What Might Have Been: Reflections on Afghanistan

“Afghanistan’s barren, ragged desolation moaned a long dirge of ancient wonder, the earth’s broken features ready to receive fallen horsemen, the lost traveller, and all the butchered tribes.”

Zia Haider Rahman, In Light of What We Know

 

I don’t usually post my thoughts on recently released books, but in the case my close friend Chris Lowry’s richly textured photographic retrospective, Afghanistan: Before the Rain of Fire, an exception is clearly warranted.

Why?

I would describe this book as dazzling.

Evocative.

Disturbing.

But most of all,  as befits a project which has been incubating for forty years, these pages are deeply moving.

This is no ordinary travel book. With the sensibility – and sensitivity – of Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, Lowry’s striking images are interspersed with sparse, but illuminating text. Through observation and anecdote the author captures a country on the verge of a wrenching descent into violent disintegration.  Torn asunder as the object of geopolitical rivalry between the superpowers, only to emerge as the epicentre of what came to be known as the Global War on Terror, Afghanistan has today become a tragic case study in blowback.

Lowry reminds us that Afghanistan was once an exotic and enticing destination, and Kabul a crossroads of civilizations. His book is a treasury of memory. It provides essential testament to the existence of alternative possibilities, and underscores the terrible cost of empires and ideologies in collision.

Left to its own devices, Afghanistan might well have developed into a diverse and dynamic nexus, something much more than a political football in the latest installment of the Great Game.

As author and analyst Robert Fisk once famously remarked, “The only thing we ever learn is that we never learn…”

Afghanistan remains a festering sore on the flesh of the international body politic, and there is blood on many hands.

By poignantly and powerfully illustrating  what might have been, Lowry has admirably performed a noble service.

Lest we forget.

 

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