Book review: Jason Burke – On the Road to Kandahar

Road to Kandahar
OK, so I am a little late on this one. Jason Burke’s ‘On the Road to Kandahar’ was published nearly eight years ago back in 2006.

Back in 2006, a number of very well respected authors and critics reviewed it.

Jon Snow writing in The Observer commented:

“Burke is not the first to identify the folly of mythologising al-Qaeda into a Soviet-scale monolith with a capacity to destroy the West. But what he does more effectively than most is to use the personal experience of a decade and a half of reporting across the Islamic world to identify the consequences of the West’s flawed response to 9/11.”

Leni Wild writing for IPPR commented:

“Burke highlights the huge diversity that exists in the Islamic world. Whether in Kurdistan, Kabul or Kashmir he encounters a full spectrum of beliefs, worldviews and perspectives…What makes this book stand out is that he does not overlook the radical and destructive use of Islam in various regions. Suicide bombings, honour killings and the other acts of violence carried out by some Islamic militants are all described as ‘abhorrent acts’ which are used to send public messages to communities.”

And so I too add my list to the names of those, mainly on the left, who have enjoyed and I dare say even learnt a bit reading Burke’s second book.

What inspired me about this book though was not Burke’s incredible insight as described by Snow or Wild, the self-evident wonderful use of flowing near poetic language or even his admirable ability to summarize insurmountably complex issues but his ability to draw the very real human side out in each of his anecdotes.

Talking to an unrepentant failed suicide bomber in a cramped prison cell Burke resists the temptation to throw around cheap generalised adjectives – at no point do you read that he was ‘radicalised’ ‘indoctrinated’ ‘alienated’. Instead Burke encourages you to see what he sees – the moustache that ‘looks like it could be used to clean shoes’, the drawn out expressions in tired faces, or the incongruous western clothing worn.

Real expressions, clothes and facial hair worn by real people.

Although the theme of the book is an extension of his first book, ‘Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam’ (2003), the theme for this follow up is much human orientated. Whilst his first book explored how the development of Al-Qaeda as a concept influenced both people and institutions, this latter book flips this analysis and looks at how people interact with different concepts within Islam – including the globalised jihadist ideology associated with Al-Qaeda.

It is this deeply personal approach that makes ‘On the Road to Kandahar’ so accessible even when exploring subjects such as suicide bombings.

Written in the first person Burke encourages a trust in the description of the flawed and multifaceted people he meets along his travels because of his own willingness to acknowledge and laugh at his own flawed and multifaceted approach to war journalism.

As well as the often farcical situations he puts himself into, you’re also exposed to his thoughts in deeper more poignant moments. One of which that stands out in my mind and sets Burke apart from other gung-ho macho war correspondents is when, on returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, he openly talks of having to step outside overcome by the emotion after seeing young girls back in school.

It is a genuinely touching moment in a book dominated by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

‘On the Road to Kandahar’ takes you on a journey to Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, Britain, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and back to Kurdistan and Pakistan and without realising you pick up snippets of history and politics along the way. But unlike much of Burke’s articles or his first book, you feel that the politics, history and social analysis are just footnotes to help him better describe his time, his passion and his love/hate relationship with all that he has seen and all the people he has met over the last two decades.

I was once told that an argument is only as strong as the opposing view it takes on. What Burke has done is compiled a wonderful celebration of the diversity of life that is framed in some of the darkest contexts that the last two decades have produced.

For this alone – it is a literacy triumph. 

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