Friday, October 06, 2006

A literary guide to Afghanistan

Thinking of a (non-Rumsfeldian) visit to Afghanistan? The idea isn't as crazy as you might think.

Ann Marlowe writes in Salon that, outside the war zones and Kabul, "after six trips to Afghanistan and visits to 42 other countries, I'd say that the 10 Afghan provinces I've visited are no more dangerous than rural South America or Africa, places that routinely attract determined visitors." Besides, the country desperately needs your tourist dollars.

Marlowe discusses several examples of travel writing about Afghanistan, including her favorites: Peter Levi's The Light Garden of the Angel King (1972) and David Chaffetz's A Journey Through Afghanistan: A Memorial (1981). Obviously dated, these books nevertheless sound like very interesting reading for those of us too chicken to make the trek to the region.

Marlowe also makes an anti-elitist pitch for James Michener's Caravans (1963), which is set in Afghanistan in 1946. She writes:

I'd avoided reading this early Michener novel for years for stupid snobbish reasons, and when I picked it up this spring, I found that some of the scenes were set in the very province I was going to visit, Zaranj, which Michener traveled through in a long trip to Afghanistan in 1955.

Caravans isn't the packaged late-Michener multigenerational saga, but a surprisingly nuanced and unpredictable thriller that morphs, awkwardly, into a love story. But in addition to the evocative descriptions of large swaths of Afghanistan, Michener offers fascinating cameos of Afghans in the first generation of modernity. Unlike Levi and Chaffetz, whose encounters tend to be either with the working class or with officialdom, Michener introduces his hero to Afghan professionals and aristocrats.

The hero, Mark Miller, is employed in the American Embassy in Kabul, which allows Michener some set pieces about diplomatic life, but the book gains momentum when Miller makes his way to Kandahar, Zaranj and back up through the central mountains of Afghanistan. At the start he's on an official mission to track down missing American beauty Ellen Jasper, and later, he's part of a nomad caravan crossing Afghanistan's central massif.

What separates Caravans from the rest of my long shelf of books on Afghanistan is sex. There's almost no inkling in most of those books that this activity exists, though the family sizes in Afghanistan argue otherwise. And in an instance where the '50s seem surprisingly liberal, not only is the missing American woman married to a progressive Afghan, in fact an Afghan too progressive for her, but Miller has a sweet affair with the teenage daughter of the nomad chief. (This being 1963, it's his first sexual experience, too.)

Michener covers almost as much ground as Levi and Chaffetz, also on foot or horseback, with much of the action set in the now-embattled south. Miller's trip across the desert from Kandahar through Helmand province--a very dangerous place that produces a third of the world's heroin--to Zaranj is not on the tourist route today. (I flew into Zaranj from Kabul.) But Caravans also features mullahs who attack and spit on unveiled women in the street and a public execution, thankfully no longer a part of Afghan life. Partly through his encounters with these experiences, Miller changes and grows up in Afghanistan. Like Levi and Chaffetz, the young Michener suggests that Afghanistan is not merely a good place to get lost.

Click here to read Marlowe's essay.

Ann Marlowe is author of, most recently, The Book of Trouble; click here for a synopsis of the novel and here to read an excerpt.

Other items in Salon's literary guide series include:
A literary guide to Louisiana
A literary guide to Australia
A literary guide to Norway
A literary guide to Turkey
A literary guide to Japan
A literary guide to Martha's Vineyard
A literary guide to West Texas
A literary guide to Togo
A literary guide to Brooklyn
A literary guide to Miami

--Marshal Zeringue