In January 2002 Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan--surviving by his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the kindness of strangers. By day he passed through mountains covered in nine feet of snow, hamlets burned and emptied by the Taliban, and communities thriving amid the remains of medieval civilizations. By night he slept on villagers' floors, shared their meals, and listened to their stories of the recent and ancient past. Along the way he met heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and foreign-aid workers. He was also adopted by an unexpected companion--a retired fighting mastiff he named Babur in honor of Afghanistan's first Mughal emperor, in whose footsteps the pair was following. Through these encounters--by turns touching, confounding, surprising, and funny--Stewart makes tangible the forces of tradition, ideology, and allegiance that shape life in the map's countless places in between.--From publisher description.
Stewart says that the only brand name in most of the country that he slogged through was Islam. There was no electricity, no T shirts and no coca-cola and people were deeply suspicious and sometimes hostile to strangers. Most villages were a collection of mud huts, a mosque, perhaps an old fort or caravanserai with very few if any cement buildings. Meat was unobtainable in many parts and Stewart had to rely on the Moslem religions edict that travellers should be welcomed as guests for any food and lodging that they might have. The walk turned out to be an endurance test and Stewart was under no illusions when he started. Previous travelling experience had taught him the essentials for survival in such a terrain. He always sought letters of introduction or a name of the headman of the next village, he sought out local knowledge and had the seasoned travellers sense of knowing when he was in danger. He could speak the lingua franca of Dari well enough to make himself understood and knew enough about the culture not to cause too great an offence, without these skills it would have been difficult for him to survive and even with them he needed to be lucky on occasions.
Walking in mountainous country in winter and climbing passes of between 8000-10000ft is very hard going. Snow drifts were up to his chest at times and he was mostly cold and wet. He needed all his will power to keep going especially when he was underfed and ill with dysentery. Sometimes it almost got too much for him, but the freedom of the walking, the sense of achievement, and of being alone in the landscape kept him going. He always had it in mind to get to the next place and as readers we enjoy the thrill of the getting there (from the safety of our armchairs perhaps). Occasionally the frustrations seep through into his writing, but it is not typical of him, here is such a paragraph:
Perhaps because I was sick, I was often irritated by villagers and village hospitality. On the fourteenth day, when I came off the snow plains after five hours walking and turned into a village hoping to get lunch, I was left standing in the snow with my pack on my back for half an hour while the headman decided to speak to me and another villager told me I would never make it to Barra Khana by dark. Finally I shouted “Right, thats it. If there is no welcome here, I’m off to Bara Khana now” and began to walk away. Only then did the headman invite me in and give me some dry bread. After the meal I found a gully, a necessity with Diarrhea, and half the village followed to watch me defecate. Back in the village, the headman’s son asked if he could try my camera and proceeded to finish the roll of film by pointing the lens to the ground and clicking again and again. I now had only one roll to see me to Kabul. I was angry for the rest of the day. That night I dreamed I was buying a plane ticket to Venice.
Although Stewart focuses his journey on the current situation in Afghanistan (there are few history lessons here) he does delight in following in the footsteps of the Emperor Babur who made the journey in the 16th century. Stewart includes extracts from Babur’s diary, which make it sound like little has changed since medieval times, which is probably not far from the truth. This is a fascinating juxtaposition and gives Stewart’s rumination on the current situation an added dimension. Stewart wanted to travel alone, but when he started out from Herat he was forced to accept two of the current warlords (Commandant Haji Mohsin Khan) men who were suspicious of his intentions. These men were often more of a hindrance and Stewart was never in control of their actions, fortunately they were only charged to follow him while he was walking through Khan’s territory. The real problem for Stewart was convincing people that he was just walking through the country, hardly anyone believed him because it was beyond their comprehension, as it may be to many readers of this book. Stewart encountered another problem when one of the village headman presented him with a very large dog (a fighting dog) which caused many villagers to set their own dogs on the pair (stone throwing children were a particular menace), however once Stewart named his dog Babur he forged a bond between them which kept both of them going until the end.
