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A Problematic Subject: Afghanistan in Two Contemporary Travel Accounts


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  • 1  It was my intention to discuss Danziger (Danziger’s Adventures) and Elliot’s (An Unexpected Light) (...)

1Afghanistan has long been the subject of writing by British travellers. Robert Byron’s classic The Road to Oxiana, a twentieth-century text which has influenced several generations of travel writers, focuses on Afghanistan as a place of marvels, both in terms of culture and architecture. Bruce Chatwin’s open admiration for Byron led him to write the introduction to a late-twentieth century edition of The Road to Oxiana; he also wrote a recommendation of one of the books that this article discusses – Peregrine Hodson’s Under a Sickle Moon. Although it could not be argued that Hodson paralleled Byron in Chatwin’s esteem, Chatwin nonetheless cites Under a Sickle Moon as a “classic of war-reportage,” and says that to name Hodson’s peers would be to devalue his courage and originality (i). This article argues that a reappraisal of Hodson’s work reveals little courage or originality. The other text under discussion is Debra Denker’s Sisters on the Bridge of Fire, which provides contrasts, in its strengths and weaknesses, with Hodson’s male, pseudo-journalistic approach. Despite the contrasts, Denker’s account nonetheless suggests that depictions of Afghanistan are complex and problematic for any contemporary travel writer.1

2In fact the choice of texts is a difficult one. Type ‘Afghanistan Travel’ into a search at, and one is presented with hundreds of book titles. Afghanistan has remained a focus, therefore, but the architecture which fascinated Byron and the hilarity which seduced Chatwin have given way, since the Russian invasion, to the difficulties of representing the travelling subject in the context of a political and military situation which is being enacted under the spotlight of the world’s media. The proliferation of writing about Afghanistan is doubtless a response to Western involvement in the unfolding situation there, but after a while the reader questions that the mujaheddin found time for much resistance, given the amount of tea which they were obliged to serve to weary and ill-equipped travel writers, adventurers and would-be journalists, all slogging through the passes on their way to some guerrilla warfare tourism. So, in this article, I respond to my own growing awareness that the treatment of Afghanistan in travel writing is a complex and problematic area. Afghanistan has long been the site of the lists for jousting between superpowers who have marched over civilians, heritage sites and living culture with equal disregard. As (perhaps unwilling) representatives of Western culture, how can writers such as Hodson and Denker depict their own interventions in Afghanistan as sympathetic, let alone justifiable?

3Afghanistan has been a site of conflict since before the Soviet invasion in 1979, but it is since that invasion which played on the minds of the post-Cold War observers, that contemporary travel writers have turned their attention to Afghanistan. Writers have criticized the Soviets during the occupation, guerrilla forces during the civil war, and the Taliban after it, as well as British and US imperialism; writers have also struggled with Afghanistan as a subject, however, because there seems to be no obvious dialogic between the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sides of the argument. The political and military situations have been fractured and complex, and establishing this as the context for a linear narrative of travel is not easy for a writer with a Western readership. Groups and individuals praised by some writers for their resistance to the Soviets become the warmongers and woman-haters of a later traveller’s account. In addition, there is no resolution to the Afghanistan situation (unlike the possible narrative closure offered by the fall of the Berlin wall, for example), and writers are obliged to force an ending which has some sense on a narrative level, but which does not appear to be abandoning the story half-way through. This article examines the contrast to be found between the two writers in question, both in the approach to the subject matter and the textual strategies they use to get around the difficulties of representing Afghanistan. The article will examine the writers’ justification of their presence in what is, after all, a war-zone. It will examine how authority is established over such a complex subject matter, how aspects of religious or other cultural identity are elided in order to represent certain groups or individuals as morally sound. This will also involve a discussion of margin and centre, as developed from Derrida by commentators such as Homi Bhabha, as they relate to Afghanistan and the West. Finally I will look at the vexed question of how to end an account of travel in Afghanistan and the idea that closure in travel narratives is forced to abandon the wider moral issues in order to depict escape for the individual subject.

