Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 14, 2012

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

A Short Walk in the Hindu KushI know, I just know that I’m going to upset legions of Eric Newby enthusiasts with my thoughts about this book, but I was appalled by it, and I am astonished that Harper Press are so crass as to reissue it.

Newby is apparently highly-regarded as a travel writer, according to the book’s blurb: the ‘most successful travel writer of his generation’. First published in 1958,  A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is said to be characterised by his ‘self-deprecating humour, sharp wit and keen observation’ but I was not only underwhelmed by the tale of these amateur explorers and their ill-prepared post-war venture into the mountains of Afghanistan, I failed to see anything funny about the prejudices he took with him – and reinforced – on the trip.

I consider myself rather lucky to have learned a little bit about Afghanistan before 9/11.  I was teaching English as a Second Language when the first refugees from the Taliban began arriving in the mid 1990s, and I could not do my usual lessons using what I knew about my students’ country because I didn’t even know where Afghanistan was, much less anything about it.  There was nothing much in the Encyclopaedia about it, I couldn’t find a single book about it in any of my libraries, and Wikipedia and Google didn’t exist back then.  (Or if they did, I didn’t know about it).

But with the help of a very smart eleven year old girl in my class, and an enterprising photographer from Vermont who was selling online his 1980s picture postcards showcasing Afghan art and architecture, its ancient treasures, and its beautiful landscapes, I began a crash course in Afghan history, geography and culture.  So while the Afghan kids learned grammar and sentence structure and the intricacies of English vocabulary, I learned about a beautiful country with an impressive ancient history (and, thanks to the friendly generosity of my students’ parents) a most delicious cuisine.  

Newby, escaping from a job he didn’t like in his parents’ fashion business, went to Nuristan on a whim, with his pal Hugh Carless who worked in the Foreign Office.  One does not need to read far into this book to understand why British Foreign Policy caused so much strife, if Carless as represented in this book is anything to go by.  He was an arrogant prat with complete disregard for the protocols and customs of the places he visited on this trip.  (He wrote an epilogue for the book in 2008, so presumably he’s not bothered by this.)

There’s a not-very-funny scene early in the book where in Turkey en route to Persia (sic)  they almost crashed into an injured man on the road.  Carless went into a panic because their presence there might have provoked an international incident: they (having been as careless about maps as about every other aspect of their preparation) were on the wrong road, very near the Russian border during the Cold War with a carload of cameras and other stuff that looked a lot like spy equipment. And Carless didn’t have a diplomatic visa for Turkey which had hostile relations with Britain at that time.   So did Persia/Iran which had not so long ago ceased diplomatic relations with Britain and booted them out of the country after Mussadiq’s coup.

The authorities thought that the duo were responsible for this accident (which turned into a fatality because the unfortunate man died in the military hospital) but all was resolved because they behaved ‘in a gentlemanly way’ and anyway, the dead man was ‘only a nomad’.   Is there something wrong with my sense of humour that I don’t find this funny at all?  Is it supposed to be funny when later Newby drove onto a Moslem cemetery which he claims to have mistaken for a rubbish dump? Would this be funny if someone did it in the UK, or America or Australia?

Every prejudice you can think of is reinforced by this ‘witty’ book.  The man in the car repair shop in Meshed in the Persian province of Khurasan is a ‘broken-toothed demon of a man’ who takes a fancy to Carless and offers him a ‘small blind boy, good-looking but with an air of corruption’ (p55).  After fondling the boy and suggesting that Carless do the same, this man then disappears into a cupboard with him, from which emitted a ‘succession of nasty stifled noises that drove [Carless and Newby] out of the shop’.  This is not the only time that Newby goes out of his way to suggest that people in this part of the world are casual about sexual mores.  In Farman, he reports that he is propositioned while he is vomiting in the street (how ‘gentlemanly’ is that??), and later he reports on polygamy almost as if it were prostitution. 

The difference between Newby and the iconic travel-writer H.V. Morton is respect for The Other.  In every circumstance Newby sets out to depict The Other as quaint, strange, dirty, stupid and corrupt.  In a ‘horrible little hamlet’ the locals – including ‘several women in a state of happy hysteria’ – stand around and do nothing when a child is thought to be drowning in a sewer, so heroic Newby dives in only to find that the child is safe and well having merely strayed next-door and no one is very grateful (p58). Likewise, in the Customs House at Taiabad, the military commander bemoans the opium trade in remote areas, oblivious to his own staff puffing away within eyesight.  Every stream in this remote, sparsely-populated area is, according to Newby, polluted by human effluent and the food in any cafe is overwhelmed by ‘a terrible smell of grease’ , the mast as ‘stiff as old putty, the same colour and pungent’.  They would rather eat ancient ex-army ration packs of Irish Stew. 

