Postcolonial Afghanistan: From the Great Game to the War on Terror

Module code: EN3161 

Module co-ordinator: Dr Corinne Fowler

Often besieged by its powerful political neighbours, Afghanistan has inspired a steady stream of English-language accounts by anthropologists, travel writers, military personnel and journalists. An identifiably British tradition of travel writing emerged around the time of the First Anglo-Afghan war (1839-42), which ended in a disastrous retreat when 16,000 of British India's troops perished alongside their wives and children. 

In this module you will look at Afghanistan in its colonial and (post)colonial contexts, from the 'Great Game' era to the War on Terror, exploring the legacy of Victorian paranoias and prejudices in 20th and 21st century travel writing, ethnography and journalism. We will also consider the significance of genre to (post)colonial travel writing and ethnography about Afghanistan. 

Referring to key theoretical debates about the ethics of travel, we will focus on three issues: travel writing's lowly status; the 'crisis in ethnography'; and the counter-influence of classical ethnography on travel writing by war correspondents.

Concentrating to specific travel narratives, we will assess the extent to which there has been an 'ethical turn' in recent writing about Afghanistan. Can recent accounts be considered as 'postcolonial'? We will also examine some experimental travel writing about Afghanistan and discuss whether it may be considered as an antidote to embedded journalism.

There will be two screenings: Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Iranian/French film Kandahar (2001) and Channel 4 documentary The House of War (2004). There will be a workshop in fictocritical travel writing to prepare you for the second assignment (see below). 

Topics covered

  • Colonial contexts, 1832-1900: this was the period Kipling called 'the Great Game', during which Afghanistan was under intense pressure to protect the colonial interests of either Russia or Britain
  • Edward Said's thesis on Orientalism (1978) and its relevance to Robert Byron's 1937 travel account, The Road to Oxiana
  • Travel writing as a genre
  • Changing masculinities at the decline of empire, exemplified by Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1955) - an account of a bungled mountaineering expedition
  • The colonial legacy to contemporary travel writing about Afghanistan.
  • Anthropology and Afghanistan: the crisis in anthropological representation and its impact on ethnography about the country
  • Travel writing by journalists; the relationship between journalism and ethnography - focussing on Christopher Kremmer's The Carpet Wars (2002)
  • Ethics of travel: has there been an 'ethical turn' in travel writing about Afghanistan?




  • Essay, 2,000-2,500 words
  • Piece of creative non-fiction or ficto-critical travel writing plus a reflective commentary, 2,000 words

Assessment for this module will be either Creative writing 70%, Essay 30% or Creative Writing 30%, Essay 70%, whichever yields the higher mark.