Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Creating the ‘Idea’ of a Country: The ‘Afghanistan in World Literature’ dossier

Fabrizio Foschini 27 min

How do foreign literary works shape attitudes towards Afghanistan and Afghans? That is the subject of this dossier which brings together AAN reports from its ‘Afghanistan in World Literature’ series. Over the years, we have written many pieces on this subject, spurred not only by a passion for everything related to Afghanistan, but also by the need to unveil to readers and fellow researchers the prisms through which we too have been taught to view the country and relate to it. These occasional reports have looked at works of literature from the early nineteenth century onwards, written by Britons, Indians, Germans, French and Americans. This dossier expands the scope of these pieces with new, dedicated introductions, in the hope that as a whole they will remind our readers, and ourselves, that ‘new’ knowledge is never entirely new, and ‘old’ knowledge never entirely past.

Brochure of a 2010 exhibition at Babur Gardens in Kabul.

Afghanistan observed, Afghanistan imagined

The importance of European written sources for creating the ‘idea’ of Afghanistan has long been acknowledged and researched. Travel accounts, military and administrative colonial reports and later journalistic and ethnographic texts, have all played a pivotal role in shaping the way Afghanistan has been imagined, understood and dealt with across the centuries.[1]A balanced appraisal of the possibility of using colonial sources for ethno-anthropological purposes is given in Charles Lindholm, “Images of the Pathan: The Usefulness of Colonial Ethnography”, … Continue reading To a large degree, they still do. How much fictional literature has contributed to popularise and perpetuate images of Afghanistan has received less attention and may easily be underestimated.

During alternating periods of outside attention and oblivion, Afghanistan and its inhabitants have been popular material for authors of fiction from around the world. From the early 19th century and for over a hundred years, writers’ sources were largely the ‘news writers’,[2]This is a reference to the British colonial military and civilian functionaries who were charged with writing down reports of what they had heard about affairs inside Afghanistan from their native … Continue reading soldiers and agents of the British Empire and the gazettes and memorandums they produced.[3]Against the backdrop of the more sensational military and diplomatic confrontations of the Great Game, local literary works, such as the older poetic or mystical classics and folk tales from a mostly … Continue reading Right up until the mid-20th century, the difficulty of traveling to the country was considerable, and by the time it became – briefly – easier, much of the previous wave of interest in reading and writing about the country had subsided.

Hollywood superstar Errol Flynn preparing to play the Pashtun, Mahbub Ali, in the 1950 film version of Rudyard Kipling's 1901 novel “Kim”. Photo: copyright Veronica Murphy Mazzola.
Hollywood superstar Errol Flynn preparing to play the Pashtun, Mahbub Ali, in the 1950 film version of Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 novel “Kim”. Photo: copyright Veronica Murphy Mazzola.

The world’s interest in Afghanistan was rekindled from the late 1970s onwards by coup, Soviet invasion and war – all of which also meant that direct access to the country was again off-limits. information was obtained through a new class of politically-motivated middlemen and fixers, or by resorting to the old, often colonial, classics. Works of fiction on Afghanistan have thus largely interiorised and embellished many of the politically-motivated leitmotivs first expounded by its would-be colonisers and their eulogists or rivals.

A brief list of the most common tropes, founded upon circumstances of varying truth or significance but all problematic in that they were constructed as essential and ever-lasting, could run as follows.  

  • Afghanistan as a key strategic location in the contest for power in Asia in terms of a) military control – it represents the ‘Gates to India’ and b) economic potential – it being a lynchpin on the ‘Silk Road’. 
  • Afghanistan conceived as a country at the crossroads of Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East (the latter sometimes more realistically couched in terms of the Iranian Plateau), while belonging to none of them – a triple border without a centre; the implication being that its existence is inherently artificial or unstable, despite it being one of the few state entities in the region that predated the colonial era.
  • Afghanistan as intellectually torpid and politically motionless, with Afghans ‘traditionally’ rejecting all notions of secularism, statehood and politics in the name of religion, tribal custom and clannish factionalism.
  • Afghanistan as the “Graveyard of Empires”, a land inhabited by such a turbulent and warlike populace that no external power could satisfactorily control it, as the various tribes would (briefly) stop feuding with each other to come together and slaughter the foreigners.

A corresponding set of tropes has been applied to describe the country’s inhabitants, whose image was long conflated with that of the eastern Pashtun tribes that the British officials could claim to know best (most of whom lived outside the current borders of Afghanistan). ‘Afghans’ were alternatively described as treacherous or chivalrous, egalitarian or fanatic. Later, the outside world discovered the ‘mosaic of ethnicities’ that made up the country and decided that it was their irreconcilable differences that were at the root of political turbulence.

An important AAN report in this regard, not covered here because it draws on non-fiction sources such as colonial writings, history books and media reports rather than literary works, is a 2014 piece by Christian Bleuer: From ‘Slavers’ to ‘Warlords’: Descriptions of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks in western writing. It surveyed the history of western writing on Uzbeks, from openly racist 19th century historians to 21st century journalists, with their more subtle anti-Uzbek overtones. Bleuer concluded that the reasons for the “often insulting, biased or dismissive portrayals of Uzbeks in western publications and journalism have changed over time, but some factors remain constant and can be seen in both the writings of the British Empire and in more recent publications.” He also wrote about the reasons why the way different ethnic communities in Afghanistan have been portrayed as they have been – “in service of certain political goals – of empire (pro-British Empire), ideology (anti- or pro-communism) or advocacy (pro- or anti-US government).” 

The major tropes seen in literature about Afghanistan – that it is a key strategic location, a country at the crossroads, intellectually torpid and politically motionless and the graveyard of empires – have spawned sub-themes over time. Some of the tropes have faded into the background, while new ones have emerged, such as an emphasis on Afghans’ perceived ultra-orthodox approach to Islam or a focus on the precarious plight of Afghan women.

Recurring tropes were, and still are, reinforced during periods of crisis and heightened global attention. For example, the view of Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires currently seems to be merging with the trope of Afghans’ rejection of all innovation and their political and intellectual torpor to produce a new, more comprehensive trope, which could tentatively be titled ‘Afghanistan as the Graveyard of Modernity’. The United States-led fiascos may in time be transformed into an archetypal example of the inadequacy of modern ‘Western’ institutions and values in the face of the stubborn rejection of modernity by Afghans in the name of ‘traditional’ (read, ‘religious’) values. Such an approach would undervalue the impact of the military, political and economic shortages and unbalances of the institution-building experiment of post-2001 in favour of a narrative that blames the debacle on the ‘Afghan character’.

Before venturing into creating or de-bunking such labels, it would be useful to note that times of crisis do not always provide helpful vantage points to observe and understand the long-term traits of a given territorial and social entity. Unfortunately, it has been such times of crisis that have stirred most of the world’s interest in Afghanistan and became over-important in defining its global image.

Afghanistan in World literature: A work in progress

In terms of modern fiction, much of the literary output appearing after the international intervention starting in 2001 were ‘instant books’, hastily published to take advantage of the global interest in the wake of 9/11 and the fall of the first Taleban regime. Others were driven by the urge to add to the knowledge of this war-torn country and the plight of its people. Over time, the overly shallow or over-dramatised representations gave ground to some more researched and sophisticated approaches to the country, its people and the post-2001 landscape.

Also, for the first time, a number of Afghan authors gained increasing exposure and prominence in the portrayal of their country, with some of their books becoming international best-sellers. One could then argue that the need to investigate the way foreign literary works shape global attitudes towards Afghanistan may now be diminished, but this is only partially true. 

The subset of Afghan literature available to the international public consists mostly of work written in English by authors from the early Afghan diaspora who left in the first waves of migration (or who were the children of those early émigrés). They have lived abroad for most or all of their lives and followed Afghanistan’s descent into the various layers of conflict largely through the lens of international reporting, but most have conceived their work chiefly for foreign audiences. They have also often been writing under the urgency to provide their own interpretation, explanation or refutation of the very tropes listed above. Although new Afghan authors are joining the ranks of those able to make their voices heard, opportunities to write and publish unfortunately come because of displacement and exile.

The lack of a public or academic debate over national literature inside Afghanistan and the fact that most Afghan authors available in English or other foreign languages (often writing already in ‘foreign languages’) live abroad will mean that, although Afghan authors of the old and new diasporas will play a leading role in future depictions of Afghanistan, they will do so in the context of all of the tropes mentioned above that originated outside Afghanistan. The foreign-oriented character and the fragmentation of the Afghan literary scene will likely continue, therefore, after the traumatic events of 2021.

The last two decades of massive foreign presence in Afghanistan are calling out for literary treatment. Increasingly, the role of foreigners in Afghanistan has also come under the scrutiny of authors of fiction, after having been investigated by reporters and analysts. According to a chronology of “Afghanistan as a cultural franchise” sketched in a 2019 study, a recent strand of works of fiction set in Afghanistan has developed in which the focus is on the internationals in Kabul.[4]For research and analysis on the post-1979 and especially post-2001 production of fiction about Afghanistan see Alla Ivanchikova, Imagining Afghanistan: Global Fiction and Film of the 9/11 Wars, … Continue reading So, while authors of the Afghan diaspora are providing an Afghan point of view in fiction, more foreign authors also seem intent on narrating stories about the international presence and role in the country.

These recent books of fiction, whether authored by foreigners or by Afghans oriented towards a foreign audience, will thus join the existing body of literature produced by the international intervention in Afghanistan. This collection of media reports, intelligence files, research papers and novels are now set to become the basic sources for the understanding and re-telling of Afghanistan in the future. The old sources that we have for years consulted, cherished, built-upon, derided or deconstructed will probably, to a large extent, be superseded by the huge amount of material that was produced – and that AAN contributed to – during the last two decades.

