Tag Archives: Afghanistan

In Search of a Treasure in Afghanistan

Books for the Arab World in Troubled Times


Minaret of Djam, Afghanistan
Minaret of Djam, Afghanistan

Destination: Afghanistan

Book: The Minaret of Djam: A Journey Into Afghanistan by Freya Stark (Org. publ. 1970; new paperback, December 2010 released by Palgrave MacMillan)

Another in our series of places that we would like to visit in the Middle East, if the world were a bit more peaceful. Last year in a series on classic travel books, I talked about A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. This book takes place just south of Eric Newby‘s adventure.

Freya Stark (1893-1993) is eminently quotable, and since The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion in Afghanistan (The Freya Stark Collection)<imgstyle=”border:none!important;margin:0px!important;”src=”http: www.assoc-amazon.com=”” e=”” ir?t=”atravelerslibrary-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1848853130″” border=”0″ alt=”” width=”1″ height=”1″> is a rather brief book, fairly easily explained, I think I’ll quote her a lot. She starts right off in the introduction of this book, which was first published in 1970 when she was 77, with a thought about changing times.

…In twenty years, or ten perhaps, these adventures will seem nearer to the Dark Ages than to the Space Age and their memory will be that of the antique; and this journey, of a kind which I rejoin in only you do not know, will be a little monument to your love and goodness…

Minaret of Djam, Afghanistan
Minaret of Djam, Afghanistan

Stark sets out on a road trip with three other travelers  in a Land Rover to fulfill her goal of seeing the 65-meter high, 12th century minaret that stands in the remote center of Afghanistan. For as you learn in the geography of her circular journey, the ‘corners’ of Afghanistan are not remote–the cities of , Kabul, Herat and Khandahar (and the far northern Mazar-Sharif which is not part of this journey) stand on the edges around the remote mountainous interior.

She regrets the fast-moving changes that come over once-primitive lands, but she traveled to many “unvisited” places, uniquely as a woman and alone. Her specialty in life was to visit the Arabic lands.

Stark writes poetically, at a leisurely pace. She describes the people and places she is visiting in vivid, if complex detail. Then she veers off to thoughts of political striving, and geography.

Geography is behind trade, and trade is behind history, and this sequence should ever be remembered..

She ponders history, agriculture, architecture, religion, the British Empire,  and perhaps because she is getting older, the meaning of life and nearing death.

She had been ill for eight, as I had for three, years; we both knew the emancipated feeling of a world whose fountains had so nearly closed..A sense of fragility has been with me every since.

I am, unfortunately, accustomed to skimming, because I have so many books to read. But Freya Stark will have none of that. She trips me up if I rush and makes me re-read each sentence until it sinks in, or until I get the joke.

The bridge at the bottom had been psychologically built of solid stone for reassurance, unlike the usual cantilever that, when its time comes, likes to die with a lorry in its arms.

The group finally reach the Minaret of Djam, once the center of an enormous city. The minaret, now called Jam, has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and indeed should be one of the wonders of the world.


Detail of Minaret of Djam
Detail of Minaret of Djam

Its whole surface from top to bottom is covered with rectangles, lozenges, stars, knots and fancies of deep-cut tracery in the hard-baked earth which the Islamic art of the eleventh and twelfth centuries knew how to handle to such purpose…..Otherwise the whole slender structure stands as its builders saw it, eight centuries passing over it as over the Sleeping Beauty, with little except the rustle of the poplars and the voice of birds and water to disturb its sleep.

The Minaret dates to the 12th century, before Ghengis Kahn and the Mongols rode into this land.

Stark is regularly listed as one of the best travel writers. Several months ago we visited the coast of Turkey with her, she leading us with Herodotus Histories in her hand. In 2009, The London Times on Line picked Freya Stark’s A Winter in Arabia as one of the twenty best travel books of all times. See their list of best travel books and my reactions.

Disclaimers: Photos come from Wikiphotos. Click on them to read more about the Minaret of Jam.

The publishers gave me the book for review. If you would like to have it–subscribe to the blog and tell me in a comment that you have done so and why you want this book. I’ll draw a winner on April 2.(U.S. residents over 18 only.)


