Zen Under Fire by Marianne Elliot review

by Julia Millen / 28 April, 2012
Dislocation and isolation afflict Marianne Elliott during an extraordinary year as a peace advocate in Afghanistan.
New Zealand human rights lawyer Marianne Elliott takes up a new job as a peace advocate with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. She is just starting to get her bearings in Herat when news of an assassination and escalating violence in the district shatters her equilibrium.

Zen Under Fire records the extraordinary day-to-day experiences of Elliott’s year in Herat and Ghor, as she navigates a perilous passage through the UN bureaucratic maze and complex local traditions and protocol, while living under constant physical threat.

Much of her work involves listening to and documenting stories of injustice, oppression and atrocity and trying to broker peaceful resolution. Although she tells little of Afghanistan’s turbulent history – as a buffer between great powers, and as a feudal society that latterly has endured conflict involving warlords, the mujahedin and the Taliban – Elliott has done her homework.

Armed with basic words of Dari and knowledge of Afghan law, she endeavours to support and inform local officials dealing with such matters as the crime of zinna (adultery), customarily cited – without evidence – to condone brutality against women. She also discovers that, despite the country having signed international treaties protecting a person’s right to religious freedom, under Afghanistan’s constitution conversion from Islam to another religion carries the death penalty.

Elliott’s work exacts a severe personal toll. Maintaining physical and mental health is difficult for a vegetarian in a land of meat-eaters, a peace advocate required to liaise with the military, and an independent woman working in a patriarchal environment (the UN and Afghan society). She finds relief in exercise and yoga, although repeated self-analysis and description of these practices becomes somewhat tedious.

Fascinating insights into the role of foreign powers and agencies in Afghanistan and Elliott’s own feelings of guilt and futility are at times marred by her use of cumbersome metaphors and management jargon. Although passionate about her mission and aware she is “still doing a good job”, even with access to high-tech communications her sense of dislocation and isolation increases. She seeks comfort and companionship in the arms of a colleague, a relationship destined not to last.

Lasting, however, is the depiction of Afghanistan, the landscape and its people. When an assistant, Fahim, expresses his gratitude for her instruction, Elliott realises she is the one who learnt the most.


Julia Millen is the biographer of Ronald Hugh Morrieson and Guthrie Wilson and author of many historical works.
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