The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, August 31, 2006


Rory Stewart has been getting a bunch of press recently for his almost simultaneous publication of two fairly remarkable stories: PRINCE OF THE MARSHES, recounting his year as the British administrator of the southern Iraqi region of "marsh Arabs," and THE PLACES IN BETWEEN, telling the story of his solo walk across Afghanistan right after the U.S. invasion in 2001. I just finished PLACES and found it a little sad but, more interestingly, nowhere near as enlightening about Afghanistan as a relatively obscure albeit very similar book from several years ago, Jason Elliot's AN UNEXPECTED LIGHT. Both tell of the lone man's travel on foot across Afghanistan, where he encounters a country that in many ways lives precisely as it did centuries ago except with Kalashnikovs, both are narrated by people who seem to fall in that netherworld between eccentric and dangerously deluded, and both give some time to discussing how the warlordism that still dominates Afghan politics looks like on the ground. But Elliot's book, I felt, had far more to say about Afghanistan. This is interesting, because Stewart clearly was more comfortable interacting with ordinary Afghans: he speaks most of the languages, and he does a nice job talking about some of the customs of daily life that he relied upon (such as the sacred host-guest relationship). Elliot, though, took more time both to elaborate upon the historical roots of the ethnic divisions that characterize the nation (Stewart tends to view these through the lens of an ancient travel narrative by a bygone king named Babur, which is itself kinda cool) and how those divisions determine the politics of the nation.

Both of these books pale in comparison to my all-time favorite travelogue/historical discussion of a relatively obscure (for us) part of the world, Rebecca West's brilliant, overstuffed BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON. That book--almost 1200 pages--is a narrative of West's travels in Yugoslavia in the late 1930s. Although its politics are a little disturbing (she hates the Nazis, but doesn't have much good to say about several of the South Slav ethnic groups), it's got that encyclopedic thing I so love.


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