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William Dalrymple on book tours in Pakistan and Afghanistan

William Dalrymple on book tours in Pakistan and Afghanistan

For any author bored of London book launches with the plastic cups of Chardonnay, I highly recommend taking a book tour of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Firstly, author events are somewhat rarer in those parts, and at the Lahore Literature Festival, my first stop, authors were treated somewhere between Bono doing an airdive and Imran Khan returning home after beating India in a test match. No one quite throws their knickers onto the stage, or indeed their chadors, but it certainly beats the polite snores from the back that accompany your average Waterstone’s reading.

And its not every day that an armoured car is sent to pick you up for a book reading. But when I arrived at Karachi airport, I found I had not only been assigned that but also a matching guard with a pump action shotgun to escort me to the quiet university campus where I was to speak. Karachi was completely peaceful and it all felt magnificently unnecessary, but still: you don’t get that in Cheltenham.

An early rise the following morning for the flight in a tiny twin-prop over the snows of Pir Panjal to Kabul. Here the book was launched in a sub-zero open air reading in Rory Stewart’s old mud fort—a triumph of organisation on the part of Bloomsbury who had to had send the books overland from Karachi, through the length of that country and up into Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass.

Book launches are even rarer in Kabul than Karachi, and while there I was summoned for a brief audience with President Karzai. Karzai, it transpired, had been given Return of a King by a mutual friend, and he was anxious to talk about his forbear Shah Shuja, the puppet leader whom the British put on the throne in Kabul in 1839.  The parallels to the present day are striking: Shah Shuja was the chief of the Popalzai tribe in the mid-19th century; Hamid Karzai is the chief of the same tribe today. Shah Shuja’s principal opponents were the Ghilzai tribe, who today make up the bulk of the Taliban’s foot soldiers. As we talked, the parallels hung uncomfortably in the air: Shah Shuja was assassinated and his body still lies in an unmarked grave. Meanwhile the man who defeated the British, Wazir Akbar Khan, now has the diplomatic area named after him.

Karzai’s view was that the US were doing to him what the British had done to Shah Shuja, which was to use him for their own interests: "The lies Lord Auckland told, that we don't want to interfere with your country, that’s exactly what they tell us today, the Americans and all the others,” he said. “Our so-called current allies have squandered the opportunity given to them by the Afghan people."

Karzai emphasised that he thought Shuja didn't stress his independence enough, and said he was never going to allow himself to be remembered as anyone’s puppet.  “That is exactly the problem in our relationship with the West,” he said. “America and Britain deal with us as if we also came through a colonial experience. We did not. You were a master to Pakistan. You know how to deal with them. But in Afghanistan we deal with you as a people who have always defeated the West. We are dealing with you from our own perspective of history where we always won in the fights but lost politically. This time I want to make sure we win politically too.”

William Dalrymple is author of Return of a King (Bloomsbury Books) 


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