Category Archives: Afghanistan

The King’s Shadow by Edmund Richardson

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As he left Agra behind, Lewis had no way of knowing that he was walking into one of history’s most incredible stories. He would beg by the roadside and take tea with kings. He would travel with holy men and become the master of a hundred disguises. He would see things no westerner had ever seen before, and few have glimpsed since. And, little by little, he would transform himself from an ordinary soldier into one of the greatest archaeologists of the age. He would devote his life to a quest for Alexander the Great.

There’s an old Afghan proverb: ‘First comes one Englishman as a traveller; then come two and make a map; then comes an army and takes the country. Therefore it is better to kill the first Englishman.’ He did not know it yet, but Masson is the reason that proverb exists. He was the first Englishman.

You have probably never heard of Charles Masson. At the time of his creation in 1827, no one else had either. Nor had his creator. For six long years, Private James Lewis had endured soldiering in the military force of the East India Company (EIC) in sundry nations and city-states, in what is now India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. He had hoped for a life better than what was possible in a squalid London. Dire economic times had driven large numbers of people into bankruptcy and poverty. And if they were already poor, it drove them to desperation. The government’s response was to threaten to kill those protesting because of their inability to pay their debts. There had to be a better option somewhere, anywhere. But it had turned out not to be the better life that he had hoped for.

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Edmund Richardson– image from RNZ

Lewis suffered from the multiple curses of curiosity and intelligence. He had tired of the often corrupt, ignorant, mean-spirited officers and officials above him, and knew he would not be allowed to leave any time soon. When opportunity presented, Lewis and another disgruntled employee took off, went AWOL, strangers in a strange land. And in the sands of the Indian subcontinent, having fled across a vast no man’s land, feverish, desperate, and terrified of being apprehended by the EIC or its agents, Lewis happened across an American, Josiah Harlan, leading a small mercenary force in support of restoring the king of Afghanistan, and the adventure begins. Lewis vanished into the sands and Charles Masson was born into Lewis’s skin.

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Josiah Harlan, The Man Who Would be King – image from Wiki

A ripping yarn, The King’s Shadow (Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City in the UK) tells of the peregrinations and travails of Lewis/Masson from the time of his desertion in 1827 to his death in 1853. It will remind you of Rudyard Kipling tales, particularly The Man who Would Be King. The real life characters on whom that story is based appear in these pages.

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Dost Mohammad Khan. – considered a wise ruler by many, he was devilishly dishonest – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

It certainly sounds as if the world James Lewis thought he was leaving in London, a fetid swamp of human corruption, cruelty, and depravity, had followed him to the East. There is an impressive quantity of backstabbing going on. Richardson presents us with a sub-continental panorama of rogues. Con-men, narcissists, spies, the power-hungry, the deluded, the pompous, the vain, the ignorant, and the bigoted all set up tents here, and all tried to get the best of each other. There are political leaders who show us a bit of wisdom. More who know nothing of leadership except the perks. They all traipse across a land that Alexander the Great had travelled centuries before.

His quest would take him across snow-covered mountains, into hidden chambers filled with jewels, and to a lost city buried beneath the plains of Afghanistan. He would unearth priceless treasures and witness unspeakable atrocities. He would unravel a language which had been forgotten for over a thousand years. He would be blackmailed and hunted by the most powerful empire on earth. He would be imprisoned for treason and offered his own kingdom. He would change the world – and the world would destroy him.

The American mercenary with whom Lewis/Masson joined forces was a fanatic about Alexander, seeing himself as a modern day version. He taught Masson about his idol and in time Masson took the obsession on as his own, albeit without the desire for a throne that drove his American pal, reading up on histories of Alexander.

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Shah Shujah-al-Moolk, circa 1835 – the restored king of Afghanistan who served as a British puppet) – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

You will learn a bit about Alexander, of whom stories are still told. He may not seem so great once you learn of his atrocities. The British government and the East India company tried to keep up, demonstrating a capacity for grandiosity, cruelty and inhumanity, whilst also armed with alarming volumes of incompetence and unmerited venality

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Alexander Burnes – image from Wiki

In his travels, aka invasions, conquests, and or large-scale slaughter, Alexander established a pearl necklace of cities along his route. Some were grander than others. One, in Egypt, is still a thriving metropolis. Most vanished beneath the drifts of time, whether they had been cities, towns, villages, or mere outposts. But Charles Masson was convinced that one of Alexander’s cities could be found the general area in which he was living. The evidence on which he based this view was cultural, appearing in stories, legends, and local lore, but then more concrete evidence began to appear (coins) and appear, and appear.

Time and again, Masson is dragged away from his work, and time and again he finds his way back, his passion for unearthing the lost Alexandria becoming the driving force in his life. Surely, if his own survival were his highest priority, he would have sailed for home a long, long time before he finally did. His work was hugely successful, all the more remarkable because he was a rank amateur. Much of Lewis’s work, thousands of objects and drawings, is still on display at the British Museum. He was a gifted archaeologist, and made several world-class advances. These include discovering a long-lost Alexandrian city and using ancient coins he had discovered, that contained Greek on one side, and an unknown language on the other, to decipher that language. And significantly modify the historical view of Alexander’s era.

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Ranjit Singh, maharajah of the Punjab – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

The King’s Shadow is an adventure-tale biography, which focuses on Masson’s life and experiences more than on Alexander. Sure, there is enough in the book to justify the UK title, but barely. There is a lot more in here about him trying to secure the connection between his head and his shoulders, threatened by a seemingly ceaseless flood of enemies. He is a remarkably interesting character, which is what holds our interest. He has dealings with a large cast of likewise remarkably interesting characters, all of which serves to keep us interested, while passing something along about what life in this part of the world was like in the early 19th century. (Remarkably like it is today in many respects)

There are few downsides here. One is that there is a sizeable cast, so it might be a bit tough keep track of who’s who. That said, I was reading an ARE, so there might be a roster offered in the final version. I keep lists of names when I read, so managed, but that it seemed needed should prepare you for that. Second was that there were times when events went from A to D without necessarily explaining the B and C parts. For example, there is an episode in which Masson is sent along with a subordinate of Dost Mohammad Khan’s, Haji Khan, to extract taxes from a recalcitrant community. But Haji has no intention of returning, yet somehow Masson is back in Kabul in the following chapter. Really, did he escape? Did he get permission to leave? How did the move from place A to place B take place? In another, a military attack fails, yet there is no mention of why the fleeing army was not pursued. Things like that.

There are multiple LOL moments to be enjoyed. Not saying that there is any chance of passing this off as a comedy book, but Richardson’s sense of humor is very much appreciated. You may or may not find the same things amusing. His descriptions are sometimes pure delight. An itinerant Christian preacher arrives at the palace of Dost Mohammad Khan, intent on converting him. The preacher had encountered serial misfortunes in his travels and had arrived in Kabul stark naked. Richardson refers to him at one point as “the well ventilated Mr Wolff.” He also describes Masson arriving late at night at the home of Rajit Singh, the local maharaja, only to find an American in attendance, singing Yankee Doodle Dandy. Another tells of a message Masson left for future explorers at what was then an incredibly remote site. LOL time. As much as you will frown at the miseries depicted in these pages, you will smile, maybe even laugh, a fair number of times as well. I noted five LOLs in my notes. There are more than that.

Charles Masson, despite the lack of appreciation and recognition he received, made major contributions to our knowledge of the Alexandrian era. Edmund Richardson fills us in on those, while also offering a biography that reads like an Indiana Jones adventure. Richardson has a novelist’s talent for story-telling. His tale shows not only the power of singlemindedness and passion, but the dark side of far too many men, and some unfortunate forms of governance. It is both entertaining and richly informative. Bottom line is that The King’s Shadow darkens nothing while illuminating much. Jolly Good!

This is a story about following your dreams to the ends of the earth – and what happens when you get there.
Had he known what was coming, Lewis might have stayed in bed.