But it was the descriptions of the people that I found the most offensive.  At the Afghan border the Pathans have ‘Semitic, feminine faces but were an uncouth lot, full of swagger’, and Newby mocks the pantaloons that they wear as pyjamas  (p62). When the people who help them over a collapsed bridge afterwards bargain for payment (as is the custom, and more fools Newby & Carless for not concluding an agreed price beforehand) these helpful people are ‘ruffians’, while the ones accompanying American vehicles on the road are ‘piratical’.  Hazaras (who in my experience are attractive people) are ‘slit-eyed, round-headed Mongols’ (p94) while the Tajiks are the ‘original Persian owners of Afghan soil: pleasant, regular-featured people’ (p34).  Both Newby and Carless think it is okay to delude their guides as to their real destination, because they know full well that the locals would refuse to take them to where long-standing tribal hostilities would put the entire party at risk. Their arrogant sense of entitlement is breath-taking.

If I had picked up a 1958 edition of this book for 20c in an Op Shop, I would put the grotesque misrepresentation of Afghanistan and its people down to the era.  In the 1950s, post-war Britons had not adapted to Britain being the vibrant multicultural society that it is today, and Newby was probably representative of many nobodies who grew up believing that Britain’s Empire and its people were infinitely superior to everywhere else on earth.  But times have changed and this book belongs in the dust-bin of history.

Author: Eric Newby
Title: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
Publisher: Harper 2011
ISBN: 9780007367757
Source: Personal library, bought from the Pokolbin Village Bookshop in the Hunter Valley, and destined for my dust-bin when I get back home.

 


Responses

  1. God, this sounds horrific. What’s the bet no one from Harper read it before reissuing it? I always assumed Newby was very well regarded (I once tried to read his book about cycling around Ireland but ran out of time before I had to give it back to the library), so I wonder whether this book is just an aberration, or whether all his books display the same out-dated attitudes?

  2. Fascinating. I liked Newby’s ‘Big Red Train Ride’ a long time ago, but this sounds terrible. Like you say, in the context of when it was written you can forgive some of the crass assumptions, but when it’s republished and thus becomes a book attempting to be relevant in 2012 (and particularly about such a volatile area and with allegations of mistreatment of Afghan civilians by international forces) it seems incredibly untimely, to say the least.

    • Yes, cringeworthy!

  3. This is just outrageous and, like you, I cannot fathom why the publishers would have thought it a good idea to reissue.
    I can’t believe they simply didn’t think it through…but then, the alternative is to find some sinister motive in the re-publication at this time, so perhaps I will try to stop thinking about it.
    Thanks for the review. Suffice to say, I won’t be seeking this one out.

  4. Can’t rate this book as I have not read it. I have however read and enjoyed several books by this highly regarded travel writer. (Try “Love and War in the Apennines” for example – but maybe the snobbery and lack of empathy are lacking here, perhaps because the subjects are Italian and not Middle Eastern)

    For a more balanced view of Newby, read the Guardian obituary at
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2006/oct/23/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries

    • Hello Simon, and thank you for taking the time to comment and share a link. I’m not sure that I want to try another Newby, but if I see it at the library (as distinct from spending my hard earned cash) I’ll take your advice and have a look at it. Best wishes, Lisa

  5. Hmm … I’m gobsmacked really. Newby has such a great reputation as a travel writer. I guess I could overlook (if you know what I mean) some of those comments if it had been written much earlier, but I guess I would have hoped that a travel writer in 1958 might have been more open? I know the changes in attitudes really started to come in the 1960s but this is not much before and the changes didn’t come out of nowhere did they?

    • I was flabbergasted, Sue. And as I say, if I’d picked this up in its original edition, it would have been one thing, but to republish it – well, what were they thinking?

  6. Obviously somebody at the publisher’s didn’t think this one through too clearly :(

    • Yes, as Mark says above, there are sensitivities to think about. While I don’t think publishers should be cowed into self-censorship by people wanting to stifle humour, criticism or information, the book should have sufficient merit to warrant any problems that arise. I don’t think this one does.
      Are we so short of travel books to read that it’s worth causing offence? I don’t think so. Why resurrect it at all??

