Tag Archives: Afghanistan



(Book Review)

While browsing at a Charity Book Sale, I found a battered copy of  A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush  by Eric Newby, which I’d never read, and knowing it was a classic, I bought it. I don’t know why, but somehow I had an ingrained  notion that it was a boring stuffy account by a military man, a leftover from the famous British Raj; and for this reason, I had always passed over the book on sale tables or library shelves. Was I ever mistaken!

Initially the preface put me off : it’s written by Evelyn Waugh and I thought : oh dear, this is going to be about two limp wristed chaps being precious about the scenery.  Wrong again. Which just goes to prove how mis-leading assumptions nearly always are.

Eric Newby received a cable from  his friend Hugh Carless (a career diplomat in the British Foreign Office) stationed at the time in Rio de Janeiro, pithily asking: CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE?  The year was 1956.  Newby – somewhat oddly – was then working in the London haute couture trade. Prior to that he’d been an army officer, and prior to that had lead an adventurous life travelling around the Mediterranean, plus time sailing.  In 1938 when he apprenticed aboard the Finnish windjammer Moshulu and took part in the “Grain Race” from Australia to Europe by way of Cape Horn.

But a mountaineer he wasn’t; so far as I could see, no experience at all, and yet his chum Carless was inviting  him to the wild mountains of the Hindu Kush, north-east of Afghanistan.

I had no idea where Nuristan was, and the maps in the book were hopeless. Whilst they showed the mountain ranges which Newby climbed, they gave no clue as to the whereabouts  of the peaks in Asia. I hauled out my giant Rand McNally Atlas and peered at the maps of North India, Pakistan, Afghanistan to no avail. I did find the words ‘Hindu Kush’ spread out over an area of North eastern Afghanistan, but the area then known as ‘Nuristan’ seems to have vanished.

Once Carless returned to England,  preparation time for the expedition was short. There was equipment and rations to buy, visas to organise, tickets to be bought. Newby’s wife accompanied them as far as Istanbul, and then reluctantly returned home – a good thing, in view of what followed.

Anyway, the two would-be mountaineers managed to squeeze in a 3 day trip to the mountains in Wales, to receive some hasty training by an experienced mountaineer, but that was the extent of their technical knowledge.  At this point I shook my head in disbelief. In the preface Waugh witters on about the charm of British eccentrics and gentleman explorers. He wasn’t wrong. My jaw dropped when I read that Newby had been unable to source proper mountaineering boots prior to departure, so off he went equipped with PLIMSOLLS (a.k.a. takkies) and unbelievably, wore them on the descent. His boots were mailed to him and never reached him. Naturally he suffers terribly from blisters due to the unsuitable boots he does manage to find.

When I think of modern expedition equipment, state of the art clothing and  kit, plus NASA space-style dehydrated foods – these two survived on tinned food, chiefly Irish stew, and on one occasions dined off a one pound tin of strawberry jam, and a tinned baked apple pudding. The mind reels.  Finding provisions en route was difficult. The area was sparsely populated, and the locals lived on very little, without much surplus to offer travellers. And when the mountaineers  did eat local food, the inevitable result was severe diahorrea.

Carless’ old and trusted cook was to have accompanied them up the mountain, but he only remained with the expedition for a short while, due to a commitment to his existing employer. Thereafter catering was a hit and miss affair. Mostly miss. Carless was completely disinterested in rations, food or cooking.

They hired a guide, plus two men, to look after the baggage and horses, (the poor old horses had a dreadful time of it, both animals and men were literally skeletons by the time they staggered out  of the area.)

In the event they didn’t succeed in reaching their goal, the summit of Mt Samir. 700 feet below the summit of 19 000-plus feet , they took the wise decision to descend, whilst they had sufficient light. And even then, it was perilous. So near, and yet so far.

En route they encountered wild tribesmen, bandits, mullahs, primitive shepherds none of whom could speak the Farsi (Persian) or Urdu spoken by the  climbers. All the local inhabitants spoke ancient  tribal dialects, and the tale is sprinkled with historical graffiti about Timur (Tamerlane) and Alexander the Great. This mind you, only 70 years ago! Nuristan at that time was beyond remote, and I suspect that the passing of time has not brought much by way of modernisation to the Hindu Kush.

