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Episode 301


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Posted by Mary Ann

Khaled Hosseini is a singular writer. And Afghanistan is such an absorbing topic, some of the world’s finest writers have turned their attention to it. Here’s a list of seven books, some by Hosseini, some by others, about this troubled country. 

Hosseini’s first book was his 2003 novel “The Kite Runner.” This heartbreaking story follows two boys, one wealthy, one the son of a servant, through several periods of Afghanistan’s history. It pulls no punches about the difficulties faced by people in this troubled country, whether they still live there or have emigrated, as one of the protagonists in the “Kite Runner” eventually does.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” likewise tells the story of two Afghans, but this time they are women. As with “The Kite Runner,” it involves an act of enormous self-sacrifice. Also like “The Kite Runner,” it shows how Afghanistan’s enormously violent history has affected the individuals who still call it home, whether they still live there or have migrated elsewhere. 

Afghanistan seems to be one of those places particularly affected by geography and history. When I read about its troubles through the words of a writer of Hosseini’s talents, sometimes it’s almost too much to bear – I look for insight through books about its troubled history.

A couple of books come to mind.

One is “The Great Game” by Peter Hopkirk, a 1992 book about the 19th century power struggle between Britain and Russia for political supremacy in Central Asia. This book recounts the war between Britain and Russia for control of this remote location during the 19th and 20th centuries. Britain felt enormously threatened by Russia’s expansion in that area, and embarked on a series of mini-wars with Russia for control of the region. Kirkus Reviews said of this book: “Hopkirk, former Asian affairs specialist for the London Times, packs his narrative with enough death, double-dealing, and derring-do to keep a TV miniseries surging along for months.”

What does this book tell us about contemporary history? For one thing – invaders of Afghanistan often don’t end up faring very well. A second book I’d like to mention, which just came out, is called “Return of the King: The Battle for Afghanistan” by William Dalrymple.

Dalrymple is an India-based Brit who knows more about that part of the world than most living humans. I read his book “Nine Lives,” about nine different people from different religious backgrounds and faiths in India, and just adored it.

“The Return of the King” tells the story of the first Afghan war, in which Britain invaded Afghanistan in 1839 and established a puppet king. The Afghan people got riled up, and despite being greatly underequipped, managed to rout 4,500 British troops, who, along with about 12,000 camp followers, tried to leave the country. May I just say that this does not end well for the British. Over, and over, and over, countries seem intent on invading Afghanistan, and then realize what a tiger by the tail they’ve taken on. Many writers have highlighted this theme, but Dalrymple’s homegrown perspective and ability to tap primary sources not accessible to other writers make him unique.

Moving on from history into more contemporary times, I have heard good things about “An Unexpected Light,” a sort of travelogue/commentary by Jason Elliott. A devotee of Afghanistan’s history since he first traveled to the country at age 19 to hang out with the mujahedin, who were then fighting the Soviet invaders (guess who won), Elliott is an intrepid traveler, to put it mildly;, traveling by car, horseback and foot, among other things. He’s one of those folks you as a reader occasionally want to yell at – Turn back! Turn back! – as they make some kind of foolhardy decision. Often those foolhardy decisions yielded great stories, and he survived to tell the tale.

Finally, I want to mention three books that tell the story of Afghanistan from the perspective of its relationship with America:

Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower:” is a book I have mentioned before, but it is the go-to reference for the story of how Al-Qaeda grew and flourished in Afghanistan.

“War” by Sebastian Junger, a writer I particularly admire, tells the story of a remote American military outpost in the fight against the Taliban, where at the point of the publication of this book in 2010, 42 American soldiers had died. The Korangal Valley,” Junger explains, “is sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too ­remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off.”

The New York Times reviewer wrote that Junger uses the platoon (the second of Battle Company, part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade) as a kind of laboratory “to examine the human condition as it evolved under the extraordinary circumstances in which these soldiers fought and lived. And what a laboratory it is. The men of Second Platoon are young, heavily armed and crammed together inside a tiny mountain outpost supplied by helicopter and surrounded by enemies determined to get inside. Indeed, there aren’t many places on earth where such intense and bizarre circumstances could be duplicated.”


Finally, it is sometimes hard to retain a sense of humor in such conditions – how’s that for an understatement! – and a woman’s voice and perspective is mostly lacking in these books. But Kim Barker’s “The Taliban Shuffle,” a memoir of her reporting as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in Afghanistan, manages both.

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