Afghanistan: the Unknown Country (BBC2)

The lives of others

Afghanistan: the Unknown Country

Are male war reporters self-aggrandising? I couldn't possibly comment, though I will say that the only one of the breed I have ever interviewed struck me as something of a big-head. Besides, perhaps there are women in the field who are just the same; I don't know. Nevertheless, my strong hunch is that no man, no matter how brave, efficient and well connected, could have made a film as intimately domestic as Lyse Doucet's Afghanistan: the Unknown Country (6 July, 9pm). Damn the warlords and politicians. This was mostly the story of ordinary people: their hopes, their fears, their unlikely obsessions with such things as bodybuilding and an exuberantly gruesome sport in which men play polo with the headless body of a goat.

Doucet, who speaks Pashto, has known Afghanistan for almost three decades and has contacts everywhere. Her journey to reveal the country to us took her from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north to Herat in the west and on to Kandahar, deep in the interior. There was also a five-hour journey by donkey to a village called Paicotal, where the women and children told her that they honestly had no idea whether parts of the country were at war.

What made this odyssey amazing wasn't so much the danger that she was in (in Kandahar, Doucet could remain in one spot for no longer than 15 minutes), but her gender. Every time she reached out to shake a man's hand, or made him laugh by poking fun, I was struck all over again by her ebullience. Her smile alone seemed enough to command male respect. Over lunch with Hamid Karzai's powerful half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, she calmly put to him the rumours that he is involved in the drug trade even as she shared his greasy-looking lamb (or was it goat?) stew.

But it was Doucet's stay in Bamiyan, home of the 6th-century Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, that I loved the most. Bamiyan is now relatively peaceful, and as she arrived you sensed her shoulders fall a little. She went skiing with Afghanistan's only tour operator (customers so far this year: two) and had dinner with an old friend, a Japanese reporter who, having fallen in love with the Afghan proprietor of the Hotel Silk Road, had turned herself into its sushi chef.

In the hotel's cavernous and empty dining room, the three of them ate tempura, maki­zushi and soba noodles, laughing loudly at the cultural muddle. I've no idea how Doucet's hostess came by all that nori, but it looked rather good. You watched them eat and you forgot all about the dust and the chaos. Afghanistan's otherness, the scale of which western governments seem wholly unable to grasp, was reduced, just for a moment, to the rattle of bowls, plates and spoons. l

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.