If there has been any upside to the war in Afghanistan, we can say that at least it has led to a barrage of books on the country. Kind of makes you wish the US would invade Turkmenistan next.
Downside is that quite a lot of these books are as much about the US as they are about Afghanistan, and a lot of books would not have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for the war.
2 fantastic books that are mostly a mix of Afghanistan and Iran are in the Silk Roads books section: The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, and The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier.
Rory Stewart does more or less the same thing as Jason Elliot (reviewed just below) at around the same time (turn of the millennium). But while Elliot takes cars, hangs out with foreigners and mostly stays in Kabul, Stewart actually travels. He walks across the country in the footsteps of Babur, and stays with locals. He lets them speak. He makes a significant archaeological discovery. His opinions are honest, straightforward and well-formed.
It is a gripping adventure story, edifying at every step. Highly recommended.
Elliot is a good writer but not that much of a thinker. His views of Afghanistan are very romantic, and the book is a lot about him. His travels are exciting, but compared to The Places in Between, they fall flat. It is definitely not a book without merit, but The Places in Between is just so much more.
Levi, a professor of poetry/archaeologist/Jesuit priest, travels with a young Bruce Chatwin to uncover Afghanistan’s cultural treasures in the late 60’s. Sounds interesting enough, right? Sadly, Levi does not have the storytelling talent of Chatwin, and it turns out be a very dry account of places and archaeological finds. Some nice quotes, but otherwise, really had to push through it. Too bad: it could have been so much more in the hands of a different writer.
A travel writing classic from the 50’s, this is not a very good book. Newby accomplishes nothing, and writes about Afghanistan with typical colonial disdain. His humor might have been a bombshell in 1958, but it is not anymore. To avoid.
Looking forward to reading this one, so not a review…
Another classic from Nancy Hatch Dupree, the authority on Afghanistan. The Road to Balkh is a book about a travel in peaceful times, when Afghanistan was the most developed country in Central Asia, one that saw many tourists on the Hippie Trail to India.
History, Culture and Politics
I haven’t read any of these books – this is just my reading list based on a day’s worth of research on the topic.
If you only read one thing about American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, let it be this book. Rashid is also the author of the authoritative Taliban.
Scratch that. If you only read one book on American policy in Afghanistan, let it be historian and master-storyteller Dalrymple’s retelling of the British defeat in Afghanistan in 1842. After documenting the story of Britain’s invasion and retreat, he draws a shocking amount of parallels with the situation in the early 2000’s.
The best of the new crop of histories of Afghanistan, it does a great job of informing the reader about the many tribes of Afghanistan, the rulers, conflicts, economies,… while lightening up the narrative at the same time with interesting asides and comparisons, making this a juicy history. A drier, fact-dense history is Martin Ewans’ Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics.
Although this is a guidebook from the 70’s, this remains one of the most complete and interesting looks at Afghan culture and history by an accomplished archaeologist and anthropologist, discussing otherwise rarely mentioned parts of Afghanistan.
This book, about the 1980s arming of the mujaheddin by a rogue US Congressman, often comes recommended as it is a fascinating story. It is quite tendentious and not so historical, though nothing can detract from the baffling story and personalities.
Written in the 1970s, it remains a classic. Afghanistan gives the reader an insight in life in Afghanistan from the Stone-age until the Russian Invasion. At 700 pages, this is the best and most complete introduction to Afghanistan.
This bestseller from 2002 will probably stand as one of the defining pieces of reportage of the period in Afghanistan. Seierstad stays with a bookselling family and records the shocking events she sees. In the same vein are the books by Hamida Ghafour and Cristina Lamb.
A sobering literary statement to the horrors of war set against the backdrop of the Soviet destruction of Afghanistan. Also recommended from the same author: The Patience Stone, an unapologetic novel about a woman’s life post-Taliban.
An epic novel spanning 30 years of the Afghanistan conflict. At times grim, Aslam writes with a powerful voice and manages to convincingly portray the psychology of extremely different characters.
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
The New York Times bestseller, adored by millions. Also adored by millions: 50 Shades of Grey, Dan Brown, Britney Spears. People need to read more. This is worse than a Turkish soap; riddled with cliches and foreshadowing and a clunky, sickening plot. I’m not linking to this.