Over the years, AAN has written about how Afghanistan is portrayed in the literature of other countries. Such portrayals have been instrumental in shaping the views and impressions of the country up to the present and given the continuing influence of outsiders on Afghanistan, it seems important to map this literature. In this report, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini looks at Afghanistan through the lens of French fiction, exploring two tales penned by French authors just under a century apart. Arthur de Gobineau’s 19th century short story “Les amants de Kandahar” (The Lovers of Kandahar) finds in Afghans the perfect vessels for the chivalrous tale he wants to tell, while Joseph Kessel’s stunning novel “Les cavaliers” (The Horsemen) is a wondrous trip into a country he loved and a tale of universal human emotions and passions. One of the many characters encountered along Ouroz’s path. Illustration by Urs Landis for Les cavaliers from a 1976 edition by Gallimard.
This is the latest instalment in AAN’s Afghanistan in World Literature series. Earlier reports were:
Contemporary and self-conscious observers of Afghanistan have long been aware of how historical portrayals of the country have coalesced into stereotyped and recurrent images – a tendency to which 19th and 20thcentury French writers were not immune. Today, with policymakers and travellers alike urged to ‘understand the context’ of their interventions, the contributions of literary and historical writing have played no small part in composing in the public imagination sometimes crude caricatures of Afghan cultural norms, politics and traditions. These images contributed to shaping international policies and their public reception in the countries making them. Digging into the archives of world literature uncovers the roots of these now typified images of Afghanistan, alongside poignant and delicate observations of a place that has fascinated many an author, and offers an exposé of the authors themselves.
Over the last two centuries, Afghanistan and its peoples have largely been seen by the world through British eyes and the words of Anglophone writers – though there are some exceptions, including largely under-studied Russian sources. In the realm of literary fiction, the hegemony of English on all things Afghan is even more palpable. However, a few French writers offer a counterbalance to the Anglophone literature, among them travellers, journalists, diplomats, and, more recently, French-speaking Afghans.
Afghanistan and France were poised to celebrate a century of diplomatic relations in 2022 – at least until the Taleban takeover made them more complicated. The first official presence of French institutions in the country back then was represented by the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan (DAFA), a pioneering and still active archaeological mission. However, the innumerable bonds between France and Afghanistan in recent decades and the length, depth and specificity of France’s historical connection to Afghanistan, while significant, are not easy to pin down.
Some historical accounts offer hints at strategic convergences between the two countries during the modern period – such as the supposed attempt by Afghan king Zaman Shah (r. 1793-1800) at a pincer movement in cooperation with Mysore ruler Tippu Sultan (r. 1782-1799) against British interests in India in the wake of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign.
For a long time, Afghanistan was simply too removed from France’s commercial routes and diplomatic networks to make a significant impression on its society and culture, unlike neighbouring Persia (as modern-day Iran was then called by Europeans). Indeed, Afghanistan did not hold a central interest for France until the 1920s and the establishment of regular diplomatic relations during King Amanullah’s reign, soon followed by a number of commercial and educational initiatives.
French travellers started crossing Asia overland and documenting their views in writing as early as the mid-17th century. The likes of François Bernier, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and Jean Chardin focused more on India and Persia, not least because at that time modern-day Afghanistan was still split mainly between these two countries. Later accounts did deal more specifically with Kabul and its areas of influence, and were occasionally very informative, such as in the case of Joseph-Pierre Ferrier’s works. However, they were but a drop in the ocean of British material.
The same thing could be said for the earlier part of the 20th century, although this period offers at least one remarkable work in French by journalist Andrée Viollis, who offered her unique eye-witness description of the anti-Amanullah revolts in 1928-29 in “Tourmente sur l’Afghanistan” (Storm over Afghanistan, 1930).
By then, Afghanistan had already become an evocative name for French novelists and their readers. Famous travellers and writers such as Pierre Loti and Maurice Dekobra travelled to the borders of Afghanistan and did not conceal their fascination with the mysterious country. André Malraux and his wife Clara visited Kabul, Ghazni and Jalalabad in the summer of 1930, an experience reflected in a number of their later writings. In Malraux’s last novel, “Les noyers de l’Altenburg” (1948, published in English as The Walnut Trees of Altenburg in 1948), the fictional narrator relates his father’s experiences as an emissary of the Pan-Turanian leader Enver Pasha to Afghanistan. Malraux documented at length his impressions of the country in his 1967 Antimémoires (Anti-memoirs), while Clara Malraux described their Afghan experience in a loosely autobiographic novel, “Par des plus longs chemins” (By Longer Paths, 1953, unpublished in English).
