses, as an internal vessel that threatens to overflow with overwhelming emotions, as a literal oasis that feeds a parched countryside and as the metaphorical sustenance able to revive a waning spirit.
Elliott turns to yoga and meditation and finds in these practices a calm mindfulness that serves her as she seeks to serve others:
“It is transforming my ability to be in the presence of profound suffering without closing my heart or leaping too quickly into action. As I learn to sit with other people’s pain, I also learn to sit with my own.”
Elliott writes, “What brought me to Afghanistan in the first place was my belief in the possibility of a safer, fairer world, and in my ability to play a role in bringing that world about.” “Zen Under Fire” draws its readers into a compelling and deeply personal tale of the human impact of war and the toll that humanitarian work takes on the lives of those who choose to work on behalf of the greater good.
Elliott’s memoir is a suspenseful wartime drama, a meditation on the human condition, but above all an affirmation of the power of compassion to heal the world and heal each one of us. “Zen Under Fire” is a must-read story for anyone seeking perspective on how to find love and peace in a world – or a life – in conflict.