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Book Review: Lonely Planet Afghanistan

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It's your chance to finally wind through its highways, stroll through its cities, sleep in its mosques, dine in its chaikhanas, buy burqas in its boutiques, smoke hashish in its poppy fields, pluck pomegranates from its orchards, and hopefully return home – alive. Lonely Planet recently launched its first travel guide on Afghanistan.

During the '70s, Afghanistan (actually Bamiyan) was a fashionable stopover on the overland hippie route between Istanbul and Goa. Lonely Planet missed the scenic nation then. (Although it partially covered the region in its Central Asia guidebook.) Afterwards it was too late. The Soviets bombed the mountains and left behind an underground countryside of landmines. Their successors, the CIA-financed mujahideens, started a civil war, burnt the villages, bombed the cities, raped the boys and paved the way for Taliban's emergence. Those new Islamist rulers, trained in Pakistan, could not turn the Hindukush mountains into the desert of sixth century Arabia but they tried everything else in the Book which they fancied would make their country as close to what Medina was in the times of Prophet Muhammad. The zeal was admirable. Barbers were tortured, kites were banned, ‘immoral' women were publicly executed (view this Taliban execution), and 1500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas were reduced to rubble.

That nightmare ended but the night hasn't. The rape of Afghanistan continues. The southern part of the country is reeling under Taliban’s resurgence. The squabbling of warlords is wrecking the rest. Foreign workers are routinely kidnapped and killed. President Hamid Karzai depends on private American commandos for his personal security. The U.S., U.K., and Australia advises its citizens against non-essential travel there. In such a backdrop, why did Lonely Planet come out with a guide on Afghanistan?

Perhaps it is because of Paul Crammer, the guidebooks’ coordinating author who grew with the romance of The Man Who Would Be King. Mr. Crammer backpacked in the Muslim world from " Casablanca to Kashgar", and ended up as a tourist guide in Morocco, Turkey, and Pakistan. He has covered Afghanistan in Lonely Planet Central Asia, and once dined with Taliban ministers during the last months of their regime. He now runs a successful travel website – Kabul Caravan. This book appears to be the consequence of this man's infatuation with what is possibly one of the most dangerous places in earth.

But the task of understanding the beauty of a place and its people need not depend on the adventures of a few possessed romantics. In these times of terrorism when we usually get our ideas of a faraway culture by ideology-tinted coverage of foreign media, it is important to peel off the clichés and prejudices to uncover the truth on our own. What better way to do that than to travel? Afghanistan, as this book reveals, is quite different from what is usually written about in Time or Newsweek.

For instance, the society there is often criticized for keeping its women under shrouded chadors but how many of us are aware that for many Afghan women wearing a burqa is a means to increase mobility and security. Burqa-clad women might appear faceless and voiceless to non-Muslim eyes, but it does grant her an anonymity and protection against harassment and rape. Indeed, traveling to these ‘wild’ places and meeting and talking to the people there humble us to acknowledge that this vast world has many dissimiliar and diverse customs from 'our way of life'. Each unique to the soil it sprang from.

Many foreigners also have an impression that the Afghanistani women are an oppressed lot with no independent ideas on romance, passion, and sex. It may not be completely true. Try listening to landay, illicit love poems composed by Pashtuni women. Sample this:

    May you turn into a riverside flower
    So that I may come on the excuse of taking water and smell you.

The next one is raunchier:

    Call it romance, call it love, you did it
    I am tired now, pull up the blanket for I want to sleep.

We never get to know about these facets of Afghanistan's culture even though there have been a splurge in books on this newsy region. Could it be because these books are so predictable? After all, every U.S. or Europe-based Saira, Khaled, or Yasmina, lucky to have even a tiny Afghan strain flowing in their blood, gets a book contract. Not surprisingly, the scope of their memoirs (or fiction) is usually limited to the ‘trauma’ of growing up in a violence-ridden Kabul or Kandahar where mothers are chattels, fathers are tyrants, and everyone else is a Muslim fundamentalist. Of course, these are attractive themes custom-made to satisfy a westerner's cherished idea of Afghanistan.

Lonely Planet Afghanistan is an exception. Real and biting, the book hits you with its immediacy. Like a poetry collection which spares you the nonessential prose, it goes straight to the vivid beauty of this haunting land – the Ka Faroshi Bird Market of Kabul with its narrow lane lined with stalls selling birds, the stunning minaret of Jam looming up in the mountains, the 800-year-old tile-mosaic mosque of Herat, the orchards of Panjshir valley, the blue domes of Hazrat Ali’s shrine at Mazar-e-Sharif, and the dilapidated cafes of Kandahar decked with posters of Indian film stars. There are also snappy and succulent accounts of Afghanistan experience by authors and journalists like Christina Lamb and Tamim Ansary.

However, the most poignant Afghanistan destination, other than the ruins of Bamiyan Buddhas (and Kabul's newly-opened Coca Cola bottling plant), must be the OMAR Landmine museum. Exhibiting more than 60 types of landmines littering the Afghani countryside, a visit to this museum in Kabul provides a context to the hundreds of amputees any traveler would see during the course of her Afghanistan travel.

The travel to this unstable nation obviously entails risk. The sweet person talking to you could be a Taliban kidnapper; the road barrier could be the work of bandits; the next step in the hike to the Nuristan mountains could trigger a landmine blast. Life is always on edge in Afghanistan. This book, like any responsible Lonely Planet guide, clearly warns:

    Only you are responsible for your safety, so it's absolutely essential that before considering a visit you assess the security situation from reliable, up-to-date sources.

Perhaps it is too tough a calling. Perhaps you may just want to use the book for armchair traveling. Perhaps that’s not a bad idea.

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About Mayank Austen Soofi

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • Firoz Bakht Ahmed

    MASS (Mayank Austen Soofi Singh), a huge mass of love and humanity reminds me of Ram Mohammed D’Souza. Had it been “Mayank Austen Soofi Singh”, it would have been a blockbuster! Neverthless, this young man is an enlightened mind free of any presumptions, biases and hypocrisy. Soofi can be the logo of interfaith harmony movement. Refined and reverberating, Soofi has given a new life to Delhi, human rights and interfaith concord through his inimitable writings. At least I have become his ardent admirer and follower. I hope, he stays the same way. Aameen!