Located in Central Asia with Iran to the west and Pakistan to the east, Afghanistan sits at the crossroads of Asia and the Middle East. That’s made it a hot spot for invaders from all directions for millennia. From Darius I of Babylonia and Alexander the Great to Great Britain, Russia, and the United States, superpowers in every century have tried — and failed — to tame the tribal warriors of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s terrain is rugged — and in some places, stunningly beautiful — with deep gorges and river valleys, deserts, snow-topped mountains, and irrigated land used for farming. It’s best known for pomegranates — some say Afghan pomegranates are the best in the world. And poppies. Heroin made from opium grown in Afghanistan makes up 95% of the market in Europe.
Afghanistan is a culturally conservative and religious nation. Reputation is the most valuable social commodity, which forces both men and women to comply with a web of strict social rules. An estimated 99.7% of the Afghan population is Muslim. And that faith plays out in dress, dietary codes, regular prayer, language, and social interactions.
In this episode, we get curious about Afghanistan’s violent history, its tribal and social customs, and the rise of the Taliban. Then we discuss five books that gave us a better understanding of the whole situation. From reportage to history to a literary crime novel, these books illuminate a vivid picture of this remarkable, challenging country.
For a complete roundup of all the books we recommend, plus a full transcript and the other cool stuff we talked about, visit the Episode 29 show notes.
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