Review posted – April 8, 2022

Publication date – April 5, 2022

I received an ARE of The King’s Shadow from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review and a couple of those very special coins. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

From Hazlitt

Edmund Richardson writes about the strangest sides of history. The Victorian con-artist who discovered a lost city. The child prodigy turned opium addict. Several homicidal headmasters. A clutch of Spiritualists. A prophet who couldn’t get the end of the world right. And Alexander the Great. He’s currently Lecturer in Classics at Durham University. Cambridge University Press recently published his first book, Classical Victorians: Scholars, Scoundrels and Generals in Pursuit of the Ancient World.

The King’s Shadow is Richardson’s third book.

Interviews
—–Travels Through Time – Interview with Edmund Richardson on Charles Masson and the search for Alexandria with Violet Mueller – re prior book
Tttpodcast.com
—–Travels Through Time – Interview with Edmund Richardson on Charles Masson and the search for Alexandria – audio – 48:03
—–Listen Notes – Edmund Richardson, “Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City Beneath the Mountains” (Bloomsbury, 2021) – with David Chaffetz and Nicholas Gordon – audio – 36:14
—– Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City | JLF London 2021 – Edmund Richardson with Taran N. Khan – video – 45:32 – begin about 3:00
—–ABC – Deserter, archaeologist and spy – the extraordinary adventures of Charles Masson – audio – 55:28 – with Sarah Kanowski

Item of Interest from the author
—–A pawn in the Great Game: the sad story of Charles Masson

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Charles Masson
—–Encyclopedia Iranica – Charles Masson – a nice history of his life and accomplishments
—–Josiah Harlan
—–Alexander Burnes
—–Gutenberg – The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling – full text
—–Wiki on the story – The Man Who Would Be King

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Filed under Afghanistan, Archaeology, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, England, History, Reviews, World History

Swimming with Warlords by Kevin Sites

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“If the central government doesn’t stay together,” he said, “I’ll have to find a way to protect my people.”
What he said was a bad sign. “My people” in Afghanistan means one’s tribe. Very few outside of Kabul thought of themselves as citizens of the country—as Afghans.

There is a lot to like in journalist Kevin Sites’s latest report from the front, Swimming with Warlords. Sites takes us from point to point on his journey through geography and history, offering a look at the Afghanistan of 2001 as compared to the Afghanistan of late 2013. He spends considerable ink on warlords, but not enough, IMHO, to justify the title of the book. And this is just as well, because the other elements he finds to report on are even more interesting. He notes the extant miseries, for sure, but also finds some flowers blooming in the rubble, offering the fragrance of hope. He looks at the condition of women, notes gains and losses, bright spots and expectations maybe not so bright as we might hope. He looks at what is likely to happen when the US leaves. One major element here is the conflict between former allies within Afghanistan. Of course, he has been back to Afghanistan several times in between, but it is the bookend experience on which he focuses here. What has changed between the time when American forces attacked in the wake of 9/11, and today, as US troops prepare to depart in 2014?

Sites has certainly seen a lot during his many years in the field, across the war-torn planet, working for major news organizations like ABC, NBC and CNN, and newer entries like Yahoo! News and Vice. He has written two books, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars (2007) and Things They Cannot Say (2012). His bona fides are impeccable. He even teaches journalism these days in theUniversity of Hong Kong journalism and media program.

There are plenty of villains in Sites’s depiction of what has become a more-or-less permanent war zone, but there are a surprising number of heroes as well, some ambiguously so, others not. The place we know today as Afghanistan, which has been called “the graveyard of empires,” has endured seemingly constant invasions and internal conflict, from the days of Alexander the Great to the present. It seems like the entire place is a huge stadium in which Premier league teams have battled it out among themselves and with the locals, with some notable modern matches having been during the Great Game days of the British empire, the Soviet invasion of the 1970s and 1980s during the Cold War, and most recently, the Western invasion to oust Osama bin Terrorist and his Taliban hosts after 9/11. And it is a favored pitch in which Pakistan does its best to make trouble for India.