In this instalment, we focus on two works of fiction penned by French authors just under a century apart, both putting Afghanistan at the centre stage. Both authors had either direct experiences in the country or access to sources in Afghan languages – a departure from the usual reliance on British source material. The two works of fiction vary in epoch and style. One Les cavaliers (1967, published in English as The Horsemen), by Joseph Kessel, is a dramatic account of an injured buzkashi player on a perilous journey home. The other, written almost one hundred years earlier, is Les amants de Kandahar, by Arthur de Gobineau – a romantic short story about an Afghan ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Both expose the authors’ fascination with the dramatic beauty of the Afghan landscape, the setting upon which they paint pictures resplendent with their personal fancies and portraits of Afghan culture and tradition in equal measure.
The authors and Afghanistan
Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) is more remembered now for his notorious 1855 Essay sur l’inegalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of the Human Race), which became the text of reference for generations of racists and white supremacists. The closest de Gobineau actually came to Afghanistan was during the years he lived in Persia in the 1850s and 1860s. As a member of the French foreign office, he was twice posted to Tehran, initially as first secretary to the delegation (1855-1858) and afterwards as ambassador (1861-1864). De Gobineau had studied Persian language and literature with Étienne-Marc Quatremère, the successor of Silvestre De Sacy and a major French orientalist of the era. Though reportedly not very proficient in Persian at the beginning of his career as a diplomat, by the end of it, he had acquired sufficient command of the language to embark on an overly ambitious venture as a translator of ancient texts and linguistic theorist. He did not speak Pashto, the language of his protagonists in Les amants de Kandahar; the dramas unfolding in the story – at times quite specific to Pashtun culture – may have been inspired by local sources such as the tale of Adam Khan and Durkhanai.
His studies aside, both of De Gobineau’s sojourns in Persia coincided with major international crises regarding Herat, back then the main point of contention between Afghanistan and Persia. In 1856, a Persian army besieged and occupied the city, then ruled independently by a family of former viziers (ministers) to the local Popalzai rulers. The following year, the British forced Persia to relinquish Herat, concerned by the potential scope for penetration towards India this offered to the Russians. Then, in 1863, much to Persian chagrin, the city was reunited with Afghanistan by Emir Dost Muhammad Khan, the last achievement in his tumultuous life.
De Gobineau’s interest in Afghanistan, however, seems to have been stirred neither by the political developments unfolding on his watch nor the British debacle in the Anglo-Afghan war of 1838-42, which was quite a sensation in Europe. Rather, following his racial prejudice, Afghans were of interest to him per se as among the few he considered to be ‘pure representatives’ of the Aryan race left in Asia. His view of the Persians was quite different. He showed them a sort of piqued contempt. Obsessed to the point of insanity with the greatness and glory of Achaemenid and Sassanid Iran, he was dismissive of Persia’s modern inhabitants. By contrast, he saw in Afghans “le descendant authentique de ces anciens Parthes, les Arsaces, les Orodes, sous le pas desquels le monde romain a frémi d’une juste épouvante” (the authentic offspring of those ancient Parthians, the Arsaces, the Orodes, under whose tread, the Roman world justly shuddered in fear). De Gobineau was, first and foremost, an elitist aristocrat who imbued his reactionary ideas with a mixture of romanticism and racial theories. As such, Afghans were more than just their imagined genetic heritage to him: with their (in his view) pre-modern and honour-dictated mores and the importance they attached to genealogy, he saw them as veritable soulmates.
Almost a century later, in 1956, Joseph Kessel (1898-1979), war pilot and hero of the résistance, reporter, novelist and screenwriter, first landed in Afghanistan. He arrived to shoot a movie for which he had written the screenplay, “La Passe du Diable” (The Devil’s Pass, 1958). The fact that he had not yet visited Afghanistan did not stop Kessel writing the screenplay set in the country, which centres on the story of two brothers and a game of buzkashi. However, upon actually spending time in Afghanistan, Kessel fell so in love with the country that he wrote a long reportage detailing his experiences, Le jeu du roi (The King’s Game, 1956). Building on the characters and settings he had devised for the movie, he started work on Les cavaliers; the novel now considered his masterpiece.
On his visits, Kessel had the good fortune of seeing an Afghanistan at peace (including a second visit in the 1960s) and relatively undiscovered by western travellers. He liked everything about it.
Les montagnes et les rivières, les auberges et les caravanes, les villes et les villages, les ruines et leurs ombres prestigieuses, le langage, les mœurs, les vêtements et les visages.
The mountains and the rivers, the guesthouses and the caravans, the towns and the villages, the ruins and their prestigious shadows, the language, the customs, the dress and the faces.
Of great wonder to Kessel, though omitted from this list, is the steppe:
…sans barrière, sans obstacle, sans fin, plate, nue, libre, lisse, avec, de tous côtés, pour seule frontière, le ciel.
…without barriers, without obstacles, without end, flat, bare, free, even, with, on all sides, as the only frontier, the sky.
Kessel had lived part of his childhood in Orenburg on the current border between Russia and Kazakhstan with his Lithuanian-Russian Jewish family. He seems to have been fascinated by the sense of freedom conjured by this ocean of grass, as well as by the lofty peaks of the Hindu Kush, and set his story in these wondrous landscapes, his plot enacted by the humans inhabiting them.
Neither of these two French authors was an authority on Afghanistan, nor had they spent significant – or indeed in the case of De Gobineau, any – periods in the country. As such, their works of fiction carry the flavour of an outsider’s impressions, unencumbered by attempts to describe or explain Afghan society or history in a comprehensive way. Both novels focus on a major character or feature of the Afghan human and cultural landscape, pivoting all action around it. De Gobineau’s choice went to the Pashtunwali and the nuances of ethical principles versus social pragmatism, while Kessel was fascinated by the raw power of buzkashi and the individual struggle for self-affirmation by its players.
Interestingly, both these features were later employed, rather profusely – and with varying degrees of success – as descriptors and tools for political analysis of the current Afghan conflict. They have even been considered archetypal models for understanding today’s Afghan society. That is despite the growing awareness of just how problematic it is to interpret a country’s history and society in this way. However, when these two pieces of literature were written, the comparative lack of knowledge of (and interest in) Afghanistan in Europe gave these texts a substantially different meaning, as Afghanistan was illustrated for European readers as the setting upon which richly depicted, but universally relatable dramas, unfolded.
De Gobineau’s story was written and published well after the shock of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) had passed (and a few years before the British staged a second, equally disastrous if more effective invasion of the country, the 1878-1890 conflict known as the Second Anglo-Afghan War). As for Kessel, buzkashi was an almost unheard of sport outside Afghanistan in the 1960s. It certainly had no claim to be a key to understanding the political and social mindset of the Afghans, as it later came to be characterised. What arguably fascinated both authors was how ‘extreme’ both these phenomena – buzkashi and the Pashtunwali – appeared to a western audience and how they could be employed as vectors to tell a remarkable story. As in other literary contexts (read our previous report here), Afghanistan’s value to writers was as an appropriate setting for heroic or extraordinary feelings and actions that would look conspicuously out of place and time if set elsewhere. This recurring feature, however, took radically different shapes in these two works, reflecting the long-time concerns of the two authors, more so than their direct experiences of Afghanistan.
De Gobineau’s Romeo and Juliet in Kandahar
Les amants de Kandahar appeared in de Gobineau’s collection of short stories “Les Nouvelles asiatiques” (published in English as Romances of the East). Written in the summer of 1870, Les amants de Kandahar is the only story in the series set in Afghanistan with Afghan characters (although Bamyan provides the setting for the final scene of another story, “L’illustre magicien” (The Illustrious Magician)). Like many of his literary works, Les Nouvelles asiatiques went largely unnoticed in France during the author’s lifetime but found many readers in other European countries, Germany in particular, and eventually came to be considered his masterpiece even in his own country.
Like other authors of his time, De Gobineau romanticised Afghans but departed from more typical portrayals which focused on Anglo-Afghan relations to depict nationalistic pride or religious fanaticism against a background of colonial wars. Rather, he saw Afghans as possessing the perfect human material for the chivalric tale he wanted to tell. He set his story in an intimate setting; it was to be a family tale of honour and revenge. Set in Kandahar, and undated, the story could be conceived as having taken place during the regencies of any of the Muhammadzai princes Sherdil, Purdil and Kohandil, Dost Muhammad Khan’s half-brothers, between 1818 and 1855.
