In my first post, I mentioned that for me, original perceptions of countries tend to persist over time. The Yugoslavia and USSR of 1969 will always exist in my head (and in my Dad’s atlas). This is partly because I know my Dad’s atlas like the back of my hand, but mainly because both countries qualified for Italia ’90 – the first football World Cup that I was aware of and watched from start to finish.
I was born in 1980, so most of my perceptions of countries were formed as a consequence of events that occurred in the 1990’s or later. For better or worse, for A LOT of countries, my perceptions are entirely based upon their performances in international football competitions. I have never been to Togo, and know nothing about the country, but I will always remember their dismal appearance in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. In certain cases, I can trace back my interest and awareness of a country to a particular date. September 11th 2001 was when I first became fully aware of Afghanistan.
Like most others of my generation, I considered pre-2001 Afghanistan to be a relatively uninteresting place, a fairly anonymous country in central Asia known mostly for opium production. I would have struggled to name its capital city, population or main (legal) export. 2001 changed all this. The events on and after September 11th 2001 are well documented elsewhere and I’m not going to write about them in detail here. Afghanistan is, for me, a previously unremarkable country thrown into the limelight by a very specific set of circumstances. If you were born in 1990, and first became aware of the wider world around 10 years later, Afghanistan must represent something rather different, the world’s most dangerous country, torn apart by the consequences of terrorism. If you were born in the generation previous to mine, your perceptions of Afghanistan may differ considerably from these two perspectives. Afghanistan was once a very different place: it is difficult now to imagine that US-backed Afghan forces once fought Soviet-led Afghan troops for control of the country.
Enough scene-setting. It is probably fair to say that few casual travellers cite Afghanistan as a ‘must visit’ destination today. The Road To Oxiana charts a journey made by Robert Byron in very different times (1933-34) through Cyprus, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Persia, Afghanistan and India. This was possibly the last time that you could really explore part of the world and feel like you were the first person to set foot there, and various commentators have called this travelogue the first example of great travel writing, placing it beyond criticism. It also tops many ‘must read travel books’ lists. I realised in mid-2012 that I had a notable ‘…Oxiana’ shaped hole in my library of travel books and set about rectifying this. It seemed like a good starting point for this blog.
The book is written as a simple diary, charting Byron’s progress to and from England and recording the details of his trip to Asia. His main aim was to visit the significant architectural sites in each country, focusing predominantly on Afghanistan and Persia. My knowledge of Persia (now Iran) is little better than my knowledge of Afghanistan, and what I know of West and Central Asian architecture is limited to a few insights gained from a visit to the Pergamon museum in Berlin in 2002. Hence I was unsure what I would get out of the book: would it be a gentle introduction to the topic, or would it expect more prior knowledge of the subject than I could bring to the table?
Unfortunately (for me) the latter mostly held true. A significant proportion of the book is devoted to providing an exceptional amount of detail about the buildings and monuments he visits, particularly those in Persia. Try as I might, I could not appreciate the full extent of what I was reading, and I suspect that this would only be possible if you were stood in front of these buildings and monuments, a copy of ‘…Oxiana’ in hand. Describing the Mosque of Sheikh Luftullah in Iran, Byron says:
I have never encountered splendour of this kind before. Other interiors came into my mind as I stood there, to compare it with: Versailles, or the porcelain rooms at Schónbrunn, or the Doge’s Palace, or St Peter’s. All are rich; but none so rich. Their richness is three-dimensional; it is attended by all the effort of shadow: In the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah, it is a richness of light and surface, of pattern and colour only. The architectural form is unimportant. It is not smothered, as in rococo; it is simply the instrument of a spectacle, as earth is the instrument of a garden. And then I suddenly thought of that unfortunate species, modern interior decorators, who imagine they can make a restaurant, or a cinema, or a plutocrat’s drawing-room look rich if given money enough for gold leaf and looking-glass. They little know what amateurs they are. Nor, alas, do their clients.
For me, the book only really comes into its own in the chapters covering Afghanistan. Shorn of the need to focus predominantly on the monuments of Persia that (mostly) inspired the trip, Byron spends a lot more time describing the people he meets and the incidents that he experiences. The reading experience is richer for this, and from this point onwards I learnt more about both Byron and the countries he was travelling through (principally Afghanistan). To a certain extent, your opinion of the book may well rest on what sort of travel book you like to read. The first two-thirds of the book felt a bit too much like a lecture; this latter third was more to my taste.
I think my overwhelming feeling on finishing the book was uncertainty. Did ‘…Oxiana’ inspire me to visit the region? I’m not sure. It is difficult to answer objectively, given the obvious difficulties associated with visiting central Asia. It has certainly changed my perception of the countries that Byron visited, in particular Afghanistan, introducing me to a side of the country unknown to those in my generation (and younger). Do I like Byron? I’m not sure. His writing style is unique, and there are several genuinely funny moments, but his pompous nature and several instances of casual racism meant that I couldn’t fully warm to him. Does the book evoke a good sense of place? Yes (in Afghanistan), but in Persia he focuses so overwhelmingly on the architecture that it feels like a missed opportunity. Is it thought provoking? Actually, maybe this is what saves the book for me. There are several moments when the politically astute Byron makes pertinent comments that deserve a wider audience. An example is perhaps a good way to end this post. Writing about an encounter with local people in Afghanistan, Byron notes that:
…as we drove away, I remembered with infinite gratitude the kindness I had found on those ugly little houses… Such kindness is easy to forget and impossible to repay: it needs a rich man to offer the same degree of hospitality in England as two clean sheets and a bath represent after a journey in Persia. Worse than that, he who writes is apt to repay it with injury, in the form of political indiscretion, which makes life for the residents more difficult than it is already. But this, I must admit, leaves me impenitent, regrettable as it is from the personal point of view. To asperse a sunset in these days is a political indiscretion; and equally so, to praise it, if there happens to be a cement-factory in the foreground that ought to be praised instead. Somebody must trespass on the taboos of modern nationalism, in the interests of human reason. Business can’t. Diplomacy won’t. It has to be people like us.
The Road To Oxiana represents an era that ended some time ago and is a unique reading experience. You may not agree with (or understand, or be interested in) all that Byron says, but I think on the whole it is a book worth experiencing so that you can make up your own mind.