Old Movie Echoes Short Walk in Hindu Kush

Destination: Afghanistan

Movie: The Man Who Would be King

When I told a friend about the book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush which we discussed a short time ago at A Traveler’s Library, he said, “Have you seen the movie, The Man Who Would Be King?  It sounds like the same journey, but with very different results.”

How right he was!

I promptly rented The Man Who Would Be King, a buddy road trip movie on steroids.  What a line up! The original story by Rudyard Kipling intrigued director John Huston who planned in the 1950’s to film it with Humphrey Bogart and later considered Redford and Newman.  But by the time he filmed it, in 1975, he took Newman’s advice and cast British actors Michael Caine and Sean Connery. With those two, it had to be good.

Huston borrowed scenery from Morocco and France to create an awesome backdrop representing northern India and Afghanistan. (Pakistan played itself). The scenery, along with lots of local color, pretty much sinks the feeble story line.  Since people in 1975 generally knew even less about Afghan culture than they do today, Huston got away with a grand mishmash of costume and custom. The great Edith Head got an Academy Award for the costumes, and the scenery and set decoration came in for recognition, too.

As for the relationship to A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby and his buddy were crossing the Hindu Kush in the 1950’s to reach Nuristan–a remote province where residents descended from Alexander the Great.

In the movie, the two former British soldiers in the late 19th century set out on a con game to become Kings and wealthy in the fictional province of Kafiristan. (Kafir being the native troops who fought for the British Empire in India) I learned from a comment left at IMDB.com that towns mentnioed in the movie were actual towns in Nuristan.

So Newby and Kipling were writing about a desert-crossing-mountain-climbing road trip to the same exotic locale.  Except Newby did not find a religious citadel full of riches.  And despite his hardships, he came out in much better shape. (The make up artist did a real number on Michael Caine. That’s all I’m going to say about that.)

Classic Travel Lit: Eric Newby

Afghanistan Mountains

Destination: Afghanistan

Book: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

Newby’s work is on everybody’s list of travel literature not to be missed. I read a 1999 edition of the book, and the link here takes you to a Lonely Planet reprint.  The original 1973 edition is out of print. Newby also wins praise for the book, Love and War in the Apennines,  about his war time experience in Italy.

The self-effacing Newby tells his story in the framework of a humble ill-prepared would-be adventurer (himself) who joins a much more experienced friend in an exploration of northern Afghanistan.  During the trek described in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1973), they will be following the path of Alexander the Great, and they will see reminders of Tamerlane’s journey through the same mountain passes.  This expedition takes place in the late 1950’s when very few outsiders had ventured into the area and relative peace prevailed, except for age-old grudges between tribes and cold war nervousness. Today, Al Qaeda hides in this rough country which still cannot be reached by motor roads.

Newby and his friend Hugh, who turns out not to have the great expertise Newby thought he possessed, survive the fool-hardy adventure by sheer stiff-upper-lip fortitude.  One of the joys of the book is the subtle unmasking of Hugh, the alleged expert in expeditions, and the wry repartee between the two friends.

Being products of the British education system, they bring a knowledge of history and more than average language fluency to the task.  Living as they do at the tail end of England’s glory days as master of a far-flung Empire, they have a sense of built-in superiority over other races and cultures.  Their attitude toward the natives reeks of a kind of master-slave sensibility.

The British traditions of forbearance of hardship, however, keep them going as they sleep on bare, rocky ground, endure meals of packaged Irish stew and helpings of jam, and constantly suffer from dysentery that forces them to duck behind the nearest rock. They sustain the hardship,  knowing they are going where few have gone before and seeing amazing landscapes and interesting cultures.

Newby supplements the narrative with diversion of history–both of the native people and of explorers who trekked this way before.  He reproduces dialogue and captures word pictures of the passing scenes.

With Afghanistan once again at the top of American attention and our generally abysmal ignorance of geography, this book provides useful background. If, on the other hand, you are of the opinion that people who try to climb up sheer rock walls for fun have a screw loose, you probably should read something else.

Photograph by Alan Cordova, from Flickr, Creative Commons license

By the way, what book do you think these explorers took along to read (and re-read many times, it turned out)? The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Which brings up an interesting question. If you were venturing into the unknown, what would you take along to read?