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The final chapter of Jason Burke’s book, On the Road to Kandahar, Travels Through Conflict in the Islamic World is titled “Conclusion: London and Pakistan,” and therefore I received fair warning. It was disconcerting, nevertheless, when I came to this sentence and realized that it was absolutely the last one.
The lights came on first in the distance over the city and then closer in the village and then long looping strings of multicolored bulbs flickered into life above the gates of the shrine and very soon it was almost dark and we walked away.
For 281 pages, I had been spoiled by the breakneck pace and the thrill of the next adventure packaged in some great writing. After he walked away from the Bari Imam shrine on the outskirts of Islamabad with his friend and Paksitani journalist, Ershad Mahmud, I fully expected Burke to jump into yet another battered old car with yet another translator, drive once more over bumpy roads through inhospitable terrain to find yet another nook of the ‘Islamic world’ in which to meet many people – farmers, teachers, children, doctors, pharmacists, militants, freedom fighters, mullahs, writers and journalists, coalition soldiers, the Taliban – and then write all about it in great descriptive detail in his lucid, thoughtful, perceptive, honest style.
The book begins in Kurdistan around the time of the First Gulf War in the summer of 1991, with a 21-year old Burke crossing the border into northern Iraq from Turkey and ends, 15 years later in that tiny shrine outside Islamabad, in the immediate aftermath of the July 2005 London bombings. The journey that begins as a “post-adolescent adventure” with pre-conceived notions of Islam and of what Muslims look like, with religion as a hazy backdrop and not necessarily the focus, ends on the thought that there is “no general theory that could explain ‘the Islamic world’ and that to search for one was not only futile but in fact counter-productive.”
In the intervening period, Burke’s travels take him to Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, Britain, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and back to Kurdistan and Pakistan. They take him to tired old villages bombed out of existence in the wars of the past decade and a half, their people, homes and lives spilling out on to the streets and fields along with the rubble; to the funeral of a 13 year old Palestinian child, a casualty of the Israeli response to the intifada; into the toilets of the Bagram airbase north of Kabul on whose walls are scrawled words of fear and wisdom of American soldiers; into the front lines of the second Iraq War, at the wrong end of shells bombarding a convoy of vehicles; into prisons housing ex-torturers under the Saddam Hussein regime and failed suicide bombers; into many hotels, mosques, schools and homes to meet members of the various groups fighting and killing for their various ideologies.
This travel memoir is a thinking man’s account of his journeys. There is one particular passage in the book about the ubiquitousness of Saddam Hussein’s portraits in Iraq which goes on to analyze the pictures in their various forms (at one point, Burke even attends an “exhibition of ‘work by new young artists’ in which every single painting was a portrait of the leader”).
… soon themes began to emerge and I realized that you could chart the whole of the recent history of Iraq, and the recent political history of the Middle East, through the daubs that defaced half the country’s walls.
The pictures could be split into six main categories, each of which had been most favoured at a different period and each of which represented a key constituency in Iraq for Saddam. Thus they revealed both the image the dictator was promoting at the time they were made and the ideology that was then more broadly dominant in the region.
The account of the interplay of religion and political ideology as reflected in these portraits through nearly three decades of Saddam’s rule is fascinating and is illustrative of the thoughtful treatment various ideas and themes receive at the hands of Burke in the rest of the book.
Equally fascinating and uplifting, and for me the most attractive part of the book, are Burke’s accounts of his meeting with many people over the years and the detailed observations of their lives and their condition. When you have peeled off all the layers – the conflicts, the ideologies, the war and its justifications, the terror, the insurgency – what you are left with are people. People who just want to “get on with their lives.” Burke describes the condition of the Iraqis on his return to the country in 2003 and says simply, “They were just trying to get by, to put dinner on the table … or simply gather the confidence to walk the streets without fear.”
Particularly memorable are his portraits of a group of refugee families in a ruined school sixty miles outside of Kabul, of Zara and her mother who he meets in Qala Diza in Kurdistan, first in 1991 and then again in 2003, and that of Omran, who had been a soldier in the Iraqi army in 1991, his body ravaged by a cancer he developed five years later. Nothing we know of any about these places and their citizens, or the terrorism and insurgency that seem to pervade mainstream media coverage of these places, none of these matter when you read about these people and their need for the most basic of human necessities – food, a home, medicines, their families, the well-being of their children – and their yearning for peace.
Given this elemental level at which he connects with the people in the countries in which he travels, Burke is, by turns, frustrated, angry and disillusioned with the war on terror and the intelligence gathering and policy making that provided the momentum for launching that war. While Burke welcomes the attempts to free the Iraqis from dictatorship, he is quite categorical in his indictment of British and American policy making (he calls the efforts of the British and American governments to rally support for the second Iraq War “one of the biggest ever deceptions of democratic populations in recent history”) and faults the governments’ “failure to comprehend the true nature of the threat” of modern Islamic militancy.
At the end of the day, Islamic militancy, according to Burke, had not won over “the ordinary people of the Islamic world” and Osama Bin Laden had been wrong when he believed he had their support in the wake of the 2001 attacks. It’s hard not to get carried away by Burke’s faith in the fundamental goodness of human nature and equally hard not to be rattled when that faith is shaken and there is confusion in the face of the attacks in London in July 2005. Burke is quick to acknowledge, honestly, that the views of people he had met with in the years earlier “had been repellent but had not seemed a personal threat” to him, but that his reactions to those very same people had changed when the terror attacks hit too close to home.
The book does not, in the end, tie up all loose ends neatly or provide categorical solutions to the problems of terrorism. What it does do is to take that giant important first step toward understanding the people, the issues and the ideas at play. If you’ve ever wondered about all these countries of the “Islamic world” you read about everyday in the newspapers and watch images of on television; if you’ve ever wondered about the lives of ordinary people in these countries; if you’ve ever wanted to know about the inner workings of a suicide-bomber or a terrorist; if you’ve ever wanted to know what it is like to be a journalist on the road in some of the most beautiful and brutal parts of the world; then On the Road to Kandahar is a must-read.