De Gobineau’s story is simple, linear and universal – of forbidden love. His protagonists could equally have fallen out of a medieval chivalric poem or a Pashtun folk tale. The novel has the flavour of an oriental apologue, or moral fable and includes an abrupt final twist bringing the story to a sudden end. The author enriched the traditional plot of his tale with the skilful portrayal of some characters and his own reflections on love and pride. Mohsen Ahmedzyy, our hero, a young boy endowed by nature (and by his pure breed, the author hastens to inform us) with all conceivable gifts, lacks only the means to properly equip and arm himself to fight for his family’s name in their feud with the powerful Mouradzyy family. Against this backdrop, a second, more vicious feud develops inside Mohsen’s own extended family, when his father and his uncle quarrel and Mohsen, set on killing his cousin Elèm to defend his family’s honour, instead falls in love and elopes with his cousine, Djemylèh (Jamila).
One cannot help being sucked into Mohsen’s plight. The reader pities the lad, who daydreams about his future exploits, preoccupations he would usually share with his cousin Elèm, who was his companion and best friend. Every other moment brings him back to reality, with a jolt, a reality where he is now bound to kill his dear friend by way of settling the family feud. As the author puts it:
Les Hindous, les Persans peuvent librement s’abandonner au courant de leurs amitiés, aux influences de ses préférences, mais un Afghan! Ce qu’il doit à lui-même passe avant tout.
The Hindus, the Persians, they can freely give in to the flow of their friendships, to the influence of their preferences, but an Afghan! What he owes to himself comes first.
However, choosing love over duty, Mohsen and Djemylèh flee. Perchance, they are offered protection by rival Mouradzyy tribesmen. After first extending support to the young couple, the Mouradzyy chief, Abdullah Khan, reconsiders his generosity when faced with the possible wrath of the Kandahar prince whom Djemylèh’s father (and Mohsen’s uncle) has successfully lobbied. Abdullah Khan sends his men to fetch the couple and deliver them to their pursuers, but in doing so, he unwittingly seals the fate of his own son, whom he had earlier charged with assisting the eloping pair to flee.
De Gobineau seems to revel in this inflexible sacrifice of human affection on the altars of family honour and personal pride. The “atmosphère d’intrépidité heroique” (atmosphere of heroic intrepidness) blankets his protagonists’ actions, and it is with content that he drives home the agonising reflection that “on n’a pas sans peine un renom enviable.” (It’s not without some troubles that one has an enviable reputation).
As such, de Gobineau finds in Afghanistan the perfect setting for his then out-of-date (at least by European standards) romanticism, a blend of individual pride and family honour laced with courteous love and chivalry. Perhaps because of this romanticism, his fictionalised Afghanistan is different from the typical shallow, orientalist sketch of a society where all agency belongs to men and women are reduced to elusive shadows. His female characters hold centre stage in the drama, not only as objects of desire but as inspirers of and active collaborators in male action.
The ideal of (male) Afghan freedom, at least as portrayed by a number of 19th and 20th century foreign authors, is to pursue the life of a respected man in a male-dominated society bound neither by dependence towards other individuals nor fear of committing to collectively accepted norms and tenets of honour. Mohsen instead becomes a willing slave of love. When Mohsen meets Djemylèh, he relinquishes, as a token of his love, his honourable revenge and his dreams of an entry into the society of men as a man of principles and great deeds:
Mohsen donna sa vengeance, donna l’idée qu’il se faisait of son honneur, donna sa liberté, se donna lui- même, et, instinctivement, chercha encore, dans le plus profonds abîmes de son être, s’il ne pourrait donner plus.
Mohsen gifted his revenge, gifted the idea he entertained of his honour, he gifted his freedom, he gifted himself, and instinctively he looked further, in the deepest abysses of his being, in case he could gift something more.
His falling in love to the detriment of his duties in the family feud actually makes him worthy of residual respect not only by the author but also by other Afghans. This can happen only within the framework of the Pashtunwali tenets of melmastia (hospitality) and nenawati (sanctuary). Mohsen and Djemylèh are unknowingly rescued from the girl’s relatives by the very enemies of their family, the Mouradzyys. By appealing to the women of the household, they manage to secure the latter’s protection once their identity is revealed.
