Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan

This colorful romp through history (416 pages) was published in March of 2014 by Public Affairs. The book takes you to Afghanistan. David read Games Without Rules and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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Games Without Rules

The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan

Tamim Ansary

Settle in for 200ish years of Afghan history spun out by a gifted storyteller. The experience of reading this romp through the ages is very much ‘let’s sit here and drink tea, and I will tell you such tales.’

By the time you finish reading, you’ll wish that all history books were written this way. Consider this turn of phrase, ‘We come now to a mysterious event as riveting as any detective novel’ to introduce the story of the 100-year-old cold case of the assassination of a king. Or in the midst of a discussion of a British invasion, ‘So the British chose plan B—the insane one: they decided to abandon Kabul and march out of the country over the Hindu Kush on foot in January.’

The stories themselves are amazing, and Ansay’s fairy-tale-like telling makes them resonate while unveiling not just the events of history but the culture that created them. He vividly describes the Afghan sport of buzkashi — the original game with no rules — in which individual players (significantly, not teams) on horseback fight to move a headless goat carcass across a field with no boundaries, no referee, and no rules. Yes, it is indeed an obvious and painfully apt metaphor for Afghanistan. As fans of football or baseball, we cannot fathom this ‘sport’ — just as foreigners who traipse into Afghanistan do not understand the game they’re playing.

And as in buzkashi, everyone is an opponent. The city and the country fight; the modernizers and the traditionalists fight; the capital and the village rulers fight. It’s all one giant, messy goat carcass of perceived prestige.

Ansary knows of what he writes. He was born in Kabul in 1948 to an Afghan father and an American mother. He lived in Afghanistan until he was 16, then he moved to the US. He eventually became part of a counterculture newspaper in Portland and worked in publishing. When 9/11 happened, he sent a letter to 20 friends to make a case for why the US should not invade Afghanistan. That letter went viral, and he became an expert on Afghanistan.

If you’re interested in the history of Afghanistan and trying to understand the ins and outs of the culture, you won’t find a better telling than this one.

By January 1880, the government of India was wringing its hands. It wasn’t that the Afghans were unbeatable. The British were beating them regularly. It was rather that beating them didn’t stop them from continuing to fight. — Tamim Ansary

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We usually focus our show on destinations you'd like to visit. Afghanistan is likely not one of those places. But with the withdrawal of the US military, now is a good time to be empathetic and curious about Afghans.

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