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Zen Under Fire: How I Found Peace in the Midst of War

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  309 ratings  ·  54 reviews
I am about to be left in charge of the office.
I'm not sure I'm ready for the responsibility, so I double-check with my boss. He reassures me.
"You'll be fine, Marianne. As long as no one kills Amanullah Khan, you'll be fine."
By midday, Amanullah Khan is dead.

Marianne Elliot is a human rights lawyer stationed with the UN in Herat when the unthinkable happens: a tribal le
Paperback, 337 pages
Published June 4th 2013 by Sourcebooks (first published January 1st 2012)
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Average rating 4.12  · 
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Wendy Jackson
I tracked down this book in the library on the basis of a recommendation from a trusted booklover, and it did not disappoint. I got a well-written and well-described glimpse of what it is like working in conflict-afflicted countries (like Afghanistan, where the book is based). I appreciated how clearly her values came out and her working modus operandi - doing what she can to make a difference in others' lives, and struggling with the trade-offs often needed. Even small vignettes and observation ...more
Lisa McKay
Oct 31, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One thing that I particularly enjoyed about this book was how Marianne wove together stories about her work in Afghanistan with an account of how that work enriched her professionally and deeply challenged her personally. She writes about trying to learn how to live wide open - with empathy and compassion - without also drowning in sorrow or guilt. She writes unflinchingly about anxiety, vicarious trauma, and how the challenges of her work and living situation changed her and changed her relatio ...more
Jennifer Louden
Dec 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Okay, fair warning: Marianne is my friend and I blurbed this book, and gave her comments in earlier stages. Warning aside: read this. If you love stories of smart women trying to find their way in horrifying and hard situations, if you have ever struggled with depression, longed to understand how aid works- and doesn't - and be a more informed global citzen, or if you just want a great read - get ready to stay up late! ...more
Ml Lalonde
Jul 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
New to her post at the UN, Human Rights lawyer Marianne Elliott is left in charge of the office Herat, Afghanistan. Her supervisor tells her as he is leaving on holiday, “You’ll be fine, as long as no one kills Amanullah Khan.” By midday Amanullah Khan is dead. So begins the compelling addictive memoir that is one of the most honest, insightful and intelligent explorations of what it takes to be a female humanitarian in a conflict zone that I’ve read since “Emergency Sex”. Yet, unlike Emergency ...more
Lisa Niver
May 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel
This review appeared in print in Whole Life Magazine on pg. 39 in the August/September 2013 issue.

Zen Under Fire: Finding Peace in the Midst of War

In her job as a human rights officer for the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, New Zealand lawyer Marianne Elliott was a compassionate civil rights leader who worked to ameliorate the human condition. Navigating the United Nations infrastructure, her project to help protect women from domestic violence was created with a collaborative
Tina Tierson
Jul 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Marianne Elliott has written a book with her heart. "Zen Under Fire" is a memoir of the two years she spent in Afghanistan working for the UN as a human rights officer. She writes with such truth and courage and passion that you feel as if she's speaking to you directly. You'll read about the violence, the corruption, and the unspeakable treatment of women, but you'll also read about the strength and courage and kindness of the Afghan people and the stark beauty of the country. Marianne tells a ...more
Christine Miller
Feb 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: current-events
I knew Marianne while she was working in Afghanistan, but was still fascinated by the stories she shares in Zen Under Fire. Not merely a book about her work as a human rights officer in Afghanistan, it also gives the reader an intimate glimpse at her journey of establishing a strong spiritual foundation along the way.
Jun 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
a quite intimate story of human rights aid work in Afghanistan..Marianne gives a clear picture of the variety of work being done there and how complex the problems are, and shares how she found a way to cope with the emotional intensity. i enjoyed the balance of the personal and the political. i've done Marianne's online yoga classes and love her down-to-earth practical attitude, she does a great job making the reader feel at home in remote Afghanistan, and sharing her emotional struggles with f ...more
Jan 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: yoga
This was a great book, recommended by one of my yoga instructors. Marianne's story is inspiring, and learning about Afghanistan from her perspective was so interesting and beautiful. I loved that she included information about her personal relationships as that was an interesting theme throughout the book that kept my interest. ...more
Feb 13, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, owned, memoir
I picked up “Zen Under Fire” because I was curious about how international aid organizations work and what aid workers do day-to-day.