Stewart is critical of the aid agencies and foreign intervention advisers who try and solve problems from the top down, without spending time to understand the culture. Afghanistan is a tribal country, barely out of its feudalistic past and it is a Moslem country and until these two basic facts are understood and worked through, intervention will only make things worse. It was also a country when Stewart was there which had until two months previously been under the yoke of the Taliban and it was never easy to discover where the Taliban still held sway. A wrong word said in ignorance in one of the guest rooms could have been fatal. The Taliban committed atrocities especially in the central eastern area of the Country, which was populated by the Hazara’s and there is an intense feeling of desperation as Stewart walks through burnt out villages and decimated lands.
From my own experience of travelling I can admire the fortitude and honesty in Stewarts account. He tells it like it is and creates an atmosphere that will thrill the most hardened armchair traveller. A four star read.
As part of a mammoth odyssey across most of Asia, Stewart decides to finish his journey walking across Afghanistan in 2002 - the dust not even settled from the initial coalition invasion. He is tracing the footsteps of the ancient conqueror, Babur. But, he says at the start, he doesn't want to dwell too much on ancient history, as he's sure it has little in common with Afghanistan today.
Stewart then spend much of The Places In Between comparing his own peregrinations with Babur's, and certainly in villages with no electricity, doctors or vehicles, life does seem depressingly similar - except there are now guns.
There isn't a narrative to this book - Stewart steadfastly avoids mentioning anything of himself, much of Afghanistan's recent history, or any kind of conjecture. Rather, he sets down in a dry, yet engaging and sincere kind of clipped prose, his meetings with people, and his moments alone in the high plateau.
This may sound boring, but it's certainly not. Whilst avoiding any kind of impression, the various Afghanis he meets on his travels are - to this pampered westerner, at any rate - a fascinating and little seen glimpse in a country whose denizens are rarely given a voice.
Though it can be frustrating at times, Stewart's resistance to speaking for them is ultimately admirable, and I think it lends the book a spare, almost graceful quality. It will, however, leave you hungry. The Places In Between isn't one of those smorgasboard travel books; trying to give you heaping serves of history, culture, personal opinion and perhaps even development in one sitting.
I found myself wanting to see more of the illusive Afghani women, predominantly off-stage in this man's world of mosques, tribal leaders, and regional commanders. I wanted to learn more about the modern history of Afghanistan - equally fascinating to the ancient, no doubt. And I wanted to know more of the reasons behind the sights we see on this frankly insane trek, and the reasons behind Stewart making it in the first place. But that is not to be. Stewart merely records what he sees and hears.
Ultimately this book leaves you, the reader, in the places in between. Wondering what fills in the many gaps we see, in history, in infrastructure, in humanity, in each other, settling instead for a simple walk from neighborhood to neighborhood. But it's not the poorer for that. It's a negativist text; raising more questions than it answers - and very successful at it. The questions are worthwhile, and so is the book.
The book does have themes: too many themes. For me, the difficulty with the book is that the reader doesn’t know which theme to follow. They seem to be accidental undercurrents and not developed.
Here is an ancient nation with a rich history being decimated by the modern world; here is a taste of the history, here is a fractured violent people let’s look at how different it is from ours. See, I made some thumbnail sketches. Here is this walk I’m taking in a truly “foreign” place; I don’t know why I’m walking I am just sort of obsessed to walk.
While he presents his themes he doesn’t tease them out. He gives us, at least superficially, the who, what, where, when – but no why. And for me there is this gnawing suspicion that he has to know the why, that maybe it’s in those journals, I mean, one does not walk across such a violent space without some sort of awareness of purpose. I’m going to walk across a war-ravaged, impoverished nation where the people will likely hate me and with whom I will likely disagree on very fundamental issues (women, children, animals, religion, the preservation of antiquities…), I’m going to do this in the dead of winter in snow over my head and I’m going to do this just because I can—and I think I will adopt a dog along the way. The reader steps away and asks why? Or to sound “work-shoppy” here, so what?
While I think he wrote the wrong book, I am not sure that he would answer that question in the right book. I think this book is playing on the political climate and he or his editors believed that the situation in Afghanistan would be defused in an expedient fashion and the timeliness of the text was transitory and therefore rushed.
For me, there is no pay off in this text. I don’t understand why he made his walk, why he chose only a piece of Afghanistan, what he hoped to gain, and if he did gain something what was it? The way I understood his story he was walking across the whole region. But then he flew to Afghanistan and didn’t walk border to border. This tidbit leaves me at a loss from the beginning.
In the end I don’t think he has a respect for these people or their culture. The people were tools, simply there to further his journey and not individuals in any way. That made me uncomfortable. He is critical of most of the people he meets – or has things to say that I interpret as negative. Such as the “gimme, gimme” thing, I understand the eastern concept of lack of ownership, but did the author anticipate that his western audience would necessarily get that? And Aziz, the ill guard/guide, why did Stewart not insist the sick man stay behind? Because of the guns? It seems that he was confronted with weapons everywhere he turned. What struck me about the Afghan people in the text came from things unsaid. What amazing fortitude they have; in spite of the fact that they have been bombarded from all sides they carry on. They strive to hold their communities together. I wanted to see some of that glue and not necessarily be reminded of the ugly side of their culture. I found little redeeming about the individuals he chose to portray – and everyone has redeeming qualities. If Stewart really felt like they had no redeeming qualities – what was his reaction to that? I didn’t get the sense that he felt that way though. He didn’t share his experience with me; while he drew pictures for me he didn’t paint a picture.
I didn't like the author and I didn't like the people he met.
The only positive point I would give is that he does manage to convey the total alienness of this world and that the West continues to meddle in things it does not understand.
Why are we any different from the 50 previous regimes who have tried to invade and change Afghanistan?
Maybe we should take the lessons of history to our arrogance.
Completed April 13, 2013
And he conveys all that in a way that only someone having taken such a journey, taken step by step, burning shoe leather, could have given us. This didn't impress me much at first, when he begins it I wasn't hearing much about Afghanistan I didn't know. But certainly by the time I got a third way through I was much more impressed. He had a gift for vividly describing the people and the landscape.
I have to admit, I found heart-breaking to read how dogs are treated in Afghanistan. It's said Muhammad once cut off part of his own garment rather than disturb a sleeping cat. Unfortunately, he didn't feel equal affection for dogs, and they're "religiously polluting." They're not pets, and they're never petted. A quarter of the way in his journey Stewart has a toothless mastiff pressed upon him by a villager and he named him Babur. The evidence of past abuse could be seen in missing ears and tail, and someone told Stewart the dog was missing teeth because they'd been knocked out by a boy with rocks. Stewart found the dog a faithful companion and said he'd call him "beautiful, wise, and friendly" but that an Afghan, though he might use such terms to describe a horse or hawk would never use it to describe a dog.
Then there was how Afghanistan's precious historical and cultural legacy was being destroyed. I think many Westerners certainly know about how the Taliban dynamited the giant Bamiyan Buddha statues over a millennium old because they considered them "idols." Just as profound a loss is discovered by Stewart in his travels. There is a legendary lost city, the "Turquoise Mountain" of the pre-Moghul Ghorid Empire. Archeologists couldn't find it--but when passing through the area, Stewart had found villagers who had, and were looting artifacts with no care for the archeological context or the damage they were doing to the site, selling the priceless wares for the equivalent of a couple of dollars on the black market. This is what he tells us about his discussion with the villagers about the lost city:
"It was destroyed twice," Bushire added, "once by hailstones and once by Genghis."
"Three times," I said. You're destroying what remained."
They all laughed.
Many a time I wished George W. Bush and Tony Blair could have taken that journey with Stewart and learned the lessons he did. He gives you a sense of the complexity and diversity of the culture and of Islam--and just how ludicrous and ignorant were the assumptions and goals imposed on the country by the invading Westerners. I certainly know that, especially as a woman, this wasn't a journey I could have personally taken, so I felt all the more privileged to look over Rory Stewart's shoulder as he took the journey across Afghanistan.
Graham, you may as well keep my copy.
Reviewed by: Jeff
Stewart is a pretty good story teller, and a fair artist, to judge by the sketches scattered throughout, but the things he was interested
I would have rather gotten more of a sense of the people and the region, a sense of the place. Instead Stewart focuses on the extremely mundane: being cold, how much he would rather travel alone than with forced companions, bits of poetic history, forcing himself to go on, forcing his dog to go on. I suppose he is trying not to interject too much of himself into the story, but in this kind of book, the author his a huge part of the story. I wanted to know more about why, and what his thoughts on the places he traveled through. There isn't enough there for me to really grasp those places on my own, and I was counting on him interpreting for me.
It is certainly worth reading, but don't count on being drawn in to the journey or learning a lot of new things about the region or the culture. There are flashes, moments of such interesting things, but mostly there is the reasonably written recitation of all the places in between.
I found myself annoyed at Stewart's sense of entitlement, not with the people he met but with what he did and did not choose to do for himself. The sense of it'll-be-taken-care-of, and what he chose to be responsible for.
...which would be where exposing the reader's biases comes into the many layers of contrast and tension that makes up this narrative.
Stewart's in-depth knowledge of Persian dialects and understanding of Muslim customs strengthens the power of his journey. As he said, he represented a culture that many of the people he met along the way hated. Yet, in more than five hundred village houses, he was "indulged, fed, nursed, and protected by people poorer, hungrier, sicker, and more vulnerable than he". And he didn't meet only saints, he encountered thugs, too, but he maintained his humor and bravery and wisdom.
This powerful book is rich and descriptive balanced by Stewart's knowledge of history. As I shall never trek across Afghanistan in my lifetime, I say thank you, Rory Stewart, for making the journey and telling the tale.
Stewart's greatest strength is knowing what to focus on. Although he shares a few details of his life and the motivations for his trip, he knows the real story belongs to the Afghan people he meets along the way. Most of the book is devoted to short anecdotes about the homes where he stays and how 20 years of fighting affected his village hosts. He intersperses these accounts with excerpts of the ancient emperor Babur's journal and present-day data about marriage customs, the treatment of guests and a bit of analysis of the current aide efforts. The book really shines in the first and last 50 pages, when Stewart seems happy to be traveling and approaches his troubles with a sense of humor. Unfortunately, the middle of the book seriously lags. Since Stewart isn't a great descriptive writer, his days of walking are lost in short, homogenous paragraphs about ice and cold. Although it's good that he doesn't sugarcoat the difficulty of his experience, I sometimes found him hard to like. He arrives in poor and war-torn villages wearing dirty clothes and looking like an escaped member of the Taliban, dragging along a dog that most Muslims consider unclean. Yet he assumes that because he travels through a Muslim area, people will feed and house him (along with his unclean beast) free of charge. If asked to sleep in the mosque or offered only rice and tea, he feels his hosts have been ungenerous. For a whole hundred pages, there is only one sentence to acknowlege how lucky he was to have been received by so many strangers in a hungry and shell-shocked land.
Still, because Stewart came into contact with farmers, warlords, feudal overlords and ex-Taliban members, this is a good look at a wide cross-section of Afghanistan. Especially revealing are his travels through the Hazara territory. This minority group, whom some readers might recognize from The Kite Runner were brutally victimized by the Taliban but are rarely featured in news reports coming out of the country. The book is an excellent way to put a human face on six years of news stories about Afghanistan. However, the book does have a limited scope. Stewart touches on ancient history and shares villagers' experience with the war, but there is very little explanation of how 20 years of civil war came about. That means that it's a good update on contemporary Afghanistan, but readers who aren't already familiar with the country my prefer Jason Elliot's An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan. Elliot visits almost every ethnic group living in the country, surveys the remnants of the war with the Soviets and explains key figures among the country's many warlords. He excels at descriptive writing, so the book is very vivid and engaging even though it is a bit long.