What is potentially problematic about this is that among these ‘new sources’ on Afghanistan there will be even less chances of finding depictions that do not focus on the country and the people as being in a constant state of crisis, or even to chance upon hints of normality. It will probably be difficult to retain an image of an Afghanistan that, if not necessarily peaceful or developed, was at least one where conflict, isolation, autocracy or corruption had not become the constant and only imaginable condition. It may become hard even to depict Afghanistan as a country where life goes on despite the decades-long crisis and where changes can take place like elsewhere in the world.

The constant overexposure to dramatised tropes also threatens to increase the tolerance of international opinion that crisis is normal in Afghanistan and it people are used to them; ‘resilient’ would be the latest buzzword used to skate over people’s suffering. The tropes risk reinforcing the idea – whether unspoken, or openly professed – that based on previous experience and an alien set of values, Afghans do not desire or deserve the same access to dignified livelihoods and human rights as the rest of humanity. And although the ills of Afghanistan may not directly descend from how it is depicted in world literature, the stories that have been told have certainly played a role, and will continue to do so, in how the world may condone, react to or forget what is happening there.

In this dossier, we take a closer look at how Afghanistan has been portrayed in fiction across the world by revisiting five previous AAN reports. These reports explore the portrayal of Afghanistan and Afghans through the lenses of different world literatures, literary trends and individual authors, at different times. The reports are listed in the original order of appearance.

1) German Literature

“Only One Came Home from Afghanistan”

Author: Thomas Ruttig

8 January 2010

Theodor Fontane’s 1859 ballad, “The Tragedy of Afghanistan” (“Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan”) describes the calamitous defeat of the British army in the first Anglo-Afghan War and ends with the line: “With 13,000 the track began – one came home from Afghanistan.” The ‘one’ was Dr William Brydon – the few Indian soldiers who also made it to the British garrison in Jalalabad went uncounted. He is depicted here by Elizabeth Butler in her “Remnants of an Army” (1842). Photo: WikiMedia commons.

The first instalment of the series is a brief one, written at a time when AAN would still sometimes post short notes. In his introduction, the author Thomas Ruttig noted how Afghanistan had, by 2010, become a regular topic in German television, film and political comedy, while “before 1979 when the Soviet invasion suddenly brought Afghanistan to everyone’s attention, even world-class writers would rarely touch upon Afghanistan at all.” The series, he said, aimed to discuss some of the exceptions.

In this case, Ruttig, offered a translation of Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan, a 1859 poem by celebrated 19th century German writer Theodor Fontane. The poem’s title, “The Tragedy of Afghanistan,” was likely adapted from “The Afghan Disaster” the term by which the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842) had become known in Britain. In the style of a ballad, the poem relates the arrival at the gates of Jalalabad of Dr Brydon, the lone survivor of the British army retreating from Kabul and the vain attempts by the garrison to guide other possible survivors to safety. The tone ranges between the dramatic and the melancholic. There is no political stance and the focus is on the ghastly realisation of the annihilation of an entire column of British and Indian soldiers and civilians (although a number of prisoners were actually taken, and later returned) and the sorrow of their fellows in Jalalabad.

The event was certainly an unprecedented disaster for the East India Company and the British Crown, a national trauma that would be widely commemorated in the decades that followed, including through tragic poems. The question, also raised by Ruttig, is why Theodor Fontane identified to such an extent with the British occupier?

Fontane had frequently visited and even resided in Britain for some years – in fact, the poem was written right around the end of his sojourn there – and he had become deeply interested in British history and literature. He was known throughout his lifetime to be an Anglophile, at least in cultural terms.  

However, he could have chosen a different vantage point. He was open to Romantic tendencies and his interest in Old English Ballads had been spurred by the success of historical novels à la Walter Scott that were popular at the time. These stories were often imbued with sympathy for rebels and their – usually lost – causes. Also, his personal political commitment towards liberal and democratic principles, which brought him onto the barricades in the revolutions of 1848 and spurred him later to criticise Prussian militarism, could have led to a more nuanced stance towards British imperialism, or at least, some exotic fascination with the Afghans of the sort some European authors and readers were starting to express towards the ‘noble savages’ who were being trampled by the expanding colonial inroads of European countries across the world. At the time, the figures of Abdelkader of Algeria (1808-1883) and Imam Shamil of the Caucasus (1797-1871) had become respected celebrities among the public of the very countries they had bitterly resisted – France and Russia respectively. But this, of course, only happened if the ‘noble savages’ in question played by the rules, that is, if they were eventually vanquished and yielded to the ‘superior civilisation’ that drove the European push for expansion. That was not exactly what had happened in Afghanistan.[5]The amir Dost Muhammad Khan (1792-1863) was the main Afghan leader at the time who could have struck a sympathetic chord with the European public, particularly given the widespread acknowledgement of … Continue reading

Was the lack of empathy towards the Afghan point of view simply because the European colonialists were, for once, on the losing side? Possibly, but there was probably more to it than that. Most likely, the Afghans by 1859 had already been cast as an unspeakable ‘other’ in the British reports and accounts that Fontane was exposed to in his work as a correspondent from London: as a foe, too wily and murderous even for Romantic sensibilities. Such over-dramatisation – in the aftermath of both the first and second Anglo-Afghan Wars – served the purpose of drowning out the voices of British politicians who questioned the folly of such unprovoked and costly invasions.

