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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : The Adventures of a Traveler on the Trail of a Talisman : THE AFGHAN AMULET: Travels From the Hindu Kush to Razgrad by Sheila Paine ; A Wyatt Book for St. Martin's Press $21.95, 278 pages


"Man instinctively regards himself as a wanderer and wayfarer," wrote Thomas Merton, "and it is second nature for him to go on pilgrimage in search of a privileged and holy place."

There's something of the pilgrimage and the quest at the heart of Sheila Paine's "The Afghan Amulet," an account of her journeys through Asia Minor in search of the origins of a rare and remarkable amulet that shows up in clothing and jewelry from Afghanistan to Bulgaria.

"All these devices protected the wearer from the djinn ," she explains, "whose evil spirits that in Islamic mythology lurk among men and angels, ready to attack but known to be frightened by dazzle, by colour, by curving lines and by the tinkling of a woman's clothing as she moves."

So we learn right away that Paine is a sophisticated observer of both folkways and fashion; she is an intrepid traveler who is not afraid to trek into the farthest reaches of the Hindu Kush or the most desperate precincts of battle-ravaged Afghanistan. And she is a writer whose work is full of high spirits, subtle wit and good humor.

Her quest begins in a London shop, where she first sees a tribal garment that features the intriguing amulet design--"a triangular motif dangling with tassels." Because none of the so-called experts can tell her what she wants to know about the amulet--was it a fertility symbol, a soothsayer's badge, a cosmological map, a talisman to ward off the evil eye?--she vows to find out for herself.

"Its origin remained a mystery," she writes of her motive for a truly heroic undertaking. "It was a mystery that intrigued me."

The places that she visits embody a great swath of geography that stretches from Pakistan to Turkey to Bulgaria, a vast sweep of history that reaches from the armies of Alexander the Great to the Afghan guerrillas and Kurdish refugees of our own times.

Paine's adventure is not merely a lark. She ventures, alone, into war zones and police states and punitive theocracies, and she often finds herself in remote places "still beyond the law" where lone Europeans tend to disappear and show up dead.

"Iran is closed," a Pakistani official shrieks when Paine announced her intention to cross the border into Iran. "You will be killed there. Or taken hostage. It will be bad for the Department of Archaeology."

But Paine is undaunted, and she describes journeys that bring her into contact with people and places that we might expect to find in a musty old volume of Rudyard Kipling. Indeed, the secret of the amulet is ultimately far less important than the mighty efforts she undertakes to unlock its secrets.

At one point, she is recruited for wifely duties by a local potentate in the Hindu Kush whose symbol of authority is a Kalashnikov rifle. Later, she is interrogated by a Pakistani police officer who confides to her that "one of my ancestors . . . was knighted by Queen Victoria's son." And she narrowly escapes an encounter with a band of Islamic Guards who troll the marketplace in search of women wearing a trace of lipstick or showing a strand of loose hair.

"The punishment if you're caught is a fine of 200,000 rials, a day shackled in prison and 40 lashes of the whip," she learns. "They let you off the whip if you're pregnant."

Because textiles are Paine's real passion, she pauses to describe what is being worn--and why. She notices when women in a mountain valley, far from the ravages of technology and popular culture, are garbed in polyester. And she spots the Coca-Cola bottle caps and military buttons that are sewn into the ceremonial hoods worn of an obscure pagan cult.

Paine is impressed by much of what she sees, but she does not offer up local color merely for its curiosity value. One moment she may compare a verdant valley to "a casual Miro brush stroke," but a moment letter, she describes the sight of a dying baby in a village square. And even when her prose takes on the rhythms and images of poetry, she remains clear-eyed and unsentimental.

"If India is a land of labyrinths, a maze that at the turning grasps the heart with a flick of sari, with an intensity of colour, with sharp musky scents, marigolds and dusty beggars," she writes, "Pakistan is a corridor with violence as its walls, stained with blood like spat betel juice."

Paine places herself squarely in a tradition of English literary travel writing that ranges from Charles Doughty's "Travels in Arabia Deserta" to Bruce Chatwin's "The Songlines." Perhaps the highest praise that I can bestow upon "The Afghan Amulet" is to say that Sheila Paine clearly belongs in such grand company--and, in fact, she brings something new and unique and distinctive to the genre.

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