Here, and at other stages of the novel, in the face of reluctant men, it is up to the women to uphold the ideal of Afghaniyyat – Afghan-ness – summed up in de Gobineau’s understanding as that chivalrous attitude of the “peuple afghan, belliqueux, farouche, sanguinaire, mais singulièrement romanesque “(Afghan people, warlike, fierce, bloodthirsty but peculiarly romantic). In the pages of de Gobineau, women of all ages appear as intoxicated with dreams of honour and steadfastness as the younger and more naïve among the men, while lacking the cynicism and opportunism of the more experienced patriarchs. Djemylèh herself is cast as the engine driving action in the story. While always adopting the ‘proper’ demeanour of an Afghan woman, it is Djemylèh who forces the action upon the dreamy and irresolute Mohsen. It is in the words of Djemylèh that the only true heroism of the story – the one not dictated by society’s expectations – exudes, that of love.
While de Gobineau’s romanticism drives the novel’s main plot, not all characters in the novel are two-dimensional and idealised figures devoid of historical realism. Uncle Osman – a former “soubahdar” (officer) in the East India Company army in Bengal who enjoys a comfortable English pension regularly paid through a Hindu banker – provides an unexpectedly realistic characterisation in a story set in such an exotic scenario.
There are also those – deaf to the call of honour – who plot to unravel the safety net that nenawati is weaving around the two fugitives. These are a mullah and a physician, and their professional (bourgeoise) and racial characterisation (the physician is explicitly introduced as Qizilbash) see them intended to be set apart from the noble and noble-minded Afghans (here, exclusively meaning Pashtuns). Although realistic for town-dwellers and people engaged in the liberal professions in those times, this identification again reflects the author’s mindset. In the novel, De Gobineau further engages in a veritable critique of the courtesan, the antithesis of his attitude towards noblesse oblige and knightly spirit: “Un courtisan vit de concessions, d’atermoiements, de moyens termes de toute nature” (a courtesan lives on concessions, procrastinations and half measures of all kinds).
The story’s overall tone is rather different from that of the other short stories that compose De Gobineau’s Les Nouvelles asiatiques. It completely lacks the humorous notes frequent elsewhere, typically applied to Europeans or, even more so, Asians trying to behave like Europeans. The latter provide De Gobineau with grotesque characters which he uses to portray the deleterious effect that, according to him, modern western civilisation, especially in an incomplete form, has on individuals and groups. Instead, both the Europeans and their imitators are markedly absent from the Les amants de Kandahar. For De Gobineau as well, Afghanistan is where the ancient virtues of the non-European races – at least of the nobles-by-birth specimens among these – can best shine.
Leaving racial considerations aside, the Afghans portrayed by de Gobineau are courteous, heroic and quixotic fellows who – lamentably, and much like the author in his own view – have to cope with “la realité odieuse” (odious reality) – and therefore to suppress their human feelings, see their desires thwarted, their dreams shattered and their ambitions frustrated or achieved only at the highest cost. The little of de Gobineau’s short story that rings familiar and true in today’s Afghanistan is found here, in the ‘odious reality’ which has made and still makes many Afghans victims of the external machinations and social pressures that fuel the ongoing and violent conflict. Also, in the story as in reality, it is often women and young people who become the typical victims of such conflicts managed within patriarchal institutions centred around competition, honour and revenge.
In de Gobineau’s story, ‘odious reality’ means that those who heed the call of love and honour die. Akbar Mouradzyy – the family leader’s son – stands up against his father’s savvier, if treacherous course of action and forfeits his own life in the vain attempt to defend the young runaway couple. Akbar’s act is the insubordination of the son against a father who has failed to live up to the honourable model that he had embodied up to that point, and which formed a constituent part of his son’s identity and pride. Of course, there is also Akbar’s desire not to grant a rival family the satisfaction of moral superiority in the face of his own people’s dishonourable behaviour, but this sits in the shadow of an insuppressible principle of individual self-determination.