4Motivation for travel in Afghanistan takes a different form in each of the two texts; different motivation demands expression through different strategies. It is a trope of travel writing that the writer explains to the reader the long-held dream of reaching a certain destination, following in someone’s footsteps, visiting a distant tribe. It is rare that a travel writer expresses a long held wish to be bombed by MiG aircraft, to walk across minefields, to be beaten up by rival gangs of militia.

5Peregrine Hodson admits to no motivation at all. The suggestion in his introduction is that he is dissatisfied with reports from Afghanistan which are ill-informed and “undramatic” (3). He also suggests that he is concerned at the plight of three million Afghan refugees who had fled their homes by 1984. His response is to approach the Sunday Times and to offer to write a report on “the People’s War.” He doesn’t say which people. The Sunday Times, ever correct, issues letters of accreditation, presumably because the mujaheddin leaders will be keen to cooperate with the Sunday Times. And Hodson heads off to sort it all it out, get the truth and the drama, and plans to be back at work in September.

6Denker’s motivation is totally different. Adopting the stance that Western practices, war-making, tribalism and the rule of the dollar are not the way to inner peace, this self-proclaimed ‘healer’ from Los Angeles heads to Afghanistan, where war-making, tribalism and the rule of the dollar are more in evidence, perhaps, than anywhere on earth. As far as Denker is concerned, she has the best of intentions, for her readers and subjects. She spends the early part of the book, recounting travel in Afghanistan in 1983, convincing the mujaheddin and others that she might one day write for National Geographic, and that they should, therefore, “open up.”

7Whatever their motivation, each writer faces problems with justifying first their presence in, and more significantly their attitude to Afghanistan. The West is not usually portrayed to itself as being sympathetic to Islam, except as far as Muslims are seen as proud holders of local tradition reacting to the McDonaldization of the planet or defending their homeland against the threat of Communism. Despite both writers being sure that the Russian invasion is inexcusable, the detail of life among the mujaheddin, or even among the urban civilian population in Khabul reveals unease about some of the practices of what are perceived as brave freedom fighters, and victims of global politics, respectively. The first thing these writers do is to establish for the reader that they have a better global understanding of the situation than the brave, but by implication naïve, freedom fighters on the ground. One of the mujaheddin asks Hodson about coverage of the Afghanistan war in the world media: “when I tell him, he is crushed with disbelief. I try to explain that Afghanistan is a distant country” (119). Hodson is aware of the relationship between Afghanistan and the rest of the world, and makes his knowledge clear by ‘explaining it’ to Afghanistanis. Despite his promise to write an account of “the People’s War,” Hodson spends his time trying to get the people to shut up. In the case of one mujaheddin fighter who walks beside Hodson and talks incessantly, Hodson responds to a request to take the fighter’s photo by saying “I will take your photo if you stop talking to me” (28). This is emblematic of Hodson’s approach – he is willing to offer snapshots, but his text presents a version of his troubles and frustrations, rather than of “the People’s War.”

8Hodson is confronted with the problem that he doesn’t think that the people are very nice. Early in the book he “saw how the mujaheddin sometimes considered themselves superior to the people who fed them and gave them shelter. It was an uncomfortable revelation” (28). By the end of the book, convinced of his own superiority, he is critical of anyone who will not help him, conveniently forgetting that he is not a member of the mujaheddin and that he is by now escaping homeward. As he asks accusingly of one man, “surely he had a religious duty to help the traveller?” (198).