  7. Thanks for such a fascinating post Lisa. It’s a famous book of course, and not one that I’ve read, or was ever likely to for that matter.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Louise:)

  8. I just think Newby hasn’t aged well ,I ve his med travels on my shelves ,may leave reading it for a while ,all the best stu

    • I think you’re right, Stu!

  9. Your review caught my eye as I had a vague but very negative memory of encountering this book years ago, 1970s, probably. Nice to have my memory renewed, thanks to your efforts. As everyone says, why, oh why did they reissue it.

    • Hello Charlotte, welcome!
      I am still baffled by the decision to reissue it…it’s as if whoever chose to do it has head his/her head in the sand for the last 50 years!

  10. Sorry Lisa you are completely wrong. It is one of the greats of travel literature- mainly because it IS dated. Newby and Carless’ adventure comes across as a whimsical string of mishaps but the fact remains that both were experienced heroes in the second world war with a background in tactical, operational and strategic planning. Newby was an officer in the Special forces (please do read Love and war in the Apennines) and as for your accusations that Carless is arrogant and ignorant about Afghans- well- the Man was second secretary in Kabul and spent several years living among the Afghan people. He spent his life dedicated to service to Britain and was one of the most well travelled and learned men of his generation.
    Newby’s writing is meant to be acerbic, english and understated- of course it comes across as sharp and at times snobbish- but this was the 1950s- get over it and enjoy the writing! are you American by any chance?

    • Hello Lev, thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      But I can’t agree. I didn’t find it whimsical or understated (as the quotations I’ve cited above suggest).
      Having read George Orwell writing about his observations of Brits living in Burma, another colonial outpost, I doubt that merely living ‘among the Afghan people’ meant Carless showing them respect or even getting to know them (unless you count ordering them about). Indeed, the British and other colonial powers are notorious for having no understanding of cultures that they blundered into.
      But even if I did agree with you about this book’s flaws being forgiveable in the context of its publication date, I can’t possibly agree that it merits re-publication now.
      Unlike the travel writings of H V Morton (another Brit writing in the 1950s but still worth reading now) it doesn’t contribute anything to contemporary understanding of other cultures. (Except perhaps to understand why they might not be particularly friendly or forgiving).
      And *wry smile* no, I’m not American.

  11. I fear that what you write about A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush will upset not only “Eric Newby enthusiasts” but anyone who expects a book review to meet some minimum level of fairness.

    It is eight months since your original post, but because this blog comes up on the first page of results of a google search for A Short Walk, people interested in the book are likely to read it, and it would be a pity if it put them off.

    If you do not find the book funny, that is a matter of opinion, and readers of your blog can take your opinion seriously or not, as they choose. On matters of fact, however, they should be warned that you are misleading them rather badly.

    A few examples will suffice.

    You say that Hugh Carless had “complete disregard for the protocols and customs of the places he visited”. How then do you explain his intense disagreement with Newby, occupying much of chapter seven, in which Carless is prepared to accept serious inconvenience to the expedition to avoid causing any diplomatic offence to the Afghans? Or in the same chapter when he insists on taking food for the Afghan drivers, because “it is the custom”?

    But this is nothing to how you misrepresent Newby’s account of the episode in which Carless was accused of running over an old man in Turkey (chapter five). First, you say his account is “not very funny at all”, as if Newby suggested that it was. In fact he describes the incident as “disaster and tragedy”. Not everything in a funny book is meant to be funny. Then you say that the incident was resolved “because they behaved ‘in a gentlemanly way’ and anyway, the dead man was ‘only a nomad’.” [your italics] as if it was Newby who had claimed that they were gentlemanly and had disparaged the victim as a nomad. Why do you not explain that the words “only a nomad” were spoken not by Newby or Carless, but a Turkish army doctor who happened on the scene? And that it was not Newby or Carless who described their conduct as gentlemanly, but the Turkish public prosecutor who investigated the incident?

    You ask “Is it supposed to be funny when later Newby drove onto a Moslem cemetery which he claims to have mistaken for a rubbish dump?” No, it isn’t. He admits (chapter six) that he drove into the cemetery in error because he was “fearful of committing sacrilege” while trying to photograph the towers built at Herat by Timur Leng’s daughter-in -law.and he records that the faithful were “outraged by my awful behaviour”. So much for his disregard of local sensitivities.

