Saturday, June 16, 2012

Five top books on foreigners in Afghanistan

Sandy Gall is a British journalist, author, and former news presenter. He has written several books about Afghanistan and made three documentaries about the country during the Soviet War. Sandy Gall and his wife also set up the Sandy Gall Afghanistan Appeal charity, which provides support to people who have lost limbs in combat.  His latest book is War Against the Taliban: Why It All Went Wrong in Afghanistan.

With Toby Ash at The Browser, Gall discussed five notable books on foreigners in Afghanistan, including:
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
by Eric Newby

.... Why A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush?

Well, it’s terribly funny. I think Eric Newby is one of the best travel writers Britain has ever produced. I love reading this book. I’ve read it two or three times, and each time I fell about laughing. He writes terribly well. Evelyn Waugh actually wrote the preface to this book thinking it was by another Eric Newby, and ended up admiring this one. The book is about Newby and his young diplomat friend who went off on an expedition to Afghanistan [in the 1950s] with the intention of climbing Mir Samir – the highest mountain there – although neither had any experience of mountaineering or had even used a rope before. But they were young, fit and enthusiastic and they very nearly got to the top.

I think it’s one of the funniest books in the English language. It’s also about a breathtaking expedition – they were terribly brave. Newby wrote some marvellous books, but I think this one is his best.

There’s a wonderful episode in it when he bumps into the rather more serious explorer Wilfred Thesiger. At one point Thesiger turns to Newby and says: “England’s going to pot. Look at this shirt, I’ve only had it for three years, now it’s splitting.”

The whole Thesiger meeting is very, very funny. When Newby and his friend blow up their inflatable mattresses, Thesiger says: “You must be a pair of pansies.” It’s a wonderful end to the book – Thesiger striding up the path towards them and then they all camp out together. I’ll defy anyone to read this book and not find it both enchanting and hugely funny. Several laughs a page and beautifully written.

How much has this part of Afghanistan changed since the 1950s, when this book was written?

It’s still much the same. They went up the Panjshir Valley, which I know very well because that was where Ahmad Shah Massoud was and we filmed him there. So I would say it has changed very little since Newby wrote his book. There is a nice new tarmac road running through the valley that the Americans have built, but basically the people are the same.
Read about the other books on Gall's list.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is one of Don George's top ten travel books of the 20th century.

--Marshal Zeringue