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. 

Situating Afghanistan in its colonial and (post)colonial contexts, from the 'Great Game' era to the War on Terror, this module will explore the legacy of Victorian paranoias and prejudices to twentieth- and twenty-first-century travel writing, ethnography and journalism. Students 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, the module focuses on three issues:

  1. travel writing's lowly status;

  2. the 'crisis in ethnography';

  3. the counter-influence of classical ethnography on travel writing by war correspondents. 

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

In the first session, entitled 'colonial contexts, 1832-1900', students learn about the period Kipling called 'the Great Game', during which Afghanistan was under intense pressure to protect the colonial interests of either Russia or Britain. 

The second seminar considers the relevance of Edward Said's thesis on Orientalism to Robert Byron's 1937 travel account, The Road to Odiana. 

Week three aims to provide students with a theoretically-informed understanding of travel writing as a genre.

Week four focuses on Eric Newby's account of a bungled mountaineering expedition in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1955) to consider changing masculinities at the decline of empire. 

The following week examines the colonial legacy to contemporary travel writing about Afghanistan. 

Weeks six and seven are devoted to the study of anthropology about Afghanistan. Students will learn about the crisis in anthropological representation and consider the impact of this crisis on ethnography about Afghanistan.

The following seminar explores travel writing by journalists. Taking Christopher Kremmer's The Carpet Wars (2002) as its starting point, the seminar will consider the relationship between journalism and ethnography in such accounts. 

Weeks nine and ten focus on the ethics of travel and asks whether there has been an 'ethical turn' in travel writing about Afghanistan.

The module is taught by two-hour weekly seminars. Whole group and small group discussion will be based on preparatory questions that relate to the set readings. Students will be required to give a short presentation and to lead a portion of the ensuing seminar. 

There will be two screenings: Makhmalbaf's 2001 film Kandahar (Iran, France) and a Channel 4 documentary The House of War (2004). Students will also be provided with a workshop in fictocritical travel writing in preparation for the second assignment.

By the end of the module, students will...

  • situate the set texts in their colonial and historical contexts;
  • critically evaluate the ways in which colonial contexts have influenced travel writing, ethnography and journalism about Afghanistan;
  • be conversant with travel writing theory and its key debates;
  • apply the insights gained by the anthropological crisis of representation to broader questions about the ethics of travel;
  • assess the extent to which there has been an ethical turn in contemporary travel writing about Afghanistan.

  • An essay of between 2,000-2,500 words.
  • A piece of creative non-fiction or ficto-critical travel writing accompanied by a reflective commentary totalling 2,000 words.

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