A road trip with gangrene told by Kessler
The subject of paternal authority and filial devotion/emancipation seems difficult to avoid when writing fiction with Afghan characters in French. It is not only in Les amants de Kandahar, where it brings about the sudden, tragic final turn of events, but also in Kessel’s Les cavaliers. This is a story about fathers and sons, not in the form of a swift moral tale, but rather in a long and windy Bildungsroman, its short title notwithstanding.
The central and longer section of the story is occupied by the return of an injured buzkashi rider (a tchopendozin the francophone transliteration of the term) from Kabul to his home, the steppe of Faryab province. The rider, Ouroz, braves the dangers posed by his broken and septic leg, the central Hindu Kush range at the closing in of winter and the cupidity of other humans. But, above all, he weathers his own nihilistic death drive after he failed to achieve immortal fame by winning the first-ever buzkashi organised in the capital which had the king in attendance.
The story offers Kessel the chance for a broader fresco that, despite many elements of fantasy and some liberties taken, reach a near ethnological level of detail when it comes to material life and landscape; it offers a faithful glimpse of what Kessel saw of the 1950s and 1960s Afghanistan. In various sections, the author indulges in sketching the Afghanistan he saw, deploying beyond any utility to the plot all the many elements that so fascinated western travellers of the time. Landscapes, human features, and even animal life feature in rich description. This sort of ‘informed exoticist’ portrayal was later expanded on by scores of travellers and sojourners in the country (and is still prevalent today). Afghanistan, previously stereotyped as the nemesis of European colonialism and the supposed progress it brought, was now shown through the lens of these descriptions of everyday life, scenery and nature. This was to be followed, of course, after 1978, as the characterisation of Afghanistan as a land beset by unrest, tribal chaos and violence.
Kessel’s description of the royal buzkashi match, held in Bagrami just outside Kabul, resembles a running commentary. The depth of detail and the play by play account of the game betray Kessel’s fascination. Indeed, the sight of that remarkable game, which the author witnessed in person, may have been the impulse to write the book. It is as if Kessel could not shake off the image of a daring rider he saw in action the day he watched buzkashi and followed him further by imagining his long and troubled journey home.
After scorning modern hospital care and the sympathy of his fellow riders, our protagonist Ouroz mounts his horse Jahol and, with the help of his faithful groom Mokkhi, sets out on the road across the Hindu Kush. Unable to cope with defeat, he immediately looks for another match to play and new adversaries to beat, deliberately moulding his loyal servant into a rival, in the absence of others. All along the way, he courts death and total ruin for himself and those around him, seeking death out of shame for having failed to surpass his father as a great tchopendoz. The whole hazardous trip, all his choices and reckless behaviour, aimed at pushing his daring and resistance to its uttermost limits in the search for new challenges to overcome in his quest for glory:
Le fait essentiel, admirable, unique était qu’il allait jouer son retour a Maimana, sa victoire contre Mokkhi, lui-même et le monde, son honneur et son âme, sur un seul coup de chance et d’instinct. Et seul contre tous. Puissance d’un roi. Faintaisie d’un dieu. Et dût-il perdre, il serait, en verité, le gagnant. Un tel pouvoir valait toute la vie et toute la mort.
The essential, admirable, only fact was that he was going to stake his return to Maimana, his victory over Mokkhi, himself and the world, his honour and his soul, on a single stroke of luck and instinct. Alone against all. Might of a king. Imagination of a god. And, were he to lose, he would become, in truth, the winner. Such power was worth all life and all death.
Ouroz’s journey through the Hindu Kush highlands is laden with rich and atmospheric descriptions of the country’s landscape, alternatively majestic and ghostly, stirring supernatural fears, earthly obsessions and sudden, short-lived outbursts of love and daring.
Only at the very end of his path will he find the resolve to sever and leave behind the rotting leg that, like his former self, is poisoning him. Finally, he meets his larger-than-life father – whose approbation he craved, and against which mere glory seemed to pale – and finds new reasons and means to carry on living.
Toursène, Ouroz’s father, is a retired legendary tchopendoz and the respected administrator of the stables of the local buzkashi patron, in charge of selecting Maimana’s team that will go to Kabul to play for the king. Although he does not leave the village, he undergoes a transformation much like that of his son. In his case, the epiphany is facilitated by the visit of an itinerant old storyteller who seems to know everybody and everything and whose wisdom promotes Toursène to question the mask he dons for family and underlings.