9For the rest of the time, Hodson tries to overcome these problems by eliding cultural difference when it suits him. When the bombs fall, a mujahed explains that the men run for shelter but the women have nowhere to go because they cannot leave the walls and the house (15). Hodson, keen to valorize the freedom fighters, allows this to go uncommented. Equally uncommented are the arguments that America and the West are degenerate, and that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution will change everything for the better (63-4). On several occasions he depicts himself explaining to the Afghanistanis that Christianity and Islam are very close (92, 105, 137). This is partly to offset the Muslim claims that Hodson is the representative of a degenerate society, but also partly for the benefit of the reader, whose response to the mujaheddin and their mullahs Hodson is trying to manipulate. The argument goes like this: if Hodson can demonstrate the proximity of Islam to Christianity, he can hold off the reader's moral judgments about the (Muslim) mujaheddin. It is this judgmental response which he fears will destabilize his relationship with the mujaheddin, thence raise awkward questions in the mind of the reader. Questions involving the extent to which Hodson benefits from the social hierarchy which sees his mujaheddin companions assume pre-eminence over women and non-militant villagers. Hodson is keen to be identified as being attached to this superior caste. On the other hand, he is so aware of his own dislike for some of the characters that he is unable to identify completely with them, and therefore leaves a moral lacuna between what he argues is normal, and what he knows is uncomfortable both for himself and the reader. At the same time, Hodson resorts to offsetting the culturally uncomfortable encounters through his physical descriptions of the mujaheddin. The ones who don’t argue have “simple innocent faces.” Those who are dislikeable or annoying are “stoat-like” (36), show the “obvious effects” of inbreeding (171) or are “wolflike” (67).

10Denker’s approach is somewhat different from Hodson’s – she seems to want to give the Afghanistanis a voice. However, she buys into a similar attitude to his when she attempts to gain access to the homes and lives of the Afghanistanis buy telling them “maybe someday I can write for National Geographic Magazine” (73). The implication is that the rest of the world does not know what is happening, and that they are incapable of telling it. Denker’s account is full of the claims to authenticity which abound in this kind of text. She is ready to see ‘truth’ everywhere, and elides religious and cultural differences in order to suggest to her readers, and the mujaheddin, that humans are all the same under the skin. On the other hand she is happy to admit some differences between the war-stricken villagers and herself, adding “my destiny is different – I am a wordsmith” (100) as though her much-touted gift with the typewriter led directly to her being born outside a war-zone. At this point she has had nothing published, but the narrative is as much concerned with her development as a writer as it is with the plight of refugees, commenting that her article on the regime in Afghanistan is “a good article” (51) because she has done her research. Denker describes her emotional response to many things, and attempts to make her account equally emotive. She seems to think that if the Afghanistanis shared their emotions with her a little more, then they would be closer to resolving their problems. Because of this, she valorizes characters who do show emotion, particularly towards her.

11Denker’s textual strategies are based on two criteria: being a woman, and having some gift for understanding. These, in her mind, allow her to sidestep the problems posed by her identity as an American tourist. She criticizes other tourists, and despite the ambitions as a writer that she outlines, is at pains to point out that she is not in Afghanistan for profit. Typically, therefore, she separates herself from other Westerners, using the trope that they look but do not understand, as in her own description of herself taking photographs of women in traditional headdress: “The picture will have fine composition, and will be much better than the pictures taken by many Western tourists” (71).

12Despite her claim to be seeking sisterhood, she goes as far as importing her western ideas of romance to the men she meets. This extends to exoticizing the characters, one of whom looks like “Omar Sharif playing a sophisticated playboy” (47), and describing another as an “Afghan Cary Grant” (23). It remains to be seen whether purdah, civil war and international refugee status will feature in the remake of I was a Male War Bride. Instead of being a tourist, Denker dreams of living in Afghanistan; “I see us falling in love, making love, getting married, living in this beautiful city. I become a famous novelist, travelling occasionally to America to see family and friends and sign book contracts” (54). Her friend points out that the man in question is soon to be married and that Denker should not get too attached. Denker’s response ducks the issue, and focuses on another aspect of her naïve response to the situation: “I am glad to have a woman with whom I can discuss the agonies and joys of love” (55).

13I now turn to an aspect of these accounts which is crucial to an understanding of how the writers position themselves. The issue is that of marginalization. Criticism of travel writing, taking its lead from post-colonial theory, has often identified the strategies used by many writers to identify themselves as coming from a centre to the margins. In the case of Afghanistan, both Denker and Hodson make it clear that the centre is either America and England, or more specifically London and Los Angeles. The problem facing them, having identified Afghanistan as marginal and worth bringing to the attention of the centre, is that once identified alongside the mujaheddin, they are also marginalized. At times they collude in this marginalization in order to underline their uniqueness. At others, they attempt to re-centre themselves through recourse to strategies which ally them with the West, rather than with Afghanistan – that “distant country.”