Marianne Elliott is a New Zealand lawyer working for the UN in Afghanistan as a Human Rights Officer in the mid-2000s. She is highly compassionate (which at one point her boss tells her could be one her weaknesses in this role) and wants to help women in Afghanistan gain their voice and participate in the peace process. Soon after beginning her job in Herat, she i
this book wasn't what I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be much more about how yoga and meditation (perhaps even zen, which actually wasn't mentioned per se) created an inner peace in a situation that was very chaotic externally. and it was a little bit about that. but it was much more just this memoir of her time in afghanistan working for the UN.

I think if you're thinking about becoming a foreign aid worker, or you are or were a foreign aid worker, this book might have m
Mar 22, 2020 rated it liked it
Parts about her work were interesting and I wanted to hear more about her work and less about the boyfriend trouble. It made me want to scream that a woman doing so much wrote a book largely focused on a man who took up such a small portion of her life. I would have preferred her to go more into her work and experience in her different jobs in aid. It was slow at times and the writing was not strong enough to intertwine the personal and the professional in a way that kept me interested.
Aug 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
I give this lady a lot of credit. She was in probably the crappiest country in a crappy war surround by insanity. She is a sensitive person who tried to fix poop. I enjoyed this book greatly, I never met a UN worker or read a book by them. I encourage to young people to read it.
Dec 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An interesting and detailed account of a woman fighting for women's rights in Afghanistan while trying to find her own psychological and emotional balance. ...more
Laurie Larson-Doornbos
Jul 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
Marianne Elliott documented human rights violations in Afghan prisons and police stations and trained local law enforcement officers and prosecutors about human rights and Afghan law. Her life, first in Kabul, and then in Herat, was one of contrasts. Rules and procedures narrowed her freedom: she needs a driver or security officer with her whenever she travels outside her UN guest house, she can't walk alone on the streets, her dress and demeanor must at all times show respect for Afghan cultur ...more
Jun 15, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think Marianne is amazing, and the work she did incredible and admirable. I have a deeper understanding of Afghanistan because of reading this book, and I won't look at the news in quite the same way every again, and if that is what she was intending than she achieved that.

What stopped the rating getting to a 4 was I felt a bit of a disconnect. There were some passages in the book where I got goosebumps and that deeply touched me (one in particular still gives me goosebumps when I think about
Mandi | No Apathy Allowed
Mar 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
* The complete version of this review appears on my blog: *

Zen Under Fire focuses very much on Marianne’s struggles to make an impact in righting the social injustices occurring in conflict-ridden Afghanistan. It was all-too-easy for her to feel like she was bearing the sole burden of preventing and healing the suffering around her. Feeling as though her work was perhaps futile, she went through a period of profound sadness and isolation.

There are element
Aug 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have been following Marianne's work on her blog for awhile now and was really interested in reading her book. I have an even higher respect for Marianne after reading her book. The honesty and openness with which she writes not only gives you an idea of what life is like in Afghanistan, but the struggles she faced everyday in working with the different organizations and trying to keep herself together emotionally.

There are two quotes in particular that really stood out for me, the first being
Mar 15, 2013 rated it it was ok
ZEN UNDER FIRE: HOW I FOUND PEACE IN THE MIDST OF WAR is the story told by a human rights worker in Afghanistan . For me this book is a crazy-maker. Author Elliot bounces back and forth between crying jags and accomplishment while correlating the chaos with her personal relationship. The human rights issues are amazing. What she witnesses happening to Afghani women and then relates to her boohoo boyfriend uncurls my hair. In the next breath she rolls around some really great yoga ideas, resource ...more
Mar 18, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book taught me a lot about overseas aid work and the people of Afghanistan. But mostly, I appreciated Elliott's ability to share so much about the emotional toll her work took on her, a toll that most of her coworkers seemed to paper over with toughness, booze, and video games. I appreciate her vulnerability, and can remember times in my own life when my emotional well-being was in shreds. Elliott slowly but surely chooses to cope with yoga, the teachings of Pema Chodron, soy lattes, and fr ...more
Dec 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
I first heard Marianne on a radio interview and thought "I must read that book!" I finally ready last week, and it only took me a few days to read as it was compelling, I couldn't wait to get back into it. Marianne has the life I always dreamt of--International aid worker--and her book pulled me in and gave me an up close and personal glance into her world. I have always been fascinated by the Middle East and have been reading about the Taliban for years, since I stumbled across an article calle ...more
Lee Ann
Sep 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I saw the author speak at a DC conference in October 2013, and everyone was impressed by her vulnerable humanity. I ordered and finally read her book. It's a world and lifestyle I will probably never experience myself, but I appreciated living it vicariously. She went to the most remote, god-forsaken parts of Afghanistan and loved the place and its people. When she left, I cried. We really have no respect for or understanding of these countries we are so eager to invade and bomb - their culture, ...more
Mar 18, 2013 added it
I felt a little guilty finishing this book in 3 days knowing the time that must have gone into the living and writing of it. It gave me enormous geopolitical and humanitarian insight into many sides of the conflict, coupled with connective understanding on all sides through day to day deeply human stories, deftly and succinctly told, of what its like for the people who live within that and struggle to uphold commitment to their pride and values despite the devastation. I must say here that I'm n ...more
Elliott writes about her experiences in Afghanistan as a human rights lawyer - her personal and professional struggles and the way she learned (from yoga, meditation, and the people of the community of Ghor) that we are not in control and that we can find peace in spite of that. She writes from a place of deep commitment, passion, compassion, and honesty. And she has a really wonderful message about learning to take care of yourself and find peace while serving others.

Additionally, I learned a
Mar 23, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed reading this account of the authors time and experiences in Afghanistan. What I appreciate about her very readable style is that she doesn't paint herself as a saint or a martyr (some of these do-gooder books can tend to do that I think) but rather she presents an honest account of herself as a real human being with all the faults, inconsistencies and insecurities that we all feel. At the same time it is an inspirational story about the good we can all do in the world. I recomme ...more
Apr 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a beautiful and intelligent story written by a New Zealand woman about her time working in Afghanistan. What Elliott manages to do in this book is explain the context and the complexity of internal and external challenges in this amazing country as well tell her personal story. It has all the ingredients to come across as overly virtuous, overly emotional and/or potentially biased, however, this writer clearly has respect for her subjects and her readers and that is what lifts this far a ...more
Jill Robbertze
Sep 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
This memoir relates what life is really like living and working in Afghanistan. Marianne Elliot describes the work she was doing, the wonderful and brave people that she meets and the stressful situations and frustrations that she had to deal with, and how all this reflected on her personal life and relationships. Discovering Yoga and meditation gave her the peace and courage to face her unique circumstances both professionally and personally.
I also learned a lot about the various agencies and t
Jane LaFazio
Nov 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
A very intelligent, disciplined, international lawyer works for human right in troubled Afghanistan. Yet, she is compassionate and soft, within, looking for ways to come with the unending work load. Marianne writes of yoga, mediation, friendships and lovers. From reading this book, I learned about the dignity, and history and good manners of the Afghan people. I learned about long time tribal conflicts and a little bit about the pervasiveness of the Taliban. And i learned that I have a huge resp ...more
Sarah Pugh
Feb 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
By far the best book I have read in a long time. Zen Under Fire is great feminist literature about a woman working as a human rights lawyer in Afghanistan (a very conservative and patriarchal society) and her struggles professionally and personally.

Marianne provides a raw image of what it is really like to live and work in a state that lacks a solid infrastructure and is constantly engaged in conflict. She talks about the toll that her work takes on her relationships and personal well-being and
Mar 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2012
It takes extra courage for conflict writing to be vulnerable & free of flamboyance. This is a book written lovingly. It is clear that the author took the utmost care to treat her subjects with dignity and respect, to steer clear of common cliches in writing about the UN, conflict-oriented work or international development, and to share her truth, no matter how unusual or personal that may have been. I read this book in one sitting and will be turning to it again and again.
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