On the Road to Kandahar: Travels through Conflict in the Islamic World 
by Jason Burke.
Allen Lane, 297 pp., £20, May 2006, 0 7139 9896 2
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The death toll in Iraq continues to rise: more than 2600 American soldiers, 113 British troops, 130 from other countries, perhaps 40,000 Iraqi civilians. And more than 70 journalists, outnumbering the 69 killed in World War Two, the 63 in Vietnam and the 17 in Korea. The risks involved mean that it is hard to ask whether journalists do a good enough job in telling us what we need to know. Stories are not driven by content alone, but by the way in which they are formulated and presented, often without the storyteller or audience being fully aware of the process. The result may be that the narrative diverts attention from the substance of what we are being told: we need to be careful not to confuse the forms of verisimilitude with the insights we are apparently being given.

Now in his mid-thirties, Jason Burke has reported for the Observer for more than a decade, from almost every Muslim country. On the Road to Kandahar begins as a ‘post-adolescent adventure’. The budding journalist, with ‘steely gaze, worldly cynicism, and what I hoped was a brooding, if somewhat slender, muscularity’, heads out into exotic realms of which he is totally ignorant. The confession of ignorance is vital to his credibility: it enables him to display the capacity to become enlightened (‘I was aware enough to realise . . .’). Although he is initially held back by ‘the post-Enlightenment optimism of the West with its faith in reason and progress’, he is so open-minded that ‘every day in Kabul I found my ideas challenged and my perceptions shifting.’ Ever the virile war correspondent, he tells us how he gets ‘extremely drunk . . . with a group of arms dealers’, doesn’t like having competing newsmen around, has an eye for a pretty girl, punches out a French colleague – unsure which he disliked more, the man’s pipe or his shirt – and revels in a ‘memorably debauched’ naked table-tennis tournament. He shows us that he is neither unfeeling – he becomes emotional on visiting a newly reopened girls’ school in Kabul – nor unable to balance his politics against the need for objectivity: he ‘even went, for an hour anyway, on the anti-war march in London’. He claims credibility not by virtue of the depth of his encounters, but by the fact that he has reported – and preferably been the first person to do so – from a large number of places, and has talked to a wide range of powerful and powerless people, before moving on to the next battle or the next interview.

What do we actually learn from all this, beyond an account of the latest battlefield action or political machinations? Several ‘big’ lessons form the backbone of Burke’s book: Islam is not a single thing; most Western politicians know little of the Middle East and South-Central Asia; al-Qaida is a nebulous set of associations rather than a hierarchical unity (‘an idea, not an organisation’); and most people in the region do not support terrorism. We are also told that ‘history could be made to serve the ends and means of men,’ and that religion has social and political functions even though its roles are ‘profoundly opaque, complex and contradictory’. Indeed, Burke concludes, people are really the same everywhere, and because the overwhelming majority want to live in peace, we should be optimistic that this cycle of violence will burn itself out. ‘If my travels during the previous years had taught me anything,’ he writes, ‘it was that to emphasise the differences when there is so much that binds, to emphasise the divisions when so much is the same, to emphasise the distance when there is so much that is increasingly close, is not just dangerous but is wrong.’

It is not that Burke discovers nothing in the course of his adventures. Some ‘facts’ will be new to most readers: that ‘rubber bullets’ are thinly vulcanised steel balls, that the Americans bribed their way into Kabul with millions of dollars, that it was Saudis and Kuwaitis who prompted the destruction of the Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan, that the Macedonians slaughtered Pakistani asylum seekers and called it a contribution to the ‘war on terror’, that hospital wards in Taliban territory were full of starving children, that black American soldiers are particular targets of Iraqi insurgents, and that Saddam Hussein had ‘ordered the construction of a massive mosque which was to have a Koran written in his blood as its centrepiece’. Some of Burke’s descriptions of British and American intelligence failures, of battle scenes and the daily lives of coalition soldiers are carefully drawn, and some of his images are striking: middle-class people selling their libraries on the streets of Baghdad, or malnourished children ‘with pinched faces in which pulsing veins, as blue as slate, were very clear under the stretched, pale skin’. Alongside these memorable snapshots there are occasional lapses: he calls a Muslim prayer leader a ‘priest’, and a local Afghan commander a ‘slim-wristed Francophone’.