“The Taliban is really from Pakistan; they came here to destroy our country. That is clear to everyone,” said Jilani [a former Taliban member]. “In the beginning, I thought it was jihad against international troops, but I found out we were fighting for Pakistani interests—we were getting orders from Pakistan. Most of the leaders are not religious; they want to come to Afghanistan and tax the locals during the time of the harvest and take the money back to Pakistan. There is no jihad.” Jilani said.

I imagine banners being hung from the bullet-pocked remnants of rafters noting local championships triumphs. No 90 minute clock here, no four quarters. Like baseball, perhaps, the game continues until one team wins or one team tires of playing and leaves. The locals have nowhere to go, and all their skin is in the game. There is a very strong home-field advantage amid the crags, valleys and caves of this rugged land, but there is plenty of disagreement about where home actually begins and ends.

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Kevin Sites

The US entered the playing field in the 1980s by providing arms and assistance to locals and some foreigners in Afghanistan in an attempt to make life miserable for the Soviets. In a classic example of the Pyrrhic Victory, the removal of the Soviets led to a continuation of the pre-existing tribal warfare, this time with more and better weapons, the ultimate rise of the Taliban to power and their hosting of you-know-who. I wonder if Charlie Wilson would have voted for the $4 to $6 trillion cost of this seemingly endless engagement.

In retracing his earlier path, Sites notes bridges gone, landscape devastated, military remnants littering the paths that pass for roads, the many minefields, both literal and political. One of the permanent features in a place where landscape defines effective limits is the presence of warlords. Feudalism lives in Afghanistan, where inter-ethnic conflict is merely a superset of conflicts within each ethnic group. If there was ever a concept of loving thy neighbor as yourself, it is unlikely to have extended much beyond the borders of the fief in which one lives. Mistrust, born of centuries of conflict, has deep roots here. Every action taken on a national level is seen as somehow ethnically drive, whether or not it actually is. Cooperation is minimal, fear is ever-present, and allegiances are alarmingly fluid.

Sites looks in on some warlords, living and dead, and some others who function as warlords in fact if not in name. The camp of martyred Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud is now a shrine, and Massoud’s lieutenants have moved on to diverse and often dark occupations. He meets with police chiefs, who point out that they are powerless to enforce the laws as long as coping with the Taliban continues. And it is the police forces that suffer the brunt of the casualties in the fight. However not all warlords are alike. He spends some time with one who seemed to be doing pretty well in taking care of his people, improving their lives with ingenuity and managerial efficiency.

There are some darkly humorous moments, as when Sites recalls a 2001 lodging that, unbeknownst, included an unexploded 500 lb US bomb on the premises, fins up. Check please.

There are moving moments, including a weep-worthy tale of an Afghani father who had lost his daughter to a slightly off-target US incoming, yet betrayed no bitterness.

There are uplifting moments, when Sites talks with a woman who had started a radio station in order to get news and information to Afghani women, many of whom remain under lifelong virtual house-arrest for the crime of being female. Or in learning about Rahmaw Omarzad, an artist who returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban fell and established The Centre for Contemporary Art in Kabul.

There are delightful moments, as when we learn that an Aussie’s contribution of skateboards had grown into an island of hope in the form of an actual institution called Skateistan that includes instruction on far more than keeping one’s balance on wheels.

There are disappointing moments, when we see that many of those who had been educated, and were working on internationally funded development projects will be unemployed and maybe unemployable after the US leaves. Or in learning that Marza, the famed lion of the Kabul zoo, might have been somewhat less magnificent than reputed.

There are bizarre moments, such as learning that a fortress wall built 1500 years ago, the Bala Hisar, which legend holds has incorporated the bones of workers who died in its construction, might very well include some of the special extra filling.

And there are demoralizing moments, as when Sites describes an orphanage that would have been very much at home in the London of Charles Dickens. His report on drug addiction will strike a dark chord as well.

The condition of women’s rights in Afghanistan comes in for considerable attention, as he talks with women about their lives under the Taliban and after their ouster. There is a segment on an American woman, Kimberley Motley , who had started a legal practice in Afghanistan, and another on a woman the Taliban had kicked out of dental school, who had resumed her training and established a national Dental association. It will come as no shock that there remains in Afghanistan a practice of buying and selling wives. And a related tale tells of young boys, bacha bazi, who are treated as sexual pets by the wealthy, a substitute for the females who are kept under wraps.