The official British version of events of the First Anglo-Afghan War was thus reinforced by literary works in other European languages and even through works of art, such as Lady Butler’s 1879 famous painting “The Remnants of an Army” (also featured in Ruttig’s text), which showed an exhausted Dr Brydon reaching Jalalabad. Thus, the caricatured image of the Afghans as bloodthirsty and only fit to fight, among themselves as well as against foreigners, but not to have a voice or tell their own version of events, was popularised as the hegemonic one. This caricature is still with us (see for instance here).

To determine with certainty why Fontane sympathised with the British colonialists rather than with the widows of the Afghans who were killed fighting off the invaders is probably “too wide a field,” as Ruttig ends his post by aptly quoting Fontane’s most famous novel “Effi Briest”. Notwithstanding that, the very first, brief AAN piece on Afghanistan in World Literature did introduce some of the main themes that have kept resurfacing throughout the series.

"Dost Mahommed, King of Caubul, and his youngest son”, then in exile in Peshawar, but pictured in his former audience hall in the citadel of Ghazni. Lithograph by Lieutenant James Rattray, 1941. Photo: WikiMedia Commons
“Dost Mahommed, King of Caubul, and his youngest son”, pictured in his former audience hall in the citadel of Ghazni, although by this time he was in exile in Peshawar. Lithograph by Lieutenant James Rattray, 1941. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

2) British Literature of the Victorian Age

Dr Watson Sent Packing

Author: Thomas Ruttig

25 February 2010

The second episode of the series, also by Thomas Ruttig, moves the clock forward a few decades, to the second fateful encounter between the Afghans and Europe, as seen through British colonial eyes – the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-81. It also sends the ball right into the main court, that is, that of English literature – and to the companion to one of literature’s most enduring characters, Sherlock Holmes’ friend, Dr Watson.

Since Montstuart Elphinstone’s diplomatic mission to the Afghan monarch Shah Shuja in 1808, English observations and writing had become the tools of choice by which notions about Afghanistan reached the rest of the world. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and especially during the Victorian Age, British authors produced by far the biggest and most influential body of literature about the country. Much of it took the form of historical, ethnological or political treatises, or travel and military accounts. However, many works of fiction set in Afghanistan or featuring Afghan characters also appeared. Without attempting to tackle this voluminous body of literature, Ruttig’s short piece, which is centred on the fictional character of Dr Watson, captures some of its most relevant aspects.

The first aspect, is that by the last decades of the 19th century, Afghanistan had become a familiar household name among the British public at home as the foremost among the many theatres of conflicts in which the British Empire was periodically engaged. Indeed, Dr Watson is portrayed as a survivor of Afghanistan, as much as Dr Brydon (the protagonist of the previous piece) was Dr Watson, the faithful companion of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was said to have served as a military doctor in the war and, having been wounded in the battle of Maiwand, had barely managed to escape with his life.

However, his portrayal is very different from that of the lone survivor of Fontane’s text. Not only the literary forms and styles are opposite – a late-Romantic tragic poem there, a series of detective stories crafted for bourgeois readers with an intellectual knack here. What makes the tone of the references to Afghanistan much lighter is also that the consequences of the military stalemate and eventual withdrawal that followed the second British invasion of Afghanistan were much milder. The battle of Maiwand had been a bit of a shock, with the Afghans routing a British army in a pitched battle rather than by sniping and cutting-off stragglers, as decades of published material had described them as best suited at doing. But on the whole, major tragedies like the earlier annihilation of a whole garrison had been avoided and, most importantly, a minimum political objective had been secured. With the Treaty of Gandamak of 1879, the Afghan kings had relinquished their claims over parts of their territory which bordered British India, and their right to maintain independent diplomatic relations with outside powers like Russia. The late Victorian attitude towards Afghanistan could thus be more relaxed, compared to sentiments in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

In Watson’s recollections, appearing across a couple of the stories that make up the body of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, Afghanistan is a place where he had “undergone hardship and sickness” and that made him “a prompt and ready traveller.”[6]These descriptions are from his character’s introduction in the first novel of the Holmesian cycle “A Study in Scarlet” and a briefer mention in the short story “The Boscombe Valley … Continue reading This, to some extent, sums up an attitude that was prevalent in the fin de siècle, with Watson representing the quintessential English gentleman of average opinions: although Afghanistan was still seen as a tough and dicey place, it was no longer an open wound or something that could tarnish the prestige and politics of the Empire.

The publications mentioned so far give a taste of the British public perception about the country as a whole, but how were its inhabitants viewed, more specifically the Pashtuns, who inhabited a number of areas under British control and under whose constructed image all Afghans were usually subsumed?