After realising that the proud and uncertain lives they have lived so far have meant nothing, father and son cast off their old selves and finally meet at the end of the novel to embrace each other for the first time.
Kessel’s main characters issue from a super-provincial background (even by 1950s Afghanistan’s standards) in Dawlatabad district of Faryab province. This ‘guaranteed otherness’ allows Kessel to present them more easily as one-dimensional mythological heroes, to the point of defying realism. But it happens only on the surface and in the seclusion of a small universe. Their isolation from the broader world, even in the Afghan context, is made clear: reference to the sealing of Afghan Turkestan from the rest of Central Asia after the Bolshevik Revolution is made at the beginning of the book and the impassable barrier represented by the Hindu Kush is one of the main leitmotifs throughout. When the characters are forced to exit this small universe, they also depart their comfort zone and the place where their identities are established and frozen, and cracks begin to appear in their personalities and behaviour. Simultaneously, knowledge of new things and places, at first disdained or even painful, also bring new desires, interests and points of view.
[C}haque année davantage, Ouroz avait nourri, fortifié son dédain pour le troupeau de ses semblables et, avec lui, sa superbe et sa solitude. Or, cette nuit, les jeux de la lampe fumeuse effaçaient, lavainet chez les compagnons d’Ouroz toute disgrâce et tout stigmate.… ‘Suis-je si différent d’eux?’ se demanda soudain Ouroz.
[W]ith every passing year, Ouroz had nurtured, fortified his disdain for the human flock and, with this, his superbness and solitude. Now, that night, the light-play of the smoky lamp cancelled, cleansed Ouroz’s fellow travellers of all ignominy and stigma.… “Am I so different from them?” he suddenly asked himself.
While Ouroz swings back and forth between feverish delirium and lucidity, between developing some humanity and relapsing into his erstwhile wolfish haughtiness, Mokkhi, the groom, also changes. Tempted by Ouroz, who bequeaths his horse to him in case of death, he gradually loses his self-denying loyalty and grows resentful and envious of his master. In the course of the journey, he falls in love with a nomad girl with whom he plots to kill Ouroz and steal his money and horse. He especially covets the magnificent horse, Jahol. While he had previously been content to tend to the horse, Jahol becomes a symbol of his ambition for social mobility.
Of the main characters, the nomad girl Zéré is the one denied a degree of introspection and evolution by Kessel. She is the cunning and ruthless leading half of the pair, but a far cry from a mere ‘femme fatale’. Having fled her bleak existence as a young widow, she sees Mokkhi as her potential prince charming and sets out to get him his white horse. She can be viewed as rebelling against the injustices done to her by society because of her gender and low social status, conditions brought to the readers’ attention. However, her schemes and ambitions remain commensurate to her character: as the prize for the crime she intends to commit, she dreams merely to live out the life of a wealthy nomad in the lush summer pastures of Hazarajat and of the merry nomad fairs there.
Lest one forgets, Les cavaliers is also a book about horses, for a public of horse-lovers. Indeed, the salvation of Ouroz’s soul and the spark of humanity that tames his nihilistic misanthropy are found in the love and admiration Jahol has managed to win from him.
Kessel’s voluminous novel of over 500 pages has different ambitions compared to De Gobineau’s short sketch. Despite its adventurous tone and the didacticism with which it describes buzkashi and horses, Les cavaliers brings centre stage themes too universal to be derived only from the setting. On the contrary, they are forced upon the setting to some extent. Kessel’s craftsmanship, however, resides in making these themes of his personal choosing come alive through the extreme characters and scenarios he describes.
Afghanistan is employed as a setting for a story about fathers and sons. It is an exploration of the paradox of a father offering a strong role model to his son at the cost of openness, affection and respect for his son’s choices and goals in life. A story about coming to terms with growing old, the envy of youth, and the fear that one will eventually be replaced. A tale about the plight of a son growing up in his father’s shadow, never gaining the approval he so desires, and as a result developing a cruel and loveless nature, to the point of literally mutilating himself.
Unlike some later texts, Kessel’s indulgence in lengthy and informed descriptions of horse riding, buzkashi, camel and ram fights are not intended as a code to explain the political, but merely as a key to enter at least a section of society, to put the readers in that place at the same level of knowledge and participation as the novel’s characters. This is a rather innocent and acceptable narrative ruse, especially befitting the mixed public of adults and teenagers the book was meant to entertain.
