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Book Review: The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

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A few weeks after Afghanistan’s Taliban government fell in December, 2001, a Scotsman named Rory Stewart walks into the new government’s Foreign Ministry office. Unshaven and disheveled, he announces his intention to walk across the entire country unarmed, with virtually no provisions. The two security agents present warn Rory of the harsh Afghan winter, the wolves that roam the countryside, and the ubiquitous inter-village warfare that destabilizes the entire region. "You will die, I guarantee," one of the men told him. "Do you want to die?" (The Places In Between, 3).

Mr. Stewart proceeds anyway.

News of his unusual vacation spreads fairly quickly. As he leaves the eastern city of Herat to begin his journey, he passes by two men engaged in discussion about him. "He may be tougher than he looks," said one of the men, "but I don’t think he understands what he is doing" (31).

In The Places In Between, former British diplomat Rory Stewart documents his incredible journey from Herat to the Afghan capital Kabul, a distance of 500 miles. Following in the footsteps of Afghanistan’s first Mughal emperor Babur, Mr. Stewart chooses the highly dangerous and uncharted central route through the country, a choice the security agents heartily disagree with. During his travels, Stewart meets scores of interesting people, some of whom know little about the outside world and still live as their medieval ancestors did.

With an amazing attention to detail, Rory chronicles this diverse cast of characters, from his hilariously eccentric bodyguard Abdul Haq to the dangerous slew of Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers operating in defiance of the fragile new government.

Stewart maintains a neutral, clipped tone throughout the book, offering objective and historical insight that further enhances the reading experience. Even those with little knowledge of the Islamic world will gain tremendous appreciation for this very troubled country while learning a great deal about its culture.

Despite his objectivity, however, Rory covers the human condition quite well. He clearly communicates his fondness for several of his hosts along the way:

“I had savored the hot rice, the firm floor, the shelter from the wind, and the companionship. I had felt how proud the men were of what they could provide and how lucky I was to share their space. They treated me as though I belonged and I had felt that I did” (287).

Given the breadth of Stewart’s amazing journey, The Places In Between moves a little too quickly. Readers never really learn WHY Rory decided to walk across Afghanistan, although he briefly touches upon it. He also rushes a bit when discussing his experiences within each village he visits. These encounters form the very crux of Rory’s journey, and they deserve more elucidation than they receive. Nonetheless, the book is a recommended read for anyone seeking a greater understanding of Middle Eastern affairs and a little insight into the thoughts and beliefs of the Taliban and al-Qaeda Everyman.

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  • James

    Herat is in western Afghanistan, not the east as you’ve written in the 2nd paragraph.

  • Thanks, James. I just spotted that oversight myself while re-reading my review this morning. I’ve let the editors know about it.

  • Mikey Burt