14Hodson is an interesting example of this. Working from his first name, Peregrine, he adopts the name ‘Baz’, which means falcon. He makes a conscious effort to fit in with the mujaheddin, buying similar clothes and eating with them. In the course of the narrative, however, he is marginalized by a series of conversations which destabilize his position of power. He is asked how he can possibly hope to understand the war: “It’s all right for you. Look at the war, take some pictures and leave. What do you understand about it?” (51). This is uncomfortably close to Hodson’s own comment about the press response to Afghanistan quoted at the start of this article, and a trenchant criticism of his own actions. As the narrative continues, he becomes less willing to slog alongside the mujaheddin. He slows them down through weakness, and demands a horse, despite the fact that the other men are carrying heavy loads on foot. On long climbs in the mountains he motivates himself by listening to the Brandenburg concertos on his Walkman, claiming that there is “an instant transformation” of the scenery when he does so. In an unthinking attempt to present the Western cultural canon as universal, he offers the Walkman to a fellow climber, and claims that a similar transformation takes place. Hodson is not interested in staying in Afghanistan; the manner of his leaving will be discussed at the end of this article. As far as questions of centre and margin are concerned, Hodson remains umbilically attached to the idea of ‘home’ and ‘return’, and, unlike in Denker's account, the reader is constantly confronted by the idea that Hodson in Afghanistan is a man temporarily out of place: marginalized, but only until September.

15Denker is perhaps more sensitive to marginalization. She is aware of the problematic relationship between American tourists and the subjects of their gaze. She is insecure and exhibits a desire to belong, and to be accepted. To this end she tries to place herself at the centre of people’s lives, and is constantly hoping that they feel about her as she feels about them. She is in fact in the tourist’s position of privilege, stating for example: “traditionally in a village, women would eat separately and after the men, but because I am a foreign journalist who wants to tell their story, my companions break many traditions for me” (27). Like Hodson, there is no comment on the treatment of women, except when Denker decides to adopt Western values rather than Muslim ones. She passes no comment, accepting for example that purdah is the price of respect from men. This makes a lot easier her decision to convert to the Muslim faith. Although she claims to want sisterhood with Muslim women, she has throughout the book been fantasizing about a Western version of Islam which would allow her to do as she likes. She would thus maintain a privileged position among her Muslim sisters, whilst feeling that her marginalization from the West is a self-chosen one. When she converts, she writes that “some women, I know, are angry, bitter, and jealous of my freedom” (242). Perhaps the ones in purdah, for example? Denker has the opportunity to walk away from the elements of Islam which she doesn’t like – hers is a consumer Islam. The mullah offers to help her to learn the namaz prayer, and Denker reports “being a busy and impatient American, I record a tape of the call to prayer and the entire namaz” (242). Here she uses her attachment to the centre to excuse her treatment of the marginal as a faith and lifestyle supermarket. She is, in the final account, unwilling to let go of the centre as America, and admits during a bombing raid that “writing keeps me centred” – an unwitting admission that her view of the relationship between the West and Afghanistan is a function of her status.

16The final question for each of the authors is that of closure. How does a narrative end when events being narrated do not end? This is less problematic for the novel, especially in the postmodern era. For the writer of the travel account who wishes to be seen as master of the narrative, it is problematic to admit that one's narrative authority ceases at the same point as one's experience. The consequence is that the political and military situation which Hodson's book, for example, sets out to clarify at ground level, has to take a back seat to the partial, unstable, unreliable narrative of personal experience.