When the climbers were not traversing rocky slopes or treacherous windy roads bordered by precipices, they were descending the cliffs to river valleys, watered by icy rivers , bordered by willow trees.  Apricot and mulberry trees provided fruit, wheat was grown. There were cattle, also flocks of sheep. The Nuristanis were renowned makers of butter, and bartered quantities of butter for other goods, but this meant  their men had  to cross mighty mountain passes, carrying enormous goatskin bags of butter to trade.

Reading Newby’s account is like taking a giant step back in time, maybe as distant as the Middle Ages, so far as his account of the land and its peoples is concerned. As for it being an account of an expedition, a journey of exploration, well, I’m not so sure. Part of the blurb on the back jacket says : Impossible to read this book without laughing aloud … the funniest travel book I have ever read.  (The Observer). I didn’t find the book hugely funny – most of the time I was aghast at their foolhardiness, their unpreparedness!

Maybe The Times Literary Supplement sums it up best: A notable addition to the literature of unorthodox travel … tough, extrovert, humorous and immensely literate.’

I’m definitely keeping the book, I like the fact that is battered and worn – kind of like the two men who walked over the Afghanistan Mountains.




(Not a recent read; we’re going back 5 years, and as you can see, reading her letters kept me busy for some months – but it was worth it).

VOLUME I – THE FURNACE AND THE CUP – Freya Stark, Letters;  Edited by Lucy Moorhead.

Koeberg Library, in an excess of zeal, ordered all four volumes of FS’ letters : if I persevere I might,  with effort be finished by Christmas … maybe.  The enthusiastic Librarian has gathered in eight books from all parts of Cape Town and even further afield.  Trouble is, FS writes so charmingly that I WANT to read them all, and the first volume was 294 pages: phew!  FS wrote letters on an almost daily basis to her parents and friends.  What will future biographers do in this age of quick e-mail notes?  There will be no evidence left for them to trawl through.  And FS’s letters are  entertaining and diverting, with marvellous descriptions of her travels in Syria, Persia and Palestine.  For a woman with very little money she sure got around.

LATER (one month later) I’ve now finished Volume 2 of the Letters, and thoroughly enjoyed them. FS writes like a dream when she’s corresponding with her dreadful mother (can’t think why she wrote so often to that old tyrant!) or to her father in Canada – no wonder Mr Stark fled so far away to take up a peaceful occupation like apple growing!  Volume 2 covers  the 1930s.

At one point FS is bewailing the fact she has to get a job and earn her own living!  It sounds so strange to the modern ear …. ag shame! But a reminder that prior to WWII few women did work.

There are lyrical descriptions of the Yemen – one is almost there with her so vivid (without being Technicolor) are her descriptions.  So what a disappointment to read her slender book  The Minaret of Djam : travels in Afghanistan  by Freya Stark –  although the photos were terrific as were the delicate line drawings – but not enough info or credit given to the artist – to whom she sort of attached herself while marooned in Kabul and got a two week trip in their Land Rover to Afghanistan. It’s  unclear when this actually happened; the book was published in 1970.  But reading her account I suppose it must have taken place in the previous decade.  I hated the style of this book, it had great chunks of elevated philosophizing that were written in a high falutin’ classical style – it was awful!  I got the feeling she’d cobbled up her trip notes and padded them to produce this short book either to satisfy her publisher or because she was short of money – and she was always short of money!

I suppose few people in the 60’s had been to Afghanistan so it was virgin territory travelwise and bookwise.  I was interested to read how many roads the Russians had built in Afghanistan at this early stage – I’d always been baffled by their presence in Afghanistan during the Afghan War of the 1990s but now I’ve read the book and seen the map it makes a bit more sense.  The Minaret of Djam, as per title, a fabulous building, built circa 1190,  parked in the wilderness and virtually unknown  even to this day .


I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this volume as well.  My, but she was a prolific letter writer.  One wonders if she made carbon copies or whether her recipients carefully kept her letters and returned them afterwards.

And she was a mass of contradictions: either she was roughing  it  in Arabia, flea-bitten, cold and hungry or she was in a posh sanitorium in London or Switzerland, being cosseted.  And her illnesses (I’m never too sure what they were: ulcers? colitis?  sinusitis?) lasted for years.

Along the way she found a lizard, a desert lizard, which she adopted as a pet.  Not un-naturally the poor thing died of cold (despite hot water bottles) some months after being wrenched from its nice dry, hot, Arabian desert and taken to England.  FS was heartbroken.

She writes so beautifully about the landscapes in Aden and the Hadramaut.  In this volume she continues friendships with gay men –  apparently she never really understood the concept of homosexuality.


