The context of the novel is the war between Russia and Afghanistan. The Soviet–Afghan War lasted over nine years, from December 1979 to February 1989. Insurgent groups known fought against the Soviet Army and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Between 562,000 and 2,000,000 civilians were killed and millions of Afghans fled the country as refugees,mostly to Pakistan and Iran. The war is considered part of the Cold War.
The leader of the guerrilla in the novel is Ahmed Shah Masud. Ahmad Shah Massoud (September 2, 1953 – September 9, 2001) was an Afghan political and military leader. He was a powerful military commander during the resistance against the Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989 and in the following years of civil war, during which time he became known as the Lion of Panjshir.
The area where Jane and Jean Pierre go is called Five Lions Valley. The Panjshir Valley is a valley in north-central Afghanistan. The name AminPanjshir, literally meaning “Five Lions”, refers to five Wali, highly spiritual brothers who were centred in the valley. Local legend has it that the five brothers built a dam for Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni in the early 11th century AD. The foundations serve today for a modern reservoir.
The novel mentions the different tribes in Afghanistan. One of them is the Tajiks. Tajik is a general designation for a wide range of Persian-speaking people of Iranian origin,with traditional homelands in present-day Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
Another tribe is the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns historically known by the exonyms Afghans and Pathans are an ethnic group who mainly live in the Pashtunistan region of southern and central Asia, in Afghanistan and North-Western Pakistan.
And the third tribe is the Uzbak. The Uzbeks are a Turkic ethnic group; the largest Turkic ethnic group in Central Asia. They comprise the majority population of Uzbekistan but are also found as a minority group in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Russia and China.
The language that Jane speaks with the Afghans is Dari. Dari is the variety of the Persian language spoken in Afghanistan. Dari is the term officially recognized and promoted since 1964 by the Afghan government for the Persian language. Hence, it is also known as Afghan Persian in many Western sources.
When Jean Pierre describes the savage nature of the Afghans, and one example is the national sport, buzkashi. Buzkashi is the Central Asian sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to place a goat or calf carcass in a goal. It is the national sport of Afghanistan, although it was not banned, it certainly experienced a sharp decline due to reduced number of playing horses under the Taliban regime. Traditionally, games could last for several days, but in its more regulated tournament version, it has a limited match time.
The main reason why Jean Pierre supports the Russians against the Afghans is because his father was a Communist and helped the front of liberation for the Algerian people. The National Liberation Front is a socialist political party in Algeria. It was the principal nationalist movement during the Algerian War and the sole legal and the ruling political party of the Algerian state until other parties were legalised in 1989.
When Ellis and Jane flee, they go on the Butter trail. There are different places that are described in the novel as the characters travel though them.
Nuristan is one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, located in the eastern part of the country. In the book the mountains of this province are considered a rough area.