17The close of Hodson’s book is a crass, selfish piece of writing. By the time the narrative ends Hodson is ill, and desperate to get out of Afghanistan. Any pretence at mediating between the cultural and religious differences of the West and Afghanistan are over. Hodson meets two other journalists and gives a statement which could have been from Galton's 1872 The Art of Travel: “Chance encounters with fellow countrymen are one of the hazards of travelling. If one happens to be English the risks are considerable” (147). Revealing his desire to remain sole mediator of Afghanistan to his readership, and unwilling to represent himself in comparison with other Westerners, Hodson's critical attitude goes into overdrive in the company of the other journalists. Passing through Nuristan, he comments “nice countryside – pity about the people” (179). He describes a Nuristani as having “ignorance and unintelligence written deeply” into his face (183). Finally, he hires the services of a young boy to guide him through the pass to safety over the border. It becomes clear that, despite his claim that “if people in Britain got off their backsides more, the world would be a better place” (148), Hodson is only concerned with saving his own skin, and reaching medical treatment. As the narrative develops it also becomes clear that the boy is ill; he struggles to walk; his clothes are covered with blood and faeces. The following passage details Hodson's response to the situation:

We had no idea where the pass crossed over into Nuristan; only the boy knew where it was. He was on the verge of unconsciousness and for a quarter of an hour I had to shout and bully him into giving us directions. His mouth was thick with saliva and several times I had to ask him to repeat himself. At last I understood enough to have a reasonable idea of the direction we needed to take. His eyes had closed again and when I put some money into his hand his fingers remained motionless” (168).

18Hodson’s concern with his own flight overrides all other elements of the text. Having established that Afghanistan is a place of danger and personal trials, he wants the reader to be focussing on his own physical state, and the difficulty which he has reaching medical assistance for himself. His attitude to the Afghanis by this time seems to be simply that his needs take priority, and he is appalled at the hardship which he is suffering. In this passage, Hodson ignores the “people’s war.” He abandons political commentary as well as observation of the individual level at which suffering takes place, in order to establish the truth and ‘drama’ of his own narrative and its closure. On his escape over the border, a colleague says to him “you’ve had an exciting trip! [...] You’re lucky – often nothing happens. Go in, take photographs, do interviews, make film, come out again. Simple” (190). Hodson clearly wants the reader to appreciate the irony of someone thinking that his trip has been a simple one, and himself ironizes the idea that what he has experienced could be classified as ‘a trip’, rather than ‘travel’. My reading, however, sees only the irony of thinking that the closure to this narrative, eliding the boy’s suffering in order to privilege his own, could be seen as “exciting.” The epilogue to Hodson’s book notes that he was admitted to hospital suffering from hepatitis. There is no mention of the boy, or what he did with the money, or how his health fared in a mountain pass, abandoned a long way from medical supplies in a country which had already produced millions of refugees from the population who, like Hodson, were capable of fleeing. I read this as a particularly unpleasant attempt to focus the narrative onto the physical aspects of Hodsons’s journey. His aims, stated at the start of the book, are no longer referred to. He is not interested in breaking down the ignorance he has noted between Afghanistan and the West. The more he can depict the subjects of his book as sub-human and not worth bothering with, the more he can narrow the focus on the end of his narrative, so that, through the lens of his account, his escape is all that can be seen. Afghanistan, its people and their war, disappear from view.

19Denker’s ending is less violently disagreeable. She returns to Afghanistan as a National Geographic writer, in the company of photographer Steve McCurry. Her narrative ends with satisfaction, noting the fragile security of the interim government in the early 1990s. She is happy that 14 million subscribers read her work on the Afghanistan refugees. At the time of her writing, she could not foresee the rise of the Taliban, but rightly notes the significant absence of mujaheddin leaders at the international peace talks which preceded the Russian withdrawal. The period of the Taliban attacks on Khabul is dealt with by Jason Elliot in his book An Unexpected Light. There is no space to discuss that book now, but I recommend it as a tonic to what I have identified as the more self-serving aspects of these two texts. The problems which I have identified in Denker’s texts remain at the close of the narrative. She still allows cultural difference to go uncommented, even when it seems to contradict her own attitude to human rights. The problem for Denker is that the view of herself as an insider would be destabilised if she turns a Western humanitarian eye on some of the practices of the traditional cultures which she tries to adopt.

