On the Road to Kandahar: Travels Through Conflict in the Islamic World First Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
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His interpretations of what he sees, is subtle. He also takes the time to try and understand the people, and have real conversations with them. In doing so, he shows us a real glimpse of what is actually happening in the region.
When he says, for instance, that Iraqis just want to put food on the table, we are suddenly reminded that we are all the same under the skin.
We often look at people through the eyes of religion, not through the eyes of humanity. He brings this to the fore.
A very good book, one well worth the read.
I look for a few specific things in a good piece of travel writing. First, it needs to be well written, and Burke crafts strong, clear, concise, fast-flowing writing. He writes like a journalist, which means he trades flowery metaphors for sharp, direct statements. His descriptions of characters and places capture both the details and the mood, which ends up being vital to the points he wants to make. I also want a writer with insight. The author certainly needs to show insight into the cultures he encounters, but if self-exploration is also a goal, he or she also needs to show personal insight. Without insight I'd rather read a Lonely Planet guidebook. I liked Burke's approach. He is honest about his knowledge of other cultures, and he admits what he thinks while also staying aware of his lack of understanding. He describes violent acts and acknowledges that the deeper conflicts often prove to be too old and twisted for him to fully grasp. As for personal insight, Burke goes looking for that only in order to understand the conflicts he experiences. He might explore his own reactions under enemy fire, but it's only to better understand the nature of violence. This isn't a work of "spiritual travel" or a man's search for meaning, but it recognizes that any questions about the nature of violence require an understanding of your own nature. Finally, I have to like the author. Reading a travel book is like sharing a journey, and Burke seems like a cool guy--impressed with his travels without becoming arrogant, tough without going macho on the reader, and knowledgeable without needing to be an expert. He never once annoyed me, which is a bit of a rarity in travel writing (and in real travel).
As for the ideas in "On the Road to Kandahar," I think it's fair to say that Burke ends up with more questions than answers. More accurately, he ends up with the same deep questions and only some preliminary answers, but he also learns how complex and troubling the original questions were. He wants to understand what motivates violence in the parts of the Islamic world he has visited, and what the end result of it all will be. The travel writing helps collect information for the first question. He talks to would-be suicide bombers, Kurdish resistance fighters, and Taliban sympathizers--many of them unlikable and unsavory characters--and tries to get at their motivations. He tries to piece it all together into a coherent understanding. He brings up the stress of change, and how the clash with modernity causes conflict in previously peaceful cultures. He discusses al-Qaeda's philosophies and how satellite television and the internet have allowed these philosophies to modify the grievances of local cultures. He explores how cultures react after they accept violence as an answer, and after they see the results of that violence on other cultures and on their own culture. He realizes that 99% of the world simply wants to get by and live life--to raise children and enjoy friendships and have enough to eat and drink each day.
And, finally, he sort-of comes to an optimistic conclusion--that cultures end up turning against violence. He sees much of the conflict in the Islamic world as a short-term answer (even if "short-term" means one hundred years), a trial attempt to solve problems with suicide bombers and violent revolution, and sees it all fading away once the cultures turn against it. I say "sort-of" because Burke is far from convinced, especially after experiencing the closeness of the London bombings. In the end, it's the best answer he has right now. And, in the end, it's this combination of intellectual honesty and optimism--and its telling in an exciting and engaging way--that helps make this such an outstanding book.
Admittedly, I'm impressed with what has kept Mr.Burke busy the last 2 decades. But, there was nothing ground breaking or amazing here. The entire book comes off a bit flat, and shallow. If you're looking for a fun(relatively speaking), walk through the Middle East since 1990, then this book may entertain you. I was looking for more info on the "War on Terror", and didn't find much in here.
A much better travelogue through Afghanistan (albeit, without the political analysis), is Jason Elliot's An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan .