The Places in Between

by Rory Stewart

Cover image

Publisher: Harcourt
Copyright: 2004
Printing: 2006
ISBN: 0-15-603156-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 299

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Rory Stewart, a former British Army officer and member of the Foreign Office, started walking from Iran to Nepal in 2000. He wanted to do the entire journey on foot, for reasons that he finds difficult to explain but which certainly involve knowing the country and the people in a way that is impossible of one only stays in the areas frequented by diplomats. Due to the Taliban government of Afghanistan, he had to skip that part of the journey originally. When the Taliban fell after the US invasion following 9/11, he saw an opportunity to go back and complete the missing leg.

The Places in Between is Stewart's account of walking across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul starting in January of 2002, six weeks after the fall of the Taliban government. He did the entire journey on foot, refusing any other form of transportation (and at one point going back and redoing a section of the walk when he couldn't turn down a vehicle ride). He took an uncommon route straight through the center of the country and the heart of the mountains, instead of the more common route through the south that bypasses the dangerous mountain passes. This choice was partly because it was shorter, partly because the south was still partially controlled by the Taliban, and partly I suspect (though he doesn't say this explicitly) because it's the less-discussed and less-known route.

This is, therefore, a sort of travel book, describing places that the reader is very unlikely to ever go. It's also unavoidably political, since Afghanistan is unavoidably political. