I have travelled to many far away places. Never to Afghanistan but a New Zealander who is a mountaineer, polar traveler, family man, humanitarian, kayaker, skier, Head of Delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Indonesia, writer and poet through his book made me feel as though I was there with him in Afghanistan In 1976 amid the suffering of the people from the great devastation of an earthquake and then lingering with him on his return to Afghanistan for three years in a time-capsule of 1993 to 1996. A period punctuated by grave destruction to the lives of those mountain people caused by the invasion of the Russian Army that occupied the country for nine years.
In his book, Bob reminisces through his poetic eyes. He draws you into his mind by sharing so eloquently and in an elevated style his experiences of the destruction, sufferings of the mountain people caused by natural and man-made calamities and how the Afghans went about their daily lives picking up the pieces tempered with their undying love of their mountains and their cultural roots, shaped and hardened in every way by their natural environment; that to many outsiders such would seem to border on the fringe of modern civilization as westerners know it. I loved the feeling I got when I was transported back in time, not by gory pictures or sound-bytes that make media headlines but rather through the muse, that for centuries has shaped minds of these mountain people. The main theme of the book draws contrast of a once peaceful country where people were living in harmony with their mountain lands. It highlights the indomitable spirit and tenacity of the Afghans and to chronicle the tragedy and beauty from real journeys into their mountains through a medium the Afghans have used throughout their existence.
Here are some more reasons why I like this book. The order in which I tell you does not place on them any degrees of which is more importance than the other. Anyway, here it goes:
I don't get the feeling that I'm served with cooked-up stories. This comes from the authentic imagery I get from reading the contents of the book. The imagery flashes the doings of real people, in my mind's eye, interacting with various circumstances in their immediate surroundings. I cite just two of the many examples in the book as listed below:
Whisper wind, whisper higher
Over mosaic dome and silver spire
Blow on in a peaceful hush,
Don't disturb the Hindu Kush...
You pass my door
As bombs fall
You've lost all
Everything in one bag
Plastic, once leather
You walk with dignity
In worsening weather
I reach for the handle
To let you in
A tank track rattles
Your body thin
Your husband was shot
Three children blown apart
I want to say sorry
But my throats parched
How do I say sorry
When I'm riddled with guilt
We supplied the weapons
For the blood that's spilt
I try to tell my friends
What you've been through
They read and say little
It's too remote to be true
So come inside
And share my food
The whole world's stuffed
Except me and you.
I like the way the book is presented. I like his style of writing. It is soft and gentle on a flowing cadence and yet forceful. It is not threatening in any way but comes across as a genuine fire-side chat as he skillfully takes me with him down memory-lane and having the courtesy to introduce me to his many friends among them Dr Abdul Samay Hamed, Ali Haider Waheed Warasta, Alberto Cairo, Nancy Dupree, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Masood Khalili and Steve Masty that have played key roles in getting him to this point…sharing wisdom about a country vastly misunderstood. His poetry stands tall, for a linear approach would not have done the job well, for key elements that feed on soul of the Afghan people would have been overlooked. Wise decision to evoke the muse in this regard.
I like the way the book cleverly draws my attention to cultural and creative minds of the people of Afghanistan that match their love of the mountains in a poetic ensemble throughout the 125 pages. This one such instance rolls off my tongue with sweet-raspberry taste tantalizingly beautiful:
Drink wine in the citadel of Kabul
Send round the cup without stopping,
For it is at once a mountain,
A sea, a town, a desert
Found on Babur's citadel in Kabul tells how the great Mogul ruler love the city of Kabul and the mountains of Afghanistan. Clearly the books alludes to the fact that poetry runs deep in the DNA of the people of Afghanistan. Their historical roots are revealed as well.
The larger theme of the book is about how the mountains shape the people, people shape the mountains. They dominate the landscape of Afghanistan and these massive ramparts have shaped the lives, culture and the minds of the Afghan people for thousands of years.
Thus, the book gives authentic proof of how their natural environment influences their lives, culture and their aspirations. I get the sense of how one can go about bridging the cultural divide that seems to separate the east from the west. Take this instance cited in the book for what it is worth, young soldiers armed to the teeth, but keen to share their poems composed between periods of transient calmness.
The main theme and sub-theme of the book are captured alluringly in the well crafted quatrains full of tone, texture in streams of rhythm and rhymes that not only reflect sadness, joy, longing, anguish, desperations, hope, love and of course, romance that mirror the essence and spirit of these mountain people. And here, I quote you yet another extract from the book, "Acorn and the Horse" . The imagery I get from it is that of romance that bloomed in a war-torn country in the region of Turkmenistan and it is painfully beautiful. I get the feeling too that the voice in this book found his beautiful mountain flower. I have emboldened those lines that have led me to draw that conclusion. Here it goes:
An acorn plucked from a dry dusty tree
Has no meaning really
But in the crumbling mountains
Separating Turkmenistan from Iran
Symbolism is strong as blood
Now in the hand of a Kazakh women
Whose ancestors have ruled the steppes since
Chenghis galloped through with his hordes
As we strode towards the mountain stream
Shoulder to shoulder
Kazakh, Uzbek, Russian, Afghan Turkmen and Scot
Blood meant nothing at that moment
But it has been spilt for centuries
Across this very stretch of land
Once Parthian, Persian, Mongol now Turkman
Like a green acorn, a brief oasis of peace
Two green acorns were casually passed
Symbolism of cultures apart
Yours is the horse, mine the oak and kauri
Spars for ships of the great oceans
Can I not give you something for yours?
Like bridle, whip or stirrup
When you ride east and I sail south
Conquering the wandering white horses
I'm glad I read this book. It has erased my negative attitude to that part of the world through my own lack of understanding of their cultural heritage. And from reading this book which came to my home on January 2009, my sixth sense tells me that no conquering nation will ever drive these Afghan people from their lands and mountains they love, their poetry handed down to them through time in memorial. The metaphoric language in the book supports my contention and this is but one such example,
East is east and west is west
And never the twain shall meet
It was Kipling at his best
The words rang clear and deep
You don't have to be a connoisseur of poetry to find this book appealing. Also you'll find many useful gems sitting on the lines that can help one to reach into the minds of the Afghan people. The cultural route is the only way, in my opinion, to traverse their mountains, the book concurs.
This book, therefore, is a must read for all those brave men and women taking up base camps in Afghanistan. Trust me, you have to read the book to experience what I have experienced or even more; and to feel its full impact on your mind, for no amount of my words will suffice.