“A land neglected, brutal, beautiful, flawed.”

On the plane from D.C. to Texas, I finally finished an e-book I started a long time ago called “Afghanistan By Donkey: One Year in a War Zone” by journalist Anna Badkhen. I bought it on Foreign Policy’s website several months ago and even though it does not take long to read and she is an amazing story-teller, I got distracted by life and school (mostly school). But I finally put away all other distractions and finished it. Her writing is as beautiful as the country she is writing about and at certain points she had me smelling the food, feeling the heat, and experiencing the heartache of the people she spoke too.


I recommend this book to anyone—anyone who wants to learn about Afghanistan, who wants a different, first-hand point of view of American counter-terrorism policy, or who wants to read an incredible story about a timeless, war-torn land.

Often I jump back and forth between books, alternating chapters. Its not because I don’t like them each enough to read one all the way through, but usually because I’m so excited to read them both that I can’t read one at a time. While I was reading this e-book, I was also reading “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda” (which I actually had to prioritize because I was reading it for work and had to turn in a chapter-by-chapter summary that my boss was going to use in his case to make the book a part of the school-wide curriculum….no pressure). It was incredible how quickly I became consumed in the book, unable to put it down because I had to know what happened next. I was so filled with patriotism, anger, conviction, and excitement. I wanted to ‘get the bad guys’.

Then I remembered the heartbreaking stories of families destroyed and young men turned toward extremism because of night raids and drone strikes. And then I read “Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia” by Ahmed Rashid and became so incredibly frustrated with U.S. policy that I just didn’t know what to do. And then I read “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid, watching how America turned on a young Pakistani-American after 9/11 and his journey towards fundamentalism.

So many competing views and so little time to fully understand all of their intricacies, shortcomings, and virtues.

I guess before I can figure out what to do, I need to learn as much as I can. I want to learn as much as I can, throw myself into situations where I will learn by observation. Maybe I should have been an anthropology major. I think that’s what I love about Anna Badkhen’s book so much. She retains a sense of self-awareness as a foreigner throughout the entire book, but throws herself so completely into this country that it becomes a part of her and she of it. The following quotes are only two examples of how beautiful her writing is:

 It was dusk. Dogs barked at the approaching night; boys whipped the last sheep through sheet-metal gates. Men pressed their palms to their chests in greeting and smiled. A swollen Venus hung over the distant silhouette of the Hindu Kush. At a village elder’s mud-walled guestroom crisscrossed with horizontal smears of smoke from bukhari and cigarettes, after dinner of lamb, rice, and fresh yogurt, I fell asleep to the men’s soft Farsi gossip, to the stars’ eternal lullabies. – Anna Badkhen

There were also times when, by what seemed like sheer force of our will, we carved out of a brutalized landscape moments of immeasurable, unadulterated joy. The evening in August when we went swimming in the satin eddies of the Balkh River to beat our Ramadan thirst. The morning in March when we set out before dawn to a Monday bazaar twenty-five miles away, the desert ringing underfoot like the earth’s belly, Amanullah on his donkey singing the sun out from behind the mountains. The day, last April, when Baba Nazar and I knelt on top of a gold-speckled san dune to eat the season’s first camel yogurt. It tasted like liquid moonlight. –Anna Badkhen

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