20Denker’s exit from Afghanistan is a temporary one, and the close of her narrative is more elegant than Hodson’s, as it allows for the possibility of return, and acknowledges that the narrative of Afghanistan continues whether she is present or not: “In real life,” she says, “stories have no ending” (327). In this sense she escapes the accusation of saving her own skin, and insists on updating her readers, at the end of the book, with news of the key characters from her narrative. This puts her back in control, but is gracious enough to avoid total focus on the self, and to admit to the importance of other individuals than the narrator.

21To conclude, I would argue that the particularly complex situation in Afghanistan since 1979 poses particular problems for the travel writer. Imperial involvement in Afghanistan makes any Western commentator’s presence an uncomfortable one to justify, and the speed of development of the situation makes any narrative unstable. Although written within the last twenty years, both of these books are hopelessly out of date. This is not the fault of their authors, but is unfortunate when both attempt to write with a tone of supreme authority. They spend much effort on trying to convince the reader that their accounts are not partial, not filtered, and set themselves against other writing, particularly journalism, which is perceived as having these faults. The issue of depicting an Islamic society to a Western audience, and, unusually, making its most militant members the heroes of the account, is a difficult one, and leads to lacunae in the moral set-up of the narratives. Some cultural aspects, for example the role of women in Islam, have to be elided in order to make this the case. Finally, when the representation of the personal hardships of war are described, both authors struggle to continue the identification with the mujaheddin. At points, the veneer cracks and it becomes clear that they are tourists with cameras, or typewriters, as Holland and Huggan would have it. They are both guerrilla-warfare tourists, both have means of escape, and both turn against characters who question their reasons for being in Afghhanistan; the interrogation of motive and understanding is often too close to the bone. Some of the weaknesses which I have identified in these accounts arise directly from the relationship between colonial power and pawn, centre and margin, however the role of the travel writer is dressed up as an information service. The opposition of Muslim freedom fighters and communists makes it difficult for the Western writer to identify themselves unproblematically with one side in the conflict. The attempt to do so leads to contradictions and instability of the narrative. It is easy to condemn journalistic accounts, but the reader of travel writing should be wary of allowing any writer to claim higher ground; the problem of representing Afghanistan is equally present for travel writers. In many accounts of Afghanistan, the attempt to claim higher ground is the moment of departure through mountain passes. Literally and metaphorically therefore, it is only a means of escape.

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Byron, Robert. The Road to Oxiana. London: Macmillan and Co., 1937.

Danziger, Nick. Danziger’s Adventures; From Miami to Kabul. (1992) London: Flamingo (HarperCollins), 1993.

Denker, Debra. Sisters on the Bridge of Fire. (1993) Tucson: Schaffner Press, 2001.

Elliot, Jason. An Unexpected Light, Travels in Afghanistan. (1999) London: Picador, 2000.

Hodson, Peregrine. Under a Sickle Moon. (1986) London: Abacus Press (Penguin), 1988.

Holland, Patrick, and Huggan Graham. Tourists with Typewriters. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

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1  It was my intention to discuss Danziger (Danziger’s Adventures) and Elliot’s (An Unexpected Light) accounts of travel in Afghanistan, but Denker provides such a foil to Hodson that I decided that one English macho male accompanying the mujaheddin across the mountains would be plenty for one article. Hence instead the discussion of Denker – an American self-proclaimed new-age female accompanying the mujaheddin across the mountains.

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Référence électronique

Kerry FEATHERSTONE, « A Problematic Subject: Afghanistan in Two Contemporary Travel Accounts », E-rea [En ligne], 3.1 | 2005, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2005, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.609

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Arts Council England and Leicestershire County Council
Kerry Featherstone, B.A., Ph.D. est responsable des activités de promotion de la culture littéraire dans le comté de Leicestershire (Arts Council England and Leicestershire County Council). Ses recherches portent sur les liens entre récits de voyage et mondialisation. À paraître : Writers and Their Work – Bruce Chatwin (Northcote House 2005).

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