Vulpes Libris

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It’s complicated

When I was 14 or so, the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and I thought, this is it, the next world war. I remained nervous about the Middle East at the back of my mind, and have never been there. When I was in my twenties, a flatmate who was working for a refugee NGO/non-profit had to spend part of a day in the airport of a very restrictive Islamic state while she waited for a plane to take her to where she was to do some work, and we were furious together that she would have to wear a burqa. I relied on newspapers to tell me what I needed to know about the strange and alienating customs and terrifying violence in that part of the world. So I didn’t really find out very much beyond stories to frighten and enrage the West.

GamesWithoutRules-CoverWhen I saw this history of Afghanistan, Games Without Rules, was available for review, I was intrigued because it’s written by an Afghan. Who better to interpret to the western world the ways of his country? It also helps that the author, Tamim Ansary, is a teacher of creative writing: he certainly knows how to write, and he makes the complicated and extraordinarily frustrating history of his country seem almost easy to understand. For the first time, I really do feel as if I can appreciate why the Taliban exist, why no-one seems to be able to do anything about their awful actions and, and why governing Afghanistan is phenomenally difficult. I also understand a great deal more about Afghan culture, and am just astonished that if I can understand such basic history, why on earth didn’t the British, the Americans, even the Soviet Union, absorb these facts too, while they were planning their invasions, occupations and infiltrations? It might have saved millions of lives, and stopped the Taliban from ever happening. The Chinese have already begun their inveiglement of Afghan power brokers (who used to be called warlords) with money for minerals. Do they have any idea what they’re dealing with? Actually, they probably do: they didn’t bomb the country before they started to negotiate.

Ansary’s basic idea is that there are two Afghanistans: the politicised, westernised, technocratic Afghanistan, which wants a modern life for all its people, where women are as free as men and education is about more than just the Qur’an; and the ancient life of the country, which runs on an ancient system of allegiances to clan, tribe and family. ‘Aggressive sociability’ is one of Ansary’s phrases that stuck in my mind to explain Afghan insistence on hospitality to and protection of a guest, which leads to new allegiances that will cut across older ones. I was familiar with this kind of society from the Old Testament, but now I see that it’s alive and well in Afghanistan.  Did you know that ‘Talib’ means ‘student’, and that ‘Taliban’ was originally a mildly derisory name for the students from Pakistani madrassahs and refugee camps from the Soviet invasion era, led by Mullah Omar, who was very popular because he robbed from the rich to give to the poor? ‘The Taliban’ is synonymous with men who run their lives by principles very similar to those in the Old Testament, though I don’t know how close Shari’a law is to Bronze Age Mosaic law. Both are inexplicable and alien for Westerners. However, according to Ansary, we should remember that there is no such thing as THE Taliban, since there are hundreds of groups led by reactionary men resistant to the modernising impulses in Afghanistan. The consensus of the community creates leaders in Afghanistan, so a charismatic and clever man with a good grasp of crowd management and rhetoric can go far, and create havoc in his own image.

History is such an easy thing to read and be persuaded by, and also very dangerous, because it’s selective. I have no way of knowing how legitimate or sound Tamim Ansary is as an interpreter of history, though his narrative is so level-headed, balanced, and  wide-ranging, I am led to feel confident that nothing major has been left out. His footnotes are not to academic standard, but there are 14 pages of these, and 8 pages of bibliography. That’s pretty good for a popular history aimed at a general readership. So I’m inclined to take his book at face value and say, yes, this IS the book you need to read if you want to understand why Afghanistan is more about its tribal groups than its rather arbitrary borders, why it’s in the mess it’s in now, why its guerrilla fighters are impossible for the armed Western invader to ‘mop up’, and what the Taliban may be doing to modernise Afghanistan despite itself.

Tamim Ansary, Games without Rules. The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan (New York: Public Affairs, 2012). ISBN – 978-1-61039-094-1 ($27.99)

Kate publishes weekly podcasts on books that she really, really likes, on

About Kate

Writer, reviewer, literary historian and publisher at Also a Bath Quaker.

4 comments on “It’s complicated

  1. Lisa
    February 25, 2013

    Definitely a book that I need to read, as I am completely boggled by this history. Great review, Kate.

  2. Moira
    February 26, 2013

    Yes, terrific review … I was in my early twenties when the Russians invaded, and remember thinking exactly the same thing about world war being imminent. I also remember an older, wiser friend saying “The Russians stand no chance … they seem to have forgotten their own history, and indeed ours, if they ever knew it …” or words to that effect. And of course, he was absolutely right.

  3. Hilary
    February 26, 2013

    I really enjoyed this review – measured and persuasive – thank you, Kate. It does sound as though this is essential reading to understand Afghanistan better, so a great recommendation.

  4. Jackie
    February 26, 2013

    You did a good job reviewing what was no doubt a complicated book. I’ve read a couple books about specific topics of this area, but none was an overview, such as this. It sounds like a must read to understand what is going on in that part of the world.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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