The author exploits the peculiarities, real, perceived and often exaggerated, of Afghan society and culture to highlight these tensions and maintain an effortlessly dramatic tone. However, this is a far cry from describing Afghan society as a unique and exotic ‘other’, a recurrent temptation to many other literary writers. Kessel does not try to recreate typical Afghans with his protagonists, opting instead for extreme characters whose behaviour is marvelled at even by fellow Afghans in the book and who serve the purpose of the tale he wants to tell. This allows contemporary and better-informed readers, and Afghans themselves, to forgive him some of the liberties he took with men and beasts in pursuit of telling a story of universally applicable passions and emotions.
Possibly to avoid the catharsis in a timeless fairy tale world or perhaps to pay homage to his own recollections, the author adroitly manages to slip in a few mementoes of modernity. In doing so, he never gives the impression of modernity as an encroaching reality, and it does not become, as might be expected, a driver of the tensions between father and son. The aeroplanes traversing the starry night sky over a silent necropolis in the remotest corner of the Hindu Kush, the foreign nurse in the Kabul hospital whose presence and demeanour scandalise Ouroz, the honking American car of the Faryab governor, all seem juxtaposed to, more than engrained in, the reality inhabited by the protagonists, an outer and inner reality that these few hints of the modernity to come cannot shake or change.
Old and new narratives of Afghanistan
Old tales may sometimes have a direct influence on the present. Les cavaliers, for example, significantly influenced Louis Meunier, a French writer and director who has worked extensively in and on Afghanistan. Meunier has often cited Kessel’s influence on his first Afghan experiences. Among his many works focusing on Afghanistan’s landscape and culture must be counted those relating his travel on horseback across the Hindu Kush – inspired by Ouroz’s adventure – and his passion for buzkashi. This spurred him to become a buzkashi player and to compete in official buzkashi tournaments – the rarest achievement for a foreigner. The game is the subject of his award-winning documentary, Les Cavaliers afghans (The Afghan Horsemen), as per the last words of his film: “On ne sait jamais où la lecture d’un livre peut mener”(You never know where reading a book can bring you).
At a more political level, it would be interesting to assess how much the construction of Afghanistan and its inhabitants as a literary topos in the mind of the French public, thanks also to authors such as de Gobineau and Kessel, contributed to popularising mujahedin commander Ahmad Shah Massud, who always enjoyed high levels of popularity in France, drawing upon a mixture of principled political stands and romantic fascination.
More commonly, the importance of dusting off age-old texts lies in the possibility of tracing back today’s stereotypes, clichés, and attitudes about Afghanistan and its inhabitants to a few ‘mother’ sources, replicated and canonised by subsequent authors. Les amants de Kandahar and Les cavaliers belong to a tradition of presenting an Afghanistan, experienced only over a short time or imagined, to a home public with only very limited information on the country.
The recent decades of war have drastically changed the amount and nature of information on Afghanistan available to the global public. This is true even in the world of fiction where, despite Afghanistan becoming a ‘literary franchise’ with many titles hastily published to take advantage of the interest aroused globally by the country after the 9/11 attacks and the following political vicissitudes, some quality standards seem to have been reached. In particular, there is now among most foreign authors more awareness of the need to avoid misrepresentation, misinterpretation or selective appropriation and endorsement of single features of Afghan culture and society. This is partly thanks to the increasing contribution of Afghan authors to the narrative about Afghanistan in international languages, but also to the increased interconnections between Afghanistan and the world over the past two decades. This has made it more difficult to exoticise the country as a totally alien ‘other’.
However, for every old way of stereotyping that dies out, a new one risks being born. The recent dramatic political reversal, with the Taleban takeover, risks a rekindling of clichés about Afghanistan, especially so if international diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and the world veer towards a closed-door policy. Because of this, all foreign authors wanting to write about Afghanistan should confront themselves with their literary forebears. A bit like the fathers and son’s relationships explored by the French authors presented here, modern-day writers on Afghanistan could learn from their predecessors, avoiding the mistakes they made and trying to do better at understanding and portraying a country not their own.
This article was last updated on 2 Jan 2022
Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan (DAFA)
Joseph Arthur de Gobineau
Les Cavaliers afghans