A more serious problem is that most of Burke’s ‘insights’ are either superficial or unimaginative – in part because of his style of explanation and in part because of his aversion to cultural specificity. Social scientists joke that a single example is an anecdote, but two are a theory. For Burke, one story is an anecdote, but two are taken as ‘confirming the theory’. Like most journalists, Burke is a particularist, splitting the world into isolated ‘facts’ of which he will, ideally, be the discoverer. But without a sense of the ways in which people create categories of meaning and succeed (or fail) to link them into a pattern that seems both immanent and natural (the most useful meaning of the concept of culture), Burke sees no need to attend to those who speak local languages or have a genuine theory. As a result, his observations lack bite.

A few examples. Burke says that people of the region want Western goods and access to Western information. But he doesn’t grasp the different meanings such items hold in different cultures. Context is crucial, and the ways information is used to create social bonds vary from culture to culture. He refers briefly to ‘tribes’, but like most journalists seems not to appreciate that tribes are shape-shifters whose attributes lie not in the form they assume at any particular moment but in their ability to change while retaining such principles as the expectation of reciprocity and the separation of moral superiority from circumstances of birth. He describes suicide attacks against non-combatants as being ‘against basic human values’, but does not entertain the possibility that the bomber may consider the creation of a network of obligations as one such value, or that by his actions he may think he is making permanent the array of virtual associations that define him in the world. Burke says that Iraqis and Afghans have been brutalised by events, but he hasn’t read up on the role of authoritarianism in these regions, or the deep-seated ambivalence to power in all forms, or the reasons people believe that cleaving to the tyrant is usually preferable to the alternatives.

Even when he notices something important, he does not appreciate what he is seeing. He recognises that in Muslim countries custom is regarded as Islam, not as something set alongside it. But he doesn’t understand how vital it is to the spread of Islam that local practices can be retained by being denominated Islamic; the significance of the fact that in every Muslim country it is commonly believed that local custom takes precedence even over Sharia law escapes him. He notices that leaders often change sides, but does not understand that legitimacy lies in the mechanisms used to build alliances rather than in their resulting patterns – and that leaders must often, therefore, be confirmed by their enemies, not just their friends. He sees plastic bags littering the landscape, but doesn’t ask why: ownership, for Arabs, is a matter of relationships forged through things and not about an individual’s relation to a thing, so the concept of public space and responsibility for it may have very different implications from those in the West. And although he is one of the few to have noted that some of the items looted during the hostilities were returned, he does not grasp that the return of stolen items was part of the process of re-creating the bonds of indebtedness without which it is thought that society cannot hold together. The overriding fear expressed in the Koran and in everyday life in Islamic societies is of social chaos; Burke doesn’t understand why people would say that the opposite of tyranny is not freedom but chaos, and that ‘tyranny is better than chaos.’ Burke either doesn’t know that you need to learn what to see, or he hasn’t learned enough of the background to be able to discern the things that stand out.

It is possible, for example, that militants do not simply ‘create difference where difference was disappearing’. The Koranic assertion that ‘if God had willed, he could have made you one nation’ may be integral to the idea that differences should be relished because they give opportunities for relationships to be constructed on so many bases that everyone has a chance to form alliances. The vague belief that wearing jeans or using the internet means the same thing in every culture could cause us to overlook the fact that globalisation may produce an equal and opposite local reaction. When a Yemeni shopkeeper says that he can tell Americans do not trust him because they always insist on paying immediately when they buy something, you have to know how important it is to people in that region to believe that debt forges a relationship. If, as Burke suggests, Arabs feel humiliated by the West and call out for ‘justice’, it’s worth finding out what they mean by ‘justice’, and why for them it does not mean treating all categories of person as identical but understanding that, for example, gender and social status carry different implications depending on the bonds formed by a given individual. And if it is only younger men who become militants, it is worth considering that many people find it disorienting for the young to have more power than their elders.

You must study a place close up, Simón Bolívar said, and understand it from far back: merely being there is no guarantee of insight. At a time when only half a dozen US State Department employees are fluent in Arabic, it may be too much to expect that journalists will pause long enough to learn properly the languages of the places they cover. But when careful attention to cultural distinctions gives way to assumed commonalities, and unreflectiveness is taken as a stamp of veracity, journalism does little to help either its readers or the people whose stories are being told.

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