Monday, June 11, 2012

Killing the Cranes by Edward Girardet

For the last few weeks, I've been stocking up books to read for post-finals leisure, one of them a gem of a non-fiction that I spent quite a fortune on. It was worth every penny. Killing the Cranes is Edward Girardet's account of Afghanistan that covers almost three decades of unending war against various enemies. What makes this book unique is that it is not strictly a history book. It is a journalistic work, with the kind of language that you'd expect from an adventure article in the National Geographic, making the read all the more enjoyable.

The book opens with Girardet's scheduled meeting with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan Mujahideen commander who led a largely effective resistance against the Soviets back in the 80s. In 2001, he was still at war, but this time leading his small army of Afghan youths to stall the onslaught of the Talibans in the Panjshir Valley. The meeting never took place, for Massoud was killed in a suicide attack two days before 9/11. It is such a powerful intro to the book.

Then Girardet goes on to tell the reader what first pulled him to the enigmatic land of Afghanistan, where the people are both hospitable and proud, and foreigners are treated like families if they come in peace. As a fresh graduate in the 70s, he had wanted to report on any Asian country embroiled in conflict, and Afghanistan, with the communist coup d'etat in 1978, looked promising. Armed with a bagpack, sturdy hiking boots and some notebooks, he began a journey that would span almost half of his life. Little did he know then that he was going to join and mingle with a people that would bring communism to its knees.

 In today's world of fast-paced news reporting and conflict coverage, it is fascinating to see glimpses of old-school journalism at work. Girardet adopted the Afghans' lifestyle in his lengthy research for news materials, learned their way of life and even hiked the mountains along with the Mujahideen in their struggle against communism. The book is filled with anecdotal insights into some of the most famous figures in the world now. A particularly memorable one tells of Girardet's accidental meeting with a young Osama bin Laden, with whom Girardet shared the title of 'guests' of Afghanistan.

What I find most appealing about the book is how it captures the romanticism of Afghanistan that is often overlooked amidst stories of war and terrorism, and Girardet does it so well that I found it easy to understand how a European could not seem to leave the war-torn nation for very long. He always came back to the warmth of the soft-spoken men of the valley and the adventure that an unstable country is willing to give. Of course, the cost of war is adequately potrayed, and there are times when reading about the deaths of good people (like the young Afghans, and the charity volunteers) makes me want to put the book down but such times are rare. It's not the main point of the book. What it is, is a personal story of a reporter who fell in love with a nation and seeks to share with the world what Afghanistan has to offer, as seen through his eyes. The even pace of the narration serves that purpose very well, making me feel like I was accompanying the author in his quest to report the beauty and the ugly of the country.

 A nice little story serves as a background to the title of the book, and its metaphorical beauty fills me with a deep sense of melancholy: Girardet was sitting and talking with an Afghan poet and a close friend, Massoud Khalili in 2004, when the latter suddenly paused  and looked at the sky. Khalili commented that he had not seen the crane birds fly as they used to during migration season. In fact he had not spotted a crane since the height of the Soviet-Afghan war. He mused, "Have we even killed the cranes?"

I highly recommend this book to those who seek to understand a little bit better about Afghanistan and the events leading up to the war against global terrorism. It is not a truly academic account of the nation's history but I can promise you that it will teach you more about humanity than a history book ever can.

Visit Girardet's official website to find out more about the books and to read excerpts.

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