Giving a comprehensive account of the image of the Afghan – also known as Pathan – in British literature from the Victorian Age is a task beyond the scope of these few notes. Suffice it to say that, even in its heavy stereotyping, this portrayal could be quite multi-faceted. A key example is to be found in one of the most iconic books of the Victorian Age: Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”. The character of Mahbub Ali, the Afghan horse trader who is also a spy for the British, who in the book becomes the tutor, recruiter and minder of the young protagonist, Kim, certainly cuts a strikingly brilliant figure. For those times, he is probably the ‘native’ character who possibly comes closest to being equated in a work of fiction to a European.

In the Indian context, Afghans were often considered alternatively as, on one hand, more savage and ‘less civilisable’ than the other indigenous peoples encountered by the British colonisers, or, on the other hand, as ‘less Asian’ and therefore possibly more akin to the Europeans, at least at the individual level. It is the attributes of manliness, physical – if not moral – courage and – why not? – cunning, that in the context of the story make Mahbub Ali appear to readers as ‘almost’ European. He was not a lone exception: in some stories when, for reasons of historical realism or moral expediency, European protagonists could not be featured in a text of fiction, Afghans could be passed off reasonably well as substitutes, allowing some degree of catharsis by the readers, by virtue of their supposed closer racial proximity. An example could be found in novels by Philip Meadows Taylor, such as “Tara. A Mahratta Tale” (1863) or the more famous “Confessions of a Thug”(1839).[7]William Dalrymple argues in his “White Mughals” (Penguin, 2002) that the earlier generations of British in India were less prone to racial prejudice, a sense of superiority and the belief in the … Continue reading

These more relaxed feelings were reserved mostly for the ‘Pathans’ in India, and for some classes of readers only. By the time “Kim” was written in 1901, the Great Game – played across the Frontier that had been created through the treaty of Gandamak and the drawing of the Durand Line (1893) – had clearly become a myth. And as often is the case with myths, this one also required constant sacrifices of blood – in this case, the steady trickle of casualties emerging from the low-intensity conflict over the Frontier. Running parallel to the growing familiarity with the country and its inhabitants, a feeling antithetic to the Afghans became mainstream in Britain, identifying them, and their brethren on the British-claimed side of that sketchy border, as the nastiest and deadliest enemies of the British military.

The almost constant state of warfare that raged along the Frontier in the closing decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th temporarily transformed its society – already back then – into a radicalised and militant one. If the earlier Afghan Wars had been big affairs for the military and the public, and their narratives as a result had featured a mix of blunders and lofty heroic feats, the lower-profile but equally deadly skirmishing on the Frontier proved much less honourable and desirable. Who would want an obscure death by a sniper while returning from a village they had just set fire to in reprisal for cattle rustling? That could hardly be considered a worthy fate by a military class who, at least the officer corps, had been raised with tales of heroic cavalry charges to storm the enemy’s guns.

Ruttig, in his piece, quotes a very different Kipling, one who, years before “Kim”, had expressed the frustration of the imperial war machine at being pinned down and sustaining heavy casualties (of men and prestige) by a tribal rabble. In the poem “Arithmetic on the Frontier” (1886) he writes that “With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,” the frustration deepened by the consideration that the local fighters “are cheap, alas! as we are dear.”

In the following years, Kipling went on to pen the Afghan character in such harsh terms, that this is in no way balanced by the relatively favourable treatment later meted out to his Pathan character in “Kim”. In a short fable-like story, “The Amir’s Homily”, (1891), he hyperbolically described the specimen of this “most turbulent race under the stars” as “a thief by instinct, a murderer by heredity and training, and frankly and bestially immoral by all three … as unaccountable as the gray wolf, who is his blood-brother”. The image of the Afghans as a murderous lot was thus impressed upon the public by this and other lines from the imperial bard, including the famous poem “The Young British Soldier” (from Kipling’s “Barrack-Room Ballads”,1895). It is with its grim, at times truculent, verses that this second AAN foray inside the imaginary Afghanistan of world literature ends.[8]A virtual row between authors who idealise many of the imagined attributes of the Afghan character and those who uncompromisingly damn the Afghans has continued inside British literature up to very … Continue reading

As for Dr Watson, after his narrow escape “from the hands of the murderous Ghazis” at Maiwand, and his arrival back in London with a tanned yet haggard face and a stiff arm, there would be no need for the acumen of a Sherlock Holmes to guess that he had recently been serving in Afghanistan: the dangers of the Frontier, and the signs of having served there, had by then become a recognisable signifier for the British public.

Much later, in the 1960s, the Baker Street Irregulars club of Sherlock Holmes fans asked the Afghan state permission to build a statue of Dr Watson on the Maiwand battlefield. As Louis Dupree recalls in his seminal book “Afghanistan” (p 411 of the 1980 edition), no official answer came from an Afghan government that was rather puzzled by the request “to put up a monument to a man who never existed on a battlefield where the Afghans decisively defeated the British!”

Maybe, as a fitting and witty answer, the then Afghan government could have requested that, in a swap of fictionalised foes, the statue of a ferocious and wily Afghan tribesman, replete with ordnance, jezail and Khyber knife tucked in his belt, be erected in Whitehall, in front of the British Foreign Office that through the 1879 Gandamak Treaty had managed to control Afghanistan’s foreign relations for over forty years.