The book seems a compendium of articles about Afghanistan crammed into a forced structure. But that is not really a problem here, as the information you gain far outweighs any feeling of the structure of the whole being not quite as advertised. Yes, there is a look at then and now, but the strength of the book lies in the collection of individual reports.

GRIPES
There are at least two elements in a book of this sort, the information to be gleaned about the presenting subject, and some insight into the teller of the tale. In this case, the subject is what has changed between 2001 when the Western attack on Afghanistan began following the events of 9/11 in the USA, and the present of the book, the year or so before US troops were scheduled to depart, whether completely or mostly. The other element is the author, him/herself. When you go on a journey, when you will be spending some time with your guide, you would like to know something about him. Sites does offer a few nuggets, and one that is particularly unflattering, but overall the sense I got was that it was mostly name, rank and serial number. While his recollected war stories are indeed interesting, there seems a paucity of info/insight about him. That is an area in which Swimming with Warlords only treads water. At end, we do not really know much more about Kevin Sites than we did before turning to page 1. I expect this is a lot about reportorial discipline, keeping one’s focus on the news and not the reporter, which is certainly a reasonable approach. But in this context, a book, a memoir of sorts, there is a need to be a bit more subcutaneous if an author wants to engender any feeling of camaraderie with his readers. It may be that in his previous books, The Things They Cannot Say and In the Hot Zone there is more of that. Don’t know, have not read those. But there is not nearly enough about KS in this one. I found myself wondering how he got into journalism, how from journalism he got into in-field war reporting. Is his work about adrenalin or something else? What are his values, his ideals? What does he hope to accomplish? What does he do when he is not ducking ordnance in war zones, where and why? Does he have family who worry about him when he is away? You know, stuff. This is not so much a classical road to self-discovery. Sites had already learned a lot about himself and his profession in the years between visits to Afghanistan. This is more like a look at the same eye chart with the optometrist clicking between the younger and more mature lenses. Is it clearer this way, or this way?

The title of the book seems ill chosen. There is indeed one scene in which KS goes for a literal swim with an actual warlord, but the title would make one suspect that the entirety of the volume consists of KS visiting with warlords, and that is not the case. Yes, KS does meet up with a few of these guys, but there is a lot more going on here, and it is unfortunate to have our attention focused on the narrower topic. A better title would have let readers know that he is writing a comparison of then and now. There is an ironic title for one of the chapters in the book, regarding parachute journalism, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which would have made, IMHO, a better, certainly a more descriptive title than the one that was chosen. Sites may well have been swimming with bearded sharks, but the macho-ness of it adds little in the title selection.

I would not call this a gripe, but the book could use an acronym list, which should include SNAFU and FUBAR among its entries. In fact, the place might as well be name FUBARistan for all the horror that has gone on there over the centuries. An index, a glossary, and a map would have been helpful. If Sites is retracing a path, it would be nice to be able to follow along.

There are plenty of books about Afghanistan out there, (there is a list in the Extra Stuff section below), but Sites’ work has the benefit of freshness. He was there not long ago, at least in book, if not live TV time, and there is an immediacy to his reporting that draws one in, and makes one wonder what might be happening right now. He reports on interesting elements of the current Afghan reality, and finds some informed opinions about what lies ahead. I would not call this a great book, but it is certainly interesting, engaging, and informative. Definitely worth pulling on a suit and going in for a dip, whether with a warlord, shark, or someone a bit less threatening.

Review posted 10/10/14

Pub date – 10/14/14

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+ and FB pages

Articles by Sites on Vice

Some other reading on Afghanistan:

I have an Afghanistan shelf with 23 titles, mixed fiction and non. Within that, I heartily recommend the following to enhance your awareness of issues in the region

In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan

Seeds of Terror

Descent into Chaos

The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban

Ghost Wars

Charlie Wilson’s War

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Filed under Afghanistan, Journalism, Non-fiction, Reviews