James A Michener was fortunate enough to spend some time in Afghanistan in the 1950s … before the communist coup, before the Soviet invasion, before the rise of the Taleban, before the civil wars. This book, written in the early 1960s, i.e. still before all those tragic events, is set in Afghanistan in 1946 – a year which isn’t particularly significant for the country, but’s significant in that it falls into the brief hiatus between the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War, and also just before Indian/Pakistani independence, and is told mainly through the eyes and voice of Mark Miller, a young American diplomat.
I’ve often thought that Afghanistan would be a fascinating place to visit, although not, sadly, under the present circumstances. It sounds so exciting. The Khyber Pass, the Hindu Kush, the North West Frontier … and, yes, all right, I know that that sounds like a very Victorian British viewpoint, but the Victorian British image of Afghanistan was a hell of a lot more interesting and positive than the image we’ve got now, after the country’s suffered so many years of turmoil. Mark Miller also finds Afghanistan fascinating. There are some uses in the narrative and in the blurb on the back of words like “civilising” and “barbarous”, which grate on the modern reader, but Mark Miller is an intelligent young man who speaks Pashto and is interested in Afghan culture.
It must have been an intriguing posting for all the staff at the western embassies, who, in the book, form a community in Kabul. The diplomats are all men and the secretaries are all women, but this was the 1940s, and maybe it was particularly exciting for the women, whose lives would have been more restricted than those of the men, to be there. They’re unable to socialise much with the local people, due to restrictions imposed by the Afghans themselves, but they are able to see and learn quite a lot about the country – a country which is on the brink of major change. The Americans and the Soviets are jockeying for influence there, and there are mullahs eager to see an increase rather than a decrease in the role of Islam in Afghan society, but the general feeling in the book is that change is going to be a positive thing – technology which will improve people’s quality of life, and improvements to the status of women. There are also mentions of these changes already taking place in neighbouring Persia/Iran. You could cry when you think how things actually did turn out, but that’s not relevant to the book.
Ellen Jaspar, a young American woman who left her all-American, middle-class suburban life to marry an Afghan man, sees it differently. In every era, you get people who want to get away from their society and find something that they see as truer, or more natural, whether through trying to get closer to nature in some way, or living in a commune, or trying to revive some sort of “folk” elements of their own society’s culture which they think has been lost. People who do this are often presented positively in books, but Ellen’s not a very pleasant character. She’s very scornful about the life she’s left behind, and she’s then left her Afghan husband to run off with another man, without contacting her family and friends back home, who are frantic with worry for her, for nearly a year. When Mark Miller eventually catches up with her, he can’t even persuade her to write home: it’s left to him to contact her parents and tell them that she’s safe and well.
However, where it’s easier to empathise with Ellen is in her wish for freedom and to get away from mundanity, and indeed modernity. Don’t we all feel like that sometimes? She’s joined a group of nomads, and Mark Miller, for a time, joins them too. He also feels the freedom, and the fascination of being somewhere completely different, completely foreign – something that it can be very hard to find in these days of global culture and English being the universal language, and wasn’t that easy to find even 70 years ago – and in a culture which, sadly, may be under threat. But Ellen wants rural Afghanistan to stay as it is, with no change even if that change would bring great improvements to people’s lives, and Mark knows that change has to come, and also that he, in time, has to go home.
It’s so difficult … because it is so sad to see traditional ways of life being lost for ever, and progress, to use a very Victorian word, inevitably brings that about. There are some wonderful heritage centres and living history museums in many places, but they can’t compensate for what’s been lost. But would you want to stop progress? Can you want to stop progress, if you know that it could bring great benefits?
There’s also a sub-plot involving a Nazi doctor who’s somehow got to Afghanistan from Germany and is hiding out there, but the book is mainly about Mark Miller and his experience of Afghanistan. It’s quite dated now, but that perhaps makes it all the more interesting, because of what we know now lay ahead for Afghanistan. Very interesting book.