A short way into Zen Under Fire, Marianne Elliott’s memoir of her time as human rights lawyer with the UN in Afghanistan, a line makes the writer come into focus:
“Like everyone who gets into this line of work, my compulsion to save the world has been fueled by my own private fears and insecurities as much as by my compassion and commitment to justice.”
In 2006, after working in dangerous places like Gaza and Timor, Elliott was assigned to Afghanistan. There she would be helping to create history, brokering peace between tribes that had been fighting for generations, and aiding women struggling to balance their new rights with the traditions that they have to observe to safe be in their own country. And, at the same time, Elliot’s personal life was on an upswing, a romance with a fellow human rights worker blossoming. The assignment should have been the pinnacle of her career, but it wasn’t.
During her time in Afghanistan, Elliot helped in talks over contested land, wrote reports on prisoners’ rights (for instance, it is common, but illegal, for criminals’ relatives to be imprisoned for their crimes), and interviewed victimized women and children. All the while, she risked kidnapping, being shot, and bombings, the last of which actually happened toward the end of her stay.
Elliott is clearly someone who has spent most of her life trying to make a difference in the lives of some of the world’s most endangered people. Considering her background, it is not shocking that New Zealander Elliott would be bluntly honest about what she saw and did, but it is surprising that she is so thin-skinned, as when she writes:
“My boss in Gaza was Raji Sourani … The first time I burst into tears over a child killed by a ‘rubber bullet.’ Raji said, ‘Marianne, if you want to do this work, you are going to have to toughen up.’ Over the next two years Raji did his best … he had failed miserably; I was just as ‘soft-hearted’ as the day I landed on his doorstep.”
Elliott soon found that Afghanistan and the restless life she had been leading was destroying her emotional well-being. She developed insomnia, was insecure in her relationship, and second-guessed herself at work. The exercise and fitness routines that had seen her through tough times in the past failed, and her need to be better, to push herself harder in order to find self-worth, was damaging her psyche.
Finally, fearing that a poor series of interviews she had done with a group of homeless women had in fact harmed their cause, Elliott turned to yoga and Buddhism to find peace.
Although Elliott’s feeling for her spiritual practice is clearly heartfelt, it is here the book is weakest. When writing about her work experiences, Elliott is clear and engaging, able to make the difficult political life of Afghanistan seem understandable if not simple. It is easy to see how she would be good at her work, making the confounding situations she deals with feel immediate. This is, unfortunately, not true of her experience with yoga, which seems tacked on to the book, rather than being a natural part of the whole.
That said, for anyone wanting to know about this tragic, beautiful place, Elliott provides an excellent guide to the war-torn region in Zen Under Fire, taking readers by the hand and leading them into a new understanding of a part of the world that Americans know too little about.
June 2013, Sourcebooks
$14.99, paperback, 402 pages
—Reviewed by Lynda Fitzgerald