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March 8, 2005

The Man Who Would Be King

(the first American in Afghanistan)

Ben Macintyre – ISBN 0-374201781

This fascinating book is the result of inquiry by an experienced journalist/historian who delved into the almost legendary Josiah Harlan, who undertook to follow his hero, Alexander of Macedon, into and over the Hindu Kush to become ruler of a foreign principality. . . and actually did it. For those aware of this man it was never believed that he had done so, presuming that his stories were fabrication. Though he was the model personage for Rudyard Kipling’s book of the same title no one really thought that Harlan’s claim to have been anointed an Afghani Prince was true. The inquisitive and tenacious Macintyre, however, discovered a chest of Harlan’s memoirs tucked away in an obscure little museum in Pennsylvania, and in it the document which proved his claim.

Harlan’s life is traced from his Quaker origins, thru the documentable actualities of his quest as medicalist/physician, military commander, conquistador, counselor to sheiks, shahs and kings, to the lofty “Prince of Ghor [and] Paramount Chief of the Hazarajat.”

Throughout the book one is treated to detailed discussions of his adventures—the man kept extensive notes—and the outcomes of myriad encounters with the unknown and often the savage. It is interesting to read his discussions of his journey/quest thru India and the Sikh/Indus kingdom. As well, there is an extensive and captivating exposition of the physical beauty of Afghanistan, the lushness of the royal gardens—even the countryside--and the magnificence of its mud brick forts and dwellings. I, for one, had no idea that Afghanistan was ever a place one would wish to live . . . never mind conquer . . . but found mesmerizing his descriptions of this remote and unique place on earth.

This remarkable book is “colorful, exotic, and highly entertaining [from the book jacket].” I agree. It is also informative of the nature of Afghanistan, past and present, since the tribal society is little changed since the early 19th century and the time of Harlan’s “visit.” It is a cautionary tale, as well, and worthy of consideration of the ingrained nature of cultures and invaders . . . especially so Afghanistan.

Read it. You’ll like it. And be informed by it. Well worth the time, or I wouldn’t recommend (or read) it!

Posted by respeto at March 8, 2005 1:18 AM