Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

"You're not afraid, are you?" I asked.
"No. Are you?"
"No." Although I was nervous, I was reveling in the beauty of the low hills and the pale dusk. Everything was very still and silent. The long line of cliffs continued above us and we could see no on on the track. Abdul Haq stopped, looked up, and suddenly fired at the ridge. His rifle's muzzle flashed and the sharp explosion echoed around the valley.
"That will frighten them away...all of them -- bandits, villagers, wolves."

Rory Stewart, a Scottish writer, decided to walk across Afghanistan east to west in January 2002, part of a larger journey across Iran, Pakistan, Nepal and India. The country had only recently been invaded by the U.S.-led coalition which toppled the Taliban. When Stewart began his journey, parts of the country were still firmly within the Taliban's grasp. He freely admits that the reason he took the far more difficult journey of Herat to Kabul through the central mountains in winter rather than through the south by way of Kandahar was not because of bravado but because the latter was still Taliban-held.

Stewart learns after deciding on the northern route that he will be taking essentially the same journey as the Afghani warrior and Mughal emperor Babur. He intersperses this travelogue with excerpts from Babur's diaries of his own trip. When Stewart first leaves Herat in the east, he is accompanied by unwanted travel companions, guides foisted upon him by the new government's security team. These men accompany Stewart through the first half of his journey, while he travels from town to town and asks for shelter at night from villagers.

Stewart writes that he had heard of the famous generosity of the Islamic world towards travelers, and expected to be greeted with open arms at each village. He had letters of introduction penned for him by village chieftains to give his hosts at each subsequent town, and yet he still was not welcomed like he thought he would be. Stewart is begrudgingly given shelter and meager food at most villages, with a few exceptions. On more than one occasion he has to beg or remind his reluctant would-be hosts of their duty as good Muslims to feed and house him. Halfway through his journey, Stewart is joined by a large mastiff, whom he names Babur after the Mughal emperor.

Overall this book was good, if a bit dull. I haven't read much travel writing, but somehow I went into this book thinking Stewart would have crazy adventures or at least some insight to share. His knowledge of the region certainly grows as the book unfolds, but Stewart doesn't come to any grand conclusions about the culture he is observing or the West's place in it. I also found it a little off-putting that this wealthy (Stewart lives with his parents on an estate in Scotland when not traveling, and looks rather dandy on the back cover) Western traveler complains about the generosity of his hosts, poor villagers in Afghanistan, a country decimated by years of war and famine. I kept thinking as I read the book that he could have at least brought sufficient food for his journey with him, rather than complain throughout about his hunger and weakness.

This book wasn't a quick read, at least not for me. I had to work to get through it, and I considered putting it aside several times. If not for this blog, I probably wouldn't have finished it.


Christopher said...

Isn't it great how this makes you finish books?

Meagan said...

you know it kind of is. i used to be terrible at finishing books