There are some people you hear about and all you can think is, "Are you nuts?" Take Rory Stewart for example. Stewart spent 16 months walking 6,000 miles across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. He decided that to make his journey complete, he must go back and walk 600 miles across Afghanistan. But he's going to do it alone. In January. Along the most hazardous winter route — a straight line through the central mountains. Roughly a month after the fall of the Taliban. Just two weeks after a new interim government is in place, at least on paper.
If that makes you wonder about Stewart's judgment, you also must question anyone who might think of calling The Places in Between, Stewart's tale of the Afghanistan trip, just a travelogue. Granted, it fits the definition of travelogue but it is so much more. This is a story about the effects of years of war on a country and its people. This is a story about the lives of real people. This is a story about almost primitive village life in a modern age. This is a story, largely non-ideological, about politics and policy.
Stewart's book, first published in Britain in 2004 and recently released in trade paperback in the US, takes us on that journey from start to finish. Upon learning what he's doing, virtually every Afghan makes the same point: it's impossible this time of year. Or, more bluntly: "You will die." While those dire predictions did not come true, the 36-day journey was no cakewalk. As Stewart notes in the preface,
[T]here was no electricity between Herat and Kabul, no television and no T-shirts. Villages combined medieval etiquette with new political ideologies. In many houses the only piece of foreign technology was a Kalashnikov, and the only global brand was Islam.
Stewart followed a route used nearly 500 years before by Babur, the first emperor of the Mughal Empire. Excerpts from Babur's diary of his journey are both a companion and a resource for Stewart on his trip.
Stewart has other companions, the first unwanted. As Stewart seeks to set off from Herat in western Afghanistan, the new government insists he go only as far as a provincial capital about halfway between Herat and Kabul. He also must be accompanied by two armed agents of the Afghan Security Service. Against his wishes, Stewart sets off with the two (soon to be three) men.
While he eventually convinces (pays) them to return to Herat and leave him to continue to Kabul on his own, Stewart is also occasionally accompanied or escorted by villagers along his trek. He even ends up with a full-time companion, a retired fighting dog "the size of a small pony" that is earless, tailless and has more gums than teeth. Stewart names him "Babur." Together they face the toughest part of the journey, through deep snows, blizzards and mountain passes. At times Stewart must almost literally drag Babur along. Yet even Stewart borders on giving up the journey — and his life — in deep snow about four weeks into his journey.
Stewart, a Scot who spent time with the British diplomatic service, knows a couple Persian dialects and Urdu, a language common to Pakistan and India. This enables him to communicate as he travels from village to village, relying upon that "medieval etiquette" for shelter and lodging. Many villagers are simply struggling to survive and are subject to the shifting and often unclear political or tribal alliances. While some villages appear relatively unscathed from years of warfare, others have been severely damaged or traumatized. The effects of war appear even in geographic descriptions. Afghans refer to many places and locations by some tragic or brutal event that occurred there, not by physical attributes.
Warfare's impact on cultural history is also apparent. The world was well aware the Taliban destroyed the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan. But it doesn't take politics or religious doctrine to lose irreplaceable pieces of heritage. The scrabble for existence is enough.
Stewart believes he comes to a site that may be the remains of Turquoise Mountain, the long-lost capital of the 12th-century Ghorid Empire. Instead of being excavated and studied, local Afghans are rapidly tunneling and digging to find any artifacts they can sell for a few dollars to traders. They make no effort to map out the city, let alone preserve the buildings or artifacts. Their frustrations, according to the area commandant, are days in which they dig a pit ten meters wide "and didn't find anything worth anything." (Stewart currently is the chief executive of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a program combining historical preservation with teaching youth traditional Afghan building and craft skills.)
This is just one reflection of the dissonance between today's Afghanistan and its past and the modern world. Eight nights into his trip, someone in the mud house in which Stewart is spending the night turns on a radio tuned to the BBC.
A Bill Gates speech on American policy toward technology monopolies was being translated into Dari. The men listened intently. I wondered what these illiterate men without electricity thought of bundling Internet Explorer with Windows.
Yet even such a comical scene just scratches the surface of the serious disconnect between "modernity" and the reality of Afghan life, history, and culture. Those making policy affecting Afghanistan's status and future
came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women's rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people "who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government."
But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi's wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon in the way they carried briefcases? The villagers I had met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world.
The Places in Between reveals and revels in the diversity, strains and struggles of the latter people, their land and culture. It may be impossible to ever totally overcome the disconnect between it and modern culture. Fortunately, there are a few crazy people in the world whose passions help educate the rest of us about people and cultures of which we are all too ignorant. More important, if their stories and lessons also help educate the policy makers, they are no longer crazy and their stories are far more than travelogues.