    You say that “Newby goes out of his way to suggest that people in this part of the world are casual about sexual mores”. There is one unsavoury episode in the garage in Meshed (chapter six), but you are suggesting that Newby was generalising. Can you cite examples? Newby recounts several occasions, including the one you cite in Fariman, in Iran, on which he saw men strip in public. Nowhere does he suggest that they had any sexual intention. You say the man in Fariman was trying to proposition him sexually – it is hard to see why you think that. Moreover, Newby repeatedly notes the formal public modesty of women, as you would expect in largely Islamic countries.

    And where does Newby report on polygamy “almost as if it were prostitution”?

    You suggest that Newby expresses repugnance at local food. Carless’s indifference to food of any sort is one of the refrains of the book, but Newby makes clear his delight that Ghulam Naabi, Carless’s old Afghan cook, will accompany the expedition, his satisfaction with the first (entirely local) meal Naabi produces, and his despair when the cook unexpectedly leaves them (he felt as if he had been “sentenced to death”, chapter nine). If Newby dislikes Afghan food, how do you account for his description of food he was given as he entered the Panjshir valley in Afghanistan: “the dugh was cool, slightly sour and very refreshing; the qaimac, mopped up with bread that was still hot from the oven, was delicious” (chapter 11).

    You say that he and Carless “would rather eat ancient ex-army ration packs of Irish Stew”. How does that square with Newby’s reaction when the ration boxes were opened? “The rations were a bit of a shock … Most of the tins contained Irish stew. The future that stretched before us looked unrosy.”(chapter 11)

    You say “it was the descriptions of the people that I found the most offensive”. Was that the description of an Iranian colonel as “charming and agreeable” (chapter six), of the officials of the Afghan foreign service as “elegant, intelligent young men” (chapter seven), of an Afghan master hunter as “a fine looking fellow” (chapter nine), of Tajik women as beautiful (chapter 10), or of Nuristani women as “extremely handsome” (chapter 17)?

    That is enough to establish how you have treated individual points. Are you happy that you have treated the book fairly?

    In general, you accuse Newby of failing to respect The Other. Did it occur to you how simplistic and condescending it is to see people from different societies as an undifferentiated “Other”, to be treated with indiscriminate “respect” regardless of their individual characteristics? Is there something to be said for Newby’s approach of meeting them as equals and describing them on their merits?

    You conclude that Newby’s account of Afghanistan is a “grotesque misrepresentation”. Unhappily, the term applies better to your review of his book.

    • Hallo Moshulu, thank you for your comments. I don’t agree with you, but I thank you for taking the time to comment in such detail. Readers may make up their own minds.
      Best wishes
      Lisa

      • Um, it would be interesting, Lisa, if instead of saying merely ‘I don’t agree with you’, you responded to some of the points Moshulu has made so cogently ….

        • Hello Sue, and thank you for taking the time to comment.
          Perhaps it might be interesting, but as signalled in my post, I no longer have the book, and I feel that I’ve invested more than enough of my time in dealing with it. I’m content to let my post stand, because I’ve quoted the author’s own words to make my points, and I’m content to let Moshulu have his say, and let readers make up their own minds.
          You might note that in my review policy I state that if I don’t like a book I try to find a more favourable review than mine, with which to balance my thoughts about it. I could not find one at the time I wrote the review, and I have just done a quick search now and still not found one, though I did find two which, while finding the book funny, expressed concerns about the Eurocentric approach which are similar to mine, see http://othemts.wordpress.com/2007/05/21/book-review-a-short-walk-in-the-hindu-kush-by-eric-newby/ and http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-a-short-walk-in/page-2/.
          Best wishes, Lisa

  12. This is one of my favourite books, having just read it again for the third time. You either get this book or you don’t, and like Monty Python or the Marx Bros no amount of arguing back and forth will change that. I think it is Newby’s best book, and I have read them all. It is outrageous and hilarious and sad and at times desperate. My only continuing frustration with it is the terrible maps especially in the paperback version, so it is virtually impossible to work out the course of the trek.

    • Hello Pellagirl, and thank you for the friendly way you have disagreed with me! Best wishes, Lisa
      PS Love Monty Python, can’t stand The Marx Brothers!

  13. […] https://anzlitlovers.com/2012/01/14/a-short-walk-in-the-hindu-kush-by-eric-newby/ […]


Categories

%d bloggers like this: