studies in travel writing

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Corinne Fowler, Interview with Christina Lamb (2004)

Background information

After 'Operation Enduring Freedom' in Afghanistan, there was a rush of publications as travel books (past and present), ethnographies and historical accounts of the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) were printed, reprinted or reissued. As Afghanistan became the focus of international attention, travel narratives have, perhaps inevitably, been enlisted in the scramble for knowledge about Afghanistan.

Christina Lamb was named Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the British Press Awards and Foreign Press Association for her reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Sunday Telegraph in 2001 and, for her reports from Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, she was awarded Young Journalist of the Year. She has authored other two best-sellers: The Africa House and Waiting for Allah. Lamb was one of many British war correspondents to 'supplement' her news articles for The Sunday Times with her best-selling book The Sewing Circles of Herat, published in 2002 by Harper Collins. As might be imagined, the book is hard to classify, appearing under 'Travel Writing' in Waterstones and 'Asian History' in Borders bookshop.

The Sewing Circles of Herat raises compelling questions for scholars of travel writing. What is travel writing's appeal for journalists, considering its obvious drawback of being a traditionally low-status genre when journalists' writing aspires to informational status? Lamb seems to suggest that travel writing offers a degree of (literal) space and editorial supremacy unavailable to correspondents under constant pressure to file stories. Moreover, though Lamb's narrative does not purport to be ethnographic, it contains pseudo-ethnographic elements, revealed in its discussion of children's games, such as egg-fighting and kite-flying. Further important questions pertain to Afghan women. Despite the unrelenting focus on burquas in British news reports, Afghan women were largely excluded as actors in, and legitimate commentators upon, 'Operation Enduring Freedom'. However, Lamb's book includes diary entries and letters in translation by 'Marri', whom she describes as 'a woman of about my own age in Kabul [who] risked her life to get them to me' (1). Marri is awarded a degree of 'autonomous textual space' (Mills:17). According to Lamb, gendered positionality has some bearing on her narrative's promotion of Afghan women's agency.

Corinne Fowler (CF): I know you're reluctant to categorise The Sewing Circles of Herat but would you agree that travel writing has particular appeal for journalists because there isn'y necessarily the space or opportunity to write everything they want in their news reports?

Christina Lamb (CL): Yes, indeed. It’s very difficult when you know a place for a long time. There are lots of colourful details and things that you would like to convey and yet you know you can only write a thousand five hundred-word piece a week, which is usually the case. Obviously you can’t get that in; those pieces are very much news-driven. I was actually talking to my editor at The Sunday Times yesterday and he was saying that it must be very boring in Afghanistan in the evenings. He was asking if I read lots of books and I told him I end up actually going to lots of dinners with Afghan friends and eating kebabs and stuff. So I was just drawing the scene for him as to what’s it’s really like at these dinners with lots of tribal leaders there and often people playing chess while people come in and out with interminable amounts of food, and he was saying, you know, you should write about this and, yes, I’d love to but it’s very difficult when you’re writing weekly news stories covering events. It’s not easy to get all that in. I hope that because it’s a country that I know very well and that I’ve been going to for years, that some of that comes through in the reporting. I know that when I read the reporting of my colleagues I can usually tell whether somebody has just been parachuted in or whether she or he knows the place very well and has been going there for a long time.

CF: I notice that Louis Dupree is in your bibliography. Would you say that the work of Dupree, or indeed the practice of anthropology, has had any bearing in your approach to writing about Afghanistan? Would you be flattered or concerned by being compared to an anthropologist?

CL: Well, obviously, Louis and Nancy Dupree were real authorities on Afghanistan and when I lived there, they were also living there. I would be flattered to be compared to that kind of work, I mean their work on Afghanistan is very authoritative. I don’t necessarily think their style of anthropology compares to anthropology in general, I think in their case they had a great love for the country, and so they really, you know, dedicated their lives to it.

CF: In the build-up to the Afghan elections I notice that many journalists have adopted the game buzkashi as a metaphor for Afghan resistance to democratic processes. Do you see any danger in using these kinds of metaphors to encapsulate what you’ve described as ‘the whole picture’ rather than ‘only fragments’?

CL: I don’t like using images like that. I think it’s a real problem for a reporter when you see only fragments of what’s happening and I think this problem should be made clear. Particularly in a country like that, so huge and so diverse. But then journalists are working within such restricted space, trying to convey something in a small amount of words and those [kinds of metaphors] are an easy way out.

CF: I’ve mentioned that you foreground a reluctance on your part to make any claim to see the ‘whole picture’, and you point out that you were always presented with multiple realities to work with. Do you find that a book like The Sewing Circles of Herat allows reflections and complexities that allow you to question the authority of your own observations more comfortably than if you were writing a news report?

CL: As correspondents in the past we had a lot of time to think about what we were writing. I could reflect at my leisure on what I wanted to say. Now you only have a short time and then you have to file. That’s why I really like to write books because there is no way you can convey properly in news articles the reality of the place and it’s very easy to give a very misleading view.

CF: You were saying that male reporters don’t have access to Afghan women, which is of course, very problematic. Even so, my research suggests that in general both female and male reporters tend to still privilege the voices of Afghan men (although female reporters are seen to be marginally less guilty of this). I sense that you have gone to some lengths in your travel book to correct that bias and perhaps to depict Afghan women as agents of change rather than passive victims. Is that an accurate description of your rationale?

CL: A difficulty for women reporters, too, is that all the news editors – I think - in British newspapers are male, what they often want from the correspondents on the ground is sort of ‘bang bang’ and battles, then they get very excited and put their maps on the wall with stick-pins in, so it’s quite difficult sometimes to be trying to write stuff from behind the scenes, because to them that’s not the story, the story is the fighting on the ground so I think that that happens both for male and female correspondents. Sometimes it’s also the case, say with the war on Iraq, in the early part we just weren’t meeting any women because we weren’t really able to go into towns or anything because it was still under Saddam’s control and you were only meeting people out on the roads who for the most part were male. So that did make it very difficult.

CF: I’ve just been going through some archives in the British Film Institute and people make very telling mistakes in their news reports: Haret instead of Herat and Afghani rather than Afghan. But your book gave Marri some space to speak. Why do you think Afghan women are left out, not just from travel accounts but from war reporting?

CL:: It’s hard to tell but most of the reporters who are writing about Afghanistan are male and who do not have access to women and it’s funny I’m always asked by people “what is it like being a woman reporting in these places?” Well actually, it’s a lot better because we don’t have fifty percent of the population cut off from us and actually I think Afghan men I think tend to…they don’t quite know what to make of western women reporters. We seem to be some kind of de-sexualised species I think, so they often are perhaps more relaxed.

CF: I notice at one point you suggest in The Sewing Circles of Herat that as one of the few female correspondents it was ‘different’ for you and you also suggest that women might tackle war reporting differently from men. You write that ‘the real story of war wasn’t about the fighting and the firing, some Boy’ s Own adventure of goodies and baddies.’ How was it ‘different’ for you?

CL: I think it is very different for women because I think you, we tend to be more aware. I think that male reporters covering wars focus very much on the actual boys with toys theme; the fighting, the technology, the equipment and while that’s valid, that to me isn’t the real story. I think again with Iraq, you know, the story is that people there are trying to keep their lives together, keep their families together, educate their children through war. This is true of Afghanistan particularly because fighting went on for twenty-seven years, so, through that, trying to bring up, trying to educate children…and I suppose it’s something I’ve felt more since becoming a mother, thinking of women who walk for months through the mountains scraping moss off rocks to feed their children, imagining what that must be like trying to give that to your child at the end of the day.

CF: On the subject of being a mother, you dedicate your book to your young son, which suggests a consciousness that, as a woman, extensive travel away from home perhaps transgresses certain boundaries even now. It also reminds me of Yvonne Ridley, who came under such attack for leaving her daughter Daisy behind. Very rarely do male travellers or correspondents express that kind of dilemma. Have you any more thoughts on that issue?

CL: It sort of annoys me that people ask me, you know, how can you leave your child? People don’t ask male reporters. Obviously large numbers of them do have small children although I have colleague who tells me that the only time he ever gets a good night’s sleep is when he is off covering wars because he’s got three children under the age of four and they’re always waking him up at night. But it is difficult. I don’t do such crazy things, I’m more careful because I have a responsibility to my son and it was quite hard during the war on Afghanistan when I was away all the time and when I came back when he was almost two and I was away for at least three weeks of the next eight months and in that period when he was starting to talk he used to tell people that his mummy lives on a plane. It’s funny, now he’s older he’s fine. He accepts it. He likes to point to the places that I go to [on the map].

  • Lamb, Christina, The Sewing Circles of Herat (London, Harper Collins, 2002)
  • Mills, Margaret A., Rhetorics and Politics in Afghan Traditional Storytelling (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991)



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