Who Watches the Watchers: Travel Literature

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Travel literature is often an unfortunately self-obsessed genre. “I went here, I had these adventures, I learned about myself.” When done well, a book like that can be excellent, leading to greater understanding of the world and the human condition. When, more often, done badly, it can be excruciating.

Very, very rarely does a book like “The World is a Carpet” pop up in the genre. A book where the writer is consciously rejecting the urge to write about the self, and seeking to know the self through others.

Yet, even as Anna Badkhen rejects the eternal “I” subject in her sentences, she shows more awareness of self than most writers ever manage. She reflects on the city she lived in at one point, and wonders to herself, as she sits on the balcony, “and who watched me?”

Travel is a constant, multifaceted process of give and take between the traveler and the people around her. A westerner who goes to the “East,” to places like rural Afghanistan, is inevitably an aberration. She cannot observe “everyday life,” because merely by her presence she alters that life. Except, at the same time, she is being absorbed into that life, woven into its pattern.

The process is impossible to untangle, and frustrating to attempt understanding–so Badkhen rejects both actions, and instead observes, watches, and writes to make sense of it all. The result is a thing of beauty; the best piece of travel writing I have ever had the privilege of reading.

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