3) Bengali and Assamese Literature

Kabuliwalas of the Latter Day

Author: Fabrizio Foschini

30 March 2012

Two years later, AAN next delved into some literary works that are less familiar to the Western public, but have been highly significant in shaping the image of Afghans for millions of readers in the country where the books were crafted: India.

It may come as a surprise that, of the many Indian literatures in which Afghans made their appearance, AAN chose three stories from India’s extreme far east – Bengal and Assam. The first is one of Rabindranath Tagore’s most famous short stories, The “Kabuliwala”, also known as “The Fruit-seller from Kabul”(1892). Though far removed from Afghanistan, Bengal, as one of the foremost cradles of modern Indian literature, offers early examples of fiction featuring Afghan characters. The second story discussed here is indeed the first novel written in Bengali, and often considered one of the very first Indian modern novels, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s “Durgeshnandini” (1865). Lastly, a short story from contemporary Assamese writer Indira Goswami, “Parasu Pator’s Well” (1998) is also described.

Afghans have for centuries been a common presence in many parts of northern and central India, as immediate neighbours and frequent migrants and settlers. By the 19th century, when the two main works under focus here were written, the popular image of Afghans had already taken on some specific traits, in particular, some soldier-like attributes such as being rough and uncouth, but also straightforward and proud. This characterisation was employed for Afghans who had long settled in the Subcontinent but had retained a somewhat distinct identity by occupying specific social and professional niches, as well as tracts of land, and even more so for those who kept commuting between Afghanistan and India in pursuit of itinerant trade or seasonal employment. Despite this established perception of Afghans/Pathans as a group with an easily recognisable collective identity, the sensibility of Indian authors from various parts of the Subcontinent towards their Afghan characters appears to have often allowed them to treat them as individuals rather than just members of a nation.

Various sections of 19th century Indian society had shared to some extent the vagaries of the British colonial attempts on Afghanistan. On one hand this resulted in a strong negative stereotyping of Afghans as violent savages, except in some fringes of society, usually connected to Muslim religious centres. This was particularly prevalent among upper-class Indians who were most likely to draw a pen and publish novels, and this situation was not to change until the 1920s and the experience of the Khilafat Movement. However, this image of the Afghans drawn from the hegemonic imperial narrative met the pre-existing, local characterisations, and the two somehow blended. Also, given the presence of Afghans in many a page of Indian history, meant their fictionalisation was possible in a wider range of settings than just the polarised Anglo-Afghan confrontation on the Frontier.[9]It is necessary to mention that the image of the Afghans in Bollywood, India’s more recent all-encompassing creator of fiction, although sharing the same origins, has not survived the test of time … Continue reading

These historical premises allowed authors such as Rabindranath Tagore to place the contemporary Afghan away from the battlefield or the plots of the Great Game, into the more intimate, albeit not bereft of violence, routine of daily life in India. His “Kabuliwala”, written in the same years as Kipling’s ballads, provides an unprecedentedly human and realistic treatment of an outwardly typical Afghan man.

More ancient episodes of Indian history provided scenarios where Afghans are not the uncompromising evil other, but only one among the many political actors and social groups involved in rebellions, repressions, competition and connivance. Such is also the case in Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s “Durgeshnandini”(1865). Despite the fact that the historical novel was meant to inspire a patriotic revival in Bengal and its Hindu heroes are clearly lionised, the main antagonist, an Afghan, is a highly romanticised yet honourable character, and certainly anything but a heinous villain.

The AAN piece ends with a briefer description of the short story “Parasu Pator’s Well” (Parasu Pator Naad) by Indira Goswami, which also prominently features a Pathan character. While initially resembling an evil caricature of Tagore’s kabuliwala-turned-moneylender and casting a dark shadow over the protagonist’s attempts to escape poverty, he unexpectedly reveals himself as a big-hearted and very human character in the end. This more recent short story shows the continued persistence of the first, eponymous Afghan characters in contemporary Indian literature, as well as that of Afghans as a familiar presence across the Subcontinent’s varied landscapes, even as far as that ‘northeastern frontier’ – antipodal to the Afghan Frontier of colonial literature – which is Assam.

4) American Pulp Literature

Weird Tales from the Frontier

Author: Fabrizio Foschini

18 March 2016

Magazine cover of "Top Notch" which published Robert E Howard's stories, including Hawk of the Hill - a El Borak story in June 1935
Magazine cover of “Top Notch” which published Robert E Howard’s stories, including Hawk of the Hill – an El Borak story in June 1935

Before President Reagan received Haqqani Sr and a score of other mujaheddin leaders in the White House in 1983, turning Afghanistan into a household name in the last stages of the Cold War, this landlocked Asian country had meant very little to the American public and had not elicited any major literary treatment.  A notable exception, however, was the representation by pulp fiction authors, who apparently could smell adventure across the oceans from hundreds of thousands of miles away. Robert Erwin Howard, the celebrated creator of Conan the Barbarian, especially chose Afghanistan as the setting for many of his Eastern stories.

Afghanistan, to pulp authors, was a country where apparently every kind of adventure was possible, affording them the chance to blur the boundaries of history and myth, as well as geography and ethnography. Indeed, ‘pulp fiction Afghanistan’ often features a Great Game potpourri where not only British and Russian spies, feuding tribesmen and fanatic mullahs thrive, but Mongols, Hashishin (the fabled medieval sect of the Assassins), Bedouin and Kurdish bandits also join in the fray.

One of the main aspects of Howard’s narrative is its strong characterisation of the ‘Nietzschean’ qualities of its heroes. The protagonists are invariably white Westerners, most often American (only seldom British). Their racial ancestry is usually described in great detail by Howard and seems to have given them ‘inborn’ physical and moral strengths further enhanced by the harsh environment they live in and the company of similarly, cast-in-iron natives. These ‘natives’ or local characters are often described with a fair degree of attention and detail too, although mostly in order to highlight the extraordinary accomplishments of the white hero, who is admirable exactly because he can defeat even Afghans when it comes to being tough.

Despite the heavy stereotyping all characters are subjected to, the most pronounced characterisation proceeds not from the political or racial prejudices of the author, but rather from the necessities of the plot, given the peculiarities of this form of fiction. Indeed, Howard’s action-filled short stories are imbued with an atmosphere that is at once both heroic and cynical. If his characters behave in a bloodthirsty and wily way, it is not in the first place because they are Afghans, but rather because that’s what Howard needs his characters to do, and thereforethey need to be Afghan.   

On one hand, it can be argued that the ability and willingness of Howard’s heroes to ‘go native’, albeit in an elitist and superficial manner, did tear down apparent barriers where Afghans were portrayed as unable to be trusted or communicated with, that had been established in previous British literary works. On the other hand, his stories still perpetuated the images set by colonial writing, not only because this had been the only source of information on this remote country American authors could access, but also because their interest in that country had chiefly originated in the very descriptions of the brutal and lawless Frontier.

The lack of past or current political relations between the United States and Afghanistan in the 1920s and 30s allowed authors such as Howard the freedom to craft escapist action stories without having to take responsibility for any of the historical situations depicted as a setting, in a way that is unlikely to be ever matched. Contemporary American fiction on Afghanistan, besides having hopefully overcome the greatest simplifications of pulp literature, can no longer afford to be so naïve about Afghanistan. This is especially the case, given how deeply affected Afghanistan has been by American Cold War policies and the two-decade long US military intervention that ended in disaster.

5) French Literature

Two French Portraits

Author: Fabrizio Foschini

3 January 2022

One of the many characters encountered by Ouroz, hero of Joseph Kessel’s 1967 novel “Les cavaliers” (The Horsemen). Illustration by Urs Landis for Gallimard or Les cavaliers 1976 edition.

In the most recent instalment of AAN’s ‘Afghanistan in World Literature’ series, we take a look at French literature. Based on the impression left by colonial sources and the increasingly first-hand visits by 20th century authors, Afghanistan represents to many French authors a place where all kinds of adventure can happen. However, compared to the action-packed American pulp novels, the French authors discussed in this article seemed keener to also explore the psychological landscape of their heroes – and, in this case, the heroes are Afghan.

Besides offering a brief chronology of French literary interest in Afghanistan, this report revolves around two works of fiction separated by a full hundred years – Arthur de Gobineau’s short story “Les amants de Kandahar” or The Lovers of Kandahar (1870) and Joseph Kessel’s long novel “Les cavaliers” or The Knights (1967). There are a few things that link the two works. One is that in both cases, the authors seem to have found in Afghanistan the best setting, and in Afghans the most fitting protagonists, to give life to the stories they wanted to tell and the characters they wanted to tell it through. Another is the great fascination of both authors for Afghanistan and its people, whether real or imagined. This leads to an unprecedented mixture of both universal motifs – de Gobineau’s chivalrous tale revolving around an impossible love and the ethical imperatives of individual versus family honour and Kessel’s story of a father-son relationship marked by both competition and affection and the almost nihilistic push for extreme challenges – and local flavour. The result is especially convincing in Kessel’s monumental work, which, despite some liberties taken, also benefits from a rather informed and accurate reconstruction of the settings, which Kessel had visited.

This report was the first in this series to be published after the game changer of the Taleban’s 2021  takeover and the piece ends with a reflection on the trajectory of how Afghanistan has been depicted and how that depiction could change yet again. With the direct cultural links between the outside world and Afghanistan greatly reduced again, the risk of a return to a shallow and stereotyped way of fictionalising Afghanistan is once more a real one:

We concluded our report on the two French portraits of Afghanistan with a stark reminder: “For every old way of stereotyping that dies out, a new one risks being born.”  For this reason, and also because of its unshrinking interest in ‘everything’ related to Afghanistan, AAN wishes to continue to expand this series in the future and to continue the careful mapping of the available literature and the use, good or bad, that is made of it.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark


1 A balanced appraisal of the possibility of using colonial sources for ethno-anthropological purposes is given in Charles Lindholm, “Images of the Pathan: The Usefulness of Colonial Ethnography”, in European Journal of Sociology (1980) 21: 350-61.
2 This is a reference to the British colonial military and civilian functionaries who were charged with writing down reports of what they had heard about affairs inside Afghanistan from their native informers – traders, kuchis, mullahs etc – who periodically commuted between Afghanistan and Chitral, Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan, Quetta or other British-administered cities. These reports can still be read, as part of the large collection of documents of British India (1600-1947) gathered at the India Office Records in the British Library in London and in the national archives of New Delhi, Lahore and other cities across the Subcontinent. These ‘news writers’ ranged from the over-specialised political agent speaking impeccable Pashto with his guests to the junior aide, ghost writing for his busy superior while hoping to be transferred soon to glamorous Calcutta or Delhi.
3 Against the backdrop of the more sensational military and diplomatic confrontations of the Great Game, local literary works, such as the older poetic or mystical classics and folk tales from a mostly oral tradition, were rarely used as sources to create fiction in European languages. Even if they were, for most of the 19th century, the translations were usually done by individuals connected with the British colonial administration in India.
4 For research and analysis on the post-1979 and especially post-2001 production of fiction about Afghanistan see Alla Ivanchikova, Imagining Afghanistan: Global Fiction and Film of the 9/11 Wars, Purdue, 2019.
5 The amir Dost Muhammad Khan (1792-1863) was the main Afghan leader at the time who could have struck a sympathetic chord with the European public, particularly given the widespread acknowledgement of his qualities. He had the misfortune of being overthrown by the British, through no fault of his own but because of the overriding political interests of the British. He had also shown gallant behaviour during the first Anglo-Afghan war – by the standards of the usually winning European colonisers. He escaped the invading troops with a daring flight to Bukhara, came back with a handful of followers, gathered enough support to put up a spirited resistance, and finally surrendered in a ‘gentlemanly’ fashion. He was eventually reinstated, after the British gave up their occupation of Afghanistan, but did not win public fame as ‘noble antagonist’ as Abdelkader or Shamil did. A book called “Life of the Amir Dost Muhammad Khan of Kabul” did appear in 1846, but it was hardly a portrayal of him. In fact, the actual life of Dost Muhammad makes up only limited sections of the book. Instead, the author, Mohan Lal, one of the main actors in the lead up to the war and during the British occupation, is mainly preoccupied with explaining his own actions and that of his late superior, Alexander Burnes. The altogether favourable description of Dost Muhammad is neither sympathetic nor central to the book, except maybe to vindicate Burnes’ (and Lal’s) positive impression of Dost Muhammad during the first British mission to Kabul.
6 These descriptions are from his character’s introduction in the first novel of the Holmesian cycle “A Study in Scarlet” and a briefer mention in the short story “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”.
7 William Dalrymple argues in his “White Mughals” (Penguin, 2002) that the earlier generations of British in India were less prone to racial prejudice, a sense of superiority and the belief in the necessity of segregation than later generations; some even nurtured more fluid ideas about identity. Many of them would, throughout their careers, switch their services between the Eastern India Company and local potentates and some would ‘go local’ in lifestyle and status, often marrying into noble Indian families, as was, for example, the case with the author Meadows Taylor. They found it easy to intermarry (given the comparatively straightforward conversion procedure), but also to identify, up to some point, with the families of the many intellectuals and military adventurers from Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia who had sought their fortune in almost every corner of the wealthy Subcontinent throughout the 17th and 18th century, and who remained partially foreigners, albeit conversant in the highly-Persianised codes of the princely courts throughout India. Sometimes, Europeans in India quite literally passed themselves off as Afghans when needed and not just in the more typical Indian setting (it is not by chance that an ‘irregular’ like Richard Burton made his famous trip to Mecca in the disguise of an Afghan pilgrim). So it seems only fair that they were ready to also turn the table and allow Afghans to at least resemble ‘Europeans’ in their narratives.
8 A virtual row between authors who idealise many of the imagined attributes of the Afghan character and those who uncompromisingly damn the Afghans has continued inside British literature up to very recent times. Some of the major works of fiction dealing with the colonial experience, such as MM Kaye’s “The Far Pavilions” (1978) or P Scott’s tetralogy “The Raj Quartet” (1965-75) can be ascribed to the two camps, respectively.
9 It is necessary to mention that the image of the Afghans in Bollywood, India’s more recent all-encompassing creator of fiction, although sharing the same origins, has not survived the test of time unscathed. The first Pathans on screen were either burly copies of Tagore’s Kabuliwala or typecast characters in the Moghul-era historical dramas. Later, political developments in Afghanistan and India meant that Afghanistan came to be associated with war, narcotics trafficking and terrorism, particularly during the 1990s and early 2000s, giving the occasional Afghan movie characters a more sombre shade. More recently, the spilling of themes from militant political Hinduism into cinematography has started to again cast Afghans in the role of much nastier villains, in line with previous colonial imagery, sometimes even portraying them as posing an existential threat to India. (See AAN previous reports here and here.


Bengali British Empire fiction French India Literature novels


Fabrizio Foschini

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