Phew – at last I’ve finished.  Must to admit reading some of this volume with only half an eye; the other half being fixed on the return date stamped inside the book.  I’d say that FS had a “jolly good war. Based in Cairo  – what a glittering social centre it was!  FS dining constantly with Generals and the aristocracy, or giving little sherry parties for 40 people.  Because she was  British Civil Service she could buy whiskey at £2 per bottle, which cheered her up no end.

Stewart Perowne (her husband) comes across as capricious and petulant: how on earth FS could even contemplate marriage to him is a complete mystery.  They married in 1947, and never had children.  I can only assume she missed the wartime camaraderie?  FS cooed over most of the men in her orbit –  I have an idea she could be ferociously charming and flirtatious.  I think she got what she wanted with charm offensives.  She loved the aeroplane rides she cadged off the RAF (even in a Blenheim bomber!) to the great irritation of her male colleagues.

I would have LOVED to be a lady explorer like FS but alas! Nowhere left to explore these days that National Geographic hasn’t been to beforehand.


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  SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts

I bought the book in 2006 after drooling over it in airport book stalls on my 2005 Australia trip. I didn’t buy it at the time because it was literally too heavy to cart around airports and hostels.  Having  bought it in 2006 the book languished on my shelves for a year. I think I was intimidated by its sheer size.  I finally tackled it, and staggered to page 923, THE END,  Phew!

I can see why it was so popular. Lots of manly brawling and crime – hardly any sex, more about romantic love actually – plus a somewhat juvenile exposition on “why are we here, what’s it all about?” which GDR (as per his website) has now rather grandly spun into a full-blown philosophy. And of course, a full-frontal tour of Mumbai at its squalid, dirty, fascinating worst.  I’ve crossed it off my Cities to Visit List.

Best of the book were the descriptions of life in the Mumbai slums, and good works in a slum clinic, life in the Indian Mafia, insights into the war in Afghanistan, some of the character sketches.  And GDR’s realization that his father figure, Khader, had used him as a pawn – quite ruthlessly, despite all the love and devotion from GDR. It’s a big, epic sprawling book filled with colourful characters, spiced with the Indian backdrop.

GDR was a convicted Australian bank robber and heroin addict, who escaped to India and spent eight years in the Mumbai underworld, living in a Mumbai slum – so his story is based on solid experience.  However, I can’t help suspecting that some of the tales were gathered in bars, over the years, or in jail cells, and quietly woven into the fabric of the novel. But isn’t that what novelists do? Embroider reality to suit their purpose.

I was curious to see the author of this Boys’ Own extravaganza, so Googled him, and was disappointed to see a small, triangular face, big ears, and a surprisingly unscarred face, given all the beating he endured in the Mumbai jails.  I suppose it was too much to hope for that he’d look like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I had hopes …

LAST MAN IN TOWER – Arvind Adiga

I love Indian novels for their quirky characters, for their Indian-ness, but this is an Indian novelist I approach with caution.  I didn’t like his White Tiger (a much acclaimed book, his debut novel, which won the 2008 Man Booker prize: it was too brutal and too realistic for me) I like my Indian novels more cinnamon scented in a swirl of cerise saris …

Anyway, this recent novel, although dealing with moral issues, was lighter in touch, even though it displays Mumbai in all its corrupt, thrusting vitality. In short, a property developer (corrupt through and through) wants to tear down an old apartment building near the airport, and build a smart new complex in its place.  He makes the residents of the building an offer they cannot refuse, literally the fabled opportunity of a lifetime, to move on, to move up the social ladder, to become (modestly) rich!  Of course, they excitedly accept his offer – all except one man, a retired schoolteacher.  He won’t budge. Hence the title.  And the book takes off from there.

The book displays  Mumbai’s gritty, greedy, thrusting vitality. It exposes the sad truth that money can corrupt everything, even the oldest, deepest friendships are not proof against greed. Loyalty flies out of the window. We also see the immense value placed by Indian society on family; everything the characters do – or don’t do – are motivated by FAMILY. I’d never appreciated before just how family minded Indian society is. The novel also made me ponder: at what point is the struggle simply not worth the price? When should we decide to give up the fight? And another thing: at which point does a principled moral stand dissolve into a futile Quixotic gesture?

Arvind Adiga writes disturbing books.  There is no sugar coating in this one.  The ending is shocking, but hey!  Life goes on. Despite the darkness in this book, I enjoyed it.


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