Book Review: Kings of Afghanistan by Pieter-Jan De Pue

The main characters of The Land of the Enlightened. From left to right: Mohammed Isa, Gholam Nasir, Khyrgyz Baj, Ali Barsh, Fais Mohammed, Band Ali, Deh Khan and Askar Khan. (Sarhad de Broughil, Wakhan corridor, Badakhshan province, winter 2014). Photo by Henrik Rabau.

In exchange for travel and accommodation expenses, Pieter-Jan De Pue photographed Afghanistan for NGOs. “It was during these trips that his plan to create a docufiction developed. The Land of the Enlightened was created between 2007 and 2015,” I learn from the foreword by Dorian van der Brempt.  Also: “Afghanistan is a country that does not come with an instruction manual. Some places are accessible on horseback, others only on foot or by helicopter.”

Although I thought it slightly irritating that the foreword quite obviously wasn’t written for this book (it mostly refers to the film The Land of Enchantment), it provides most useful information that helps putting things into context. “Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzebekistan and China together span an area of six hundred and fifty thousand square kilometres. There are thirty million Afghans, 80% of whom are Sunnis and 19% Shiites. Half of them speak Dari, a variant of Farsi from Iran, and 35% speak Pashtu. Following attempts by England to impose colonial rule on Afghanistan, it has taken first the Soviet Union and then the United States (and their allies) half a century to work out that a contemporary colonisation of Afghanistan is impossible. Afghans are a poor but proud people in a rich, monumentally beautiful country.”

Sisters Bander – Sangtakht district, Daikundi province. (Summer 2008)

The foreword is followed by a preface that constitutes largely of an interview between Piet-Jan De Pue and his childhood friend Herwig Deweerdt. Pieter-Jan De Pue was influenced by Roland and Sabrina Michaud who travelled and worked in Afghanistan from 1964 until 1978, a year before the Soviet invasion. “They didn’t go to Afghanistan as photographers, but as travellers looking for stories they wanted to tell, looking for a purpose in life. Photography offered them a way (…) Their work radiates a serene sprituality (…) just like the Michauds half a century ago I was impressed by space and time, I discovered another way of thinking with the inhabitants and experienced a distinct spirituality. In Afghanistan you can see simplicity, a simplicity that is simply beautiful.”

Many photographs in this tome illustrate the magic of this simplicity with which Pieter-Jan De Pue fell in love. Not least because “Afghanistan gave me answers to essential questions to which Western culture didn’t have an answer to.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t really elaborate on what these answers were.

A Khyrgyz girl is doing the laundry. (Gash Kosh summer camp, Little Pamir, Wakhan corridor, Badakhshan province. Summer 2007)


A group of boys returning home after having been working at a stone-bakery site on the outskirts of Kabul. (Deh Sabs district, Parwan province. Summer 2010)

Many photos show children – and they are fabulous. As always, I’m not really sure whether this is because of the photographer or the subjects. Other photographs depict the vast landscape, and again others give testimony of this war-torn country (US-army personnel, former Soviet tanks). It is a very varied view of Afghanistan that is on display in this book – from an Olympic-size pool built by the Soviet army to Afghans playing chess, from a vendor of soft drinks in front of a tunnel to two men searching for the road after being trapped by a heavy snowstorm.

There are quite some pictures that stayed with me long after putting the book aside. Almost all of them showed the incredibly expressive faces of children and youngsters – what they have seen and experienced I can only vaguely imagine but I do sense that it is something that I cannot really understand.

“Apparently the word “King” has an almost magical meaning in Afghanistan. Therefore the book is called ‘Kings of Afghanistan’. Where does this almost fairy-tale like fascination for the king come from?”, asks Herwig Deweerdt. Pieter-Jan De Pue’s lengthy answer you will find in this impressive tome.


Kings of Afghanistan: The children of The Land of the Enlightened
by Pieter-Jan De Pue
Lannoo Publishers, Tielt, Belgium 2019

Also published on Medium.

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland., Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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