Throughout the last couple of centuries, the way foreign authors, both novelists and scholars, have portrayed Afghans has had an impact on how Afghanistan itself is perceived. One such writer, a bestseller in his day, although now less well known, is the 1920s-30s fantasy and adventure writer, Robert E Howard. His novels stand out, says Fabrizio Foschini, for the author’s fascination with Afghans and their land as the embodiment of “a harsh, violent and forbidding environment which shaped true men.”Magazine cover of "Top Notch" which published Robert E Howard's stories, including Hawk of the Hill - a El Borak story in June 1935
All foreigners remember the literature that influenced them when they were first becoming acquainted with Afghanistan, from Kipling’s Arithmetic on the Frontier – the “ten-rupee jezail” poem – and his novel Kim to some more or less recent travelogues and scholarly monographs. For those outside Europe, there have been other literary works as well (see our previous dispatch here). Since 1979 when Afghanistan hit the headlines, and during subsequent foreign military interventions, ‘Afghan literature’ has largely been standardised throughout the world. For today’s would-be specialists, virtually every single piece of colonial literature on Afghanistan has been reprinted and published.
How about those who had the good fortune of visiting Afghanistan when it was at peace, between the 1950s and 1970s – the many Americans who happened to come, whether they were expat engineers and teachers or simply travellers? What were they likely to have read about the country they were visiting? The usual staple of Victorian officers’ tales and diplomats’ accounts, which were the average European visitor’s introduction to the country? Possibly, but other reads were also available, including Afghan stories by one of the foremost contributors to the best-selling, American, pulp fiction magazine, Weird Tales – Robert E Howard. (1) The creator of famous standards of fantasy fiction and horror stories, such as Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, Howard frequently used Middle Eastern and Central Asian settings for his short stories. From these stories, his predilection for Afghanistan and the Afghans is quite apparent. (2)
The perfect cradle for heroes
So why Afghanistan? Howard was a keen reader of historical novels and geographic explorations. What probably got him interested in what he termed the “outlands of the world”, stretching between Central Asia and India, was their seclusion, and preservation from the type of civilisation – modern, 20th century Western – he despised the most. According to Howard, the world could best be understood by a notion of: ‘the more civilised, the more dull’. He considered the ‘savage Afghan highlanders’ natural born heroes. For him, Afghans as a race were, by birth, endowed with all those qualities that Howard’s Americans – or, less frequently, British – heroes had only acquired because they were outstanding individuals, either through the resurgence of some ancient blood flowing through their veins or through painstaking exercise and experience of life in the wild. (3)
Let us take Francis Xavier Gordon, alias El Borak, the most famous and frequent protagonist of Howard’s tales set between Constantinople and Benares. When not riding across hills on the trail of some villain, he lived in Kabul with his ‘family’ of trusted Afghan helpers. This stern and upright Texan adventurer simply could not feel at home anywhere other than Afghanistan. According to Howard, Afghanistan was a blank spot on the world map, a non-colonised space constantly at the centre of intrigues between international powers and mysterious sects, where an oriental despot ruled freely, far from the tight grasp and stultifying rules of democracy and where fierce tribes roamed and feuded among themselves, free from the control of that very despot. The country provided a Howardian hero a real and contemporary environment in which to exist and act. Early 20th century Afghanistan was, for Howard, a country for real men and real adventure. Its idealised Afghan type satisfied Howard’s need for reckless yet honour-bound characters.
In fact, if Howard’s El Borak stories (and those centred around a few other protagonists) read like a catwalk of eastern nationalities – especially those with exotic resonance and potential for stereotyped rendering, thus featuring Sikhs, Mongols, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Druze, Yezidis, Turkmen, Kirghiz, Uzbeks and Persians, often appearing all together on stage – Afghans seemed to hold a special place in the heart of the writer and that of his heroes, appearing regularly as the latters’ sidekicks.
Without delving too deeply into Howard’s racial (and often borderline racist) categorisations that seem to have led him to think of Indo-European Afghans as the most natural allies for his white heroes, it is safer to interpret his choice as based on the ‘heroic’ nature of Afghanistan and its inhabitants. In many ways, the everlasting ‘Frontier in the East’ seems to have made up for the loss of Howard’s own frontier, America’s Old West, with its inhabitants being ascribed all the manly virtues and values that he believed characterised the American frontiersmen, pioneers and Indians alike, values that Howard considered forsaken, much to his chagrin, by 20th century Americans. As Howard would have it: “Man’s treachery is balanced by man’s loyalty, at least in the barbaric hills where civilised sophistry has not crept in with its cult of time-serving.”
The characters: heroes, sidekicks and villains
Howard’s white heroes in Afghanistan do not just go native. Rather, in Howard’s world they are already ‘native’ on the inside, through some pristine genetic heritage. Once in their new setting they become almost more native than the locals themselves. They are often characterised as being close to the landscape in which they live, with actions that are driven by a vital force derived in part from their essence, in part from the environment they inhabit. Indeed, adjectives like “primordial,” “instinctive” and “elemental” are among the most recurrent in Howard’s writing.
What of the real ‘natives,’ then? Allies or opponents as ascribed by circumstance or opportunity: sometimes sworn friends, occasionally cruel foes, one feels that the Afghans are inherently close to Howard’s Yankee heroes – whose physical qualities and mindsets were often likened to those of the Afghans, especially in the case of El Borak Gordon. The only major difference that Gordon displays, in comparison to his Afghan friends, is that they are sometimes affected by that “invincible Oriental characteristic” – fatalism – while he is always in control of what happens.
Although treated sympathetically, most Afghan characters in El Borak’s adventures are stereotyped to the point of being dull masks. That is at least true for his followers: his right hand, a burly and redoubtable Afridi warrior named Yar Ali Shah, hides behind grumpy remarks his almost motherly concern for Gordon’s welfare; the other members of the retinue just display their lethal efficiency and pride in serving their legendary chief and are for the rest mainly concerned with their family feuds and honour. Only a few are given some individual characterisation, like one Khoda Khan, who would even become the hero of a separate adventure by Howard, Names in the Black Book, an unlikely detective story set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where the Afghan warrior annihilates a sect of Mongolian gangsters led by a diabolical super-villain very much like Fu Manchu.
Occasionally, it is the unlikely allies that El Borak makes along the path of Howard’s short but convoluted plots that offer more complex psychological portraits. Such is the case of Alafdal, a portly Waziri outlaw who idly dreams of becoming the ruler of Rub el Harami, a bandit town somewhere in the middle of the wasteland between Kabul and Herat, but lacks the determination to live his ambition – until he meets El Borak and becomes involved in his plans. This makes his dream come true, albeit only fleetingly, but ultimately causes his downfall and death. When El Borak admits feeling regret for the trouble he caused, Alafdal remarks, with dignity, that this single moment of glory has been worth all the rest.
As for the foes, they are mostly foreigners: satanic European adventurers with dreams of empire-building who, for their own purposes, stir the locals’ religious fanaticism and lust for plunder. They, in fact, tend to typically be eastern Europeans: a Magyar called Hunyadi, ironically bearing the name of the saviour of Vienna from the Ottoman siege of 1683, appears as a renegade leading an army of Turkish criminals; Konaszevski, a Cossack, is acting as the mastermind of the revival of the Assassins’ sect with a view to influencing the Great Game. When Afghans are the foes, their motives are generally more reasonable: tribal feuds or personal revenge and hatred of El Borak or the other Howardian heroes.
This second type of opponent is featured in the plot that underlies one of Howard’s best El Borak stories: Hawk of the Hills. No sectarian thugs or spies here; rather, two conflicting Afghan tribes resorting to an array of tactics, alliances and levers to get the best of their opponents. The result is a gritty, convincingly modern rendering of an Afghan armed dispute, craftily narrated through the eyes of an external observer, a British political agent sent to mediate, who instead ends up caught in the machinations of rival factions.
The geographical and historical setting
Where did Howard get his knowledge of the region? He did not go to Afghanistan. His readings surely went beyond King of the Khyber Rifles by fellow adventure writer Talbot Mundy, though this was certainly one of his chief sources of inspiration. His reliance on British colonial sources is apparent by his familiarity with the names of the Pashtun tribes living just beyond the Durand Line; he is much less precise or varied when it comes to groups living inside Afghanistan itself.
References to the Great Game’s canons are inevitable throughout Howard’s vast production of Afghan stories. With a (most likely) unintended ironic twist, Kipling’s (and long before him, Elphinstone’s) comparison of the Afghan tribesmen with the Scottish Highlanders is repeated, only this time it is said by a British observer about the ‘Afghanised Yankee’ El Borak. Typical plot situations, like that of the intercepting of documents aimed at stirring a tribal revolt against the British (reminding one of the Silk Letter Conspiracy of 1916) or of rendezvous and duels in the middle of nowhere between western and eastern European rival agents (à la Burnes vs Vitkevich), are often reproduced.
Descriptions of the Afghan landscape tend to be instrumental in explaining how its harshness affects the minds and bodies of its inhabitants. These descriptions tend to be incredibly detailed, almost verbose. The rocks, boulders, defiles, caverns, crags and cracks of the Afghan Frontier are spatially positioned in the writing with such precision, as was often the case with Howard, that his aim seems to be to project his readers inside a three-dimensional reality, or to pave the way for future generations of role-players.
Recognisable historical characters are few. One is the Afghan amir to whom El Borak is said to act “as unofficial advisor, counsel, ambassador and secret service department.” As mentioned, Gordon’s adventures are set in the years immediately preceding the First World War, corresponding with the middle of the reign of Amir Habibullah (1901-1919). That the amir of El Borak’s stories is modelled on Habibullah can also be assumed by Howard’s statement that El Borak’s character was first developed when he was only ten years old, which would be around 1916. (4) As an informed reader, he will probably not have missed the demise of the Afghan king a few years later, and the suspicion that his murder had been caused by his pro-British stance. The amir in the story Three-Bladed Doom is qualified as a “friend of the English” and is further described (in Sons of the Hawk) as “wearing his European garments as if born to them, but with the sharp, restless eyes of a man who knows he is a pawn between powerful rivals.”
Howard’s Afghanistan of today
How should we read Howard’s stories now, against the background of an Afghanistan that different generations of more recent readers have got to know – that is, the post-1979, post-1992 and post-2001 country?
Of course, one can indulge in finding parallels between Howard’s mysterious sects of fanatics hidden in the no-man’s land between the territories of the amir and the British and the similarly international and secret organisations that found shelter and established their bases there in more recent times.
But more subtle and striking are hints, which Howard may have taken from British reports on the Frontier, of some age-old characteristics of conflict. He describes how ambitious leaders and feuding clans tried to inveigle the ruler of Kabul or even foreign powers into their petty conflicts; at the same time, the leaders and clans were being inflamed by the delivery of weapons by agents of those same foreign powers who were always interested in disrupting trade and tranquillity in each other’s realms. That sounds still – or, better, once again – a rather realistic sketch of actual events.
Finally, Howard’s idealisation of Afghanistan as a lawless land where everything is possible and where “Western warriors settle the destiny of the East between them” has taken a grim turn in the re-enactment made by a new class of adventurers. Arms and drugs smuggling, private militias loyal to foreign money and to their own list of scores to be settled, plenty of occasions to raise oneself above the crowd in murky ways and many more to suddenly fall and be trampled on – all could feature in a Howard tale as in nowadays Afghanistan. Maybe quite a few contemporaries – from the obscurest private contractor to Major Jim Gant – would fit the early twentieth century author’s stories, each living his own weird tale in an imagined, or just misrepresented, frontier.
(1) Weird Tales was America’s most influential pulp fiction magazine, active mainly between the 1920s and 1950s (with later incarnations). It has hosted – and frequently launched – authors of the calibre of HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and even Tennessee Williams. Its influence on the development of genres such as horror or ghost stories, ‘swords and sorcery’ fantasy and science fiction in the 20th century has been considerable.
(2) Despite his short life (1906-1936) and writing span, Howard was a prolific writer. He wrote more than 400 stories of various lengths on subjects ranging from horrors close to his friend Lovecraft’s material, to vivid accounts of boxing matches. A recent anthology of Howard’s stories set in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East is now available: El Borak and other desert adventures (Del Rey, 2010). Containing a valuable essay about the “Gunslingers of the Wild East,” it offers some of Howard’s best ‘Eastern’ stories (others are available online). There are also dramatic black and white drawings – albeit with a lack of precision from the illustrator, who has portrayed all characters in Bedouin or Kurdish dress.
(3) Howard was strongly influenced by the racial theories developing in his time. He was always very specific about the racial roots and phenotypes of his main characters – usually portraying his protagonists as self-conscious breeds of ‘Black Irish’ (a term current at the time) and Scottish descent, not unlike the descent he claimed for himself.
(4) Howard probably started to develop the character of El Borak after reading King of the Khyber Rifles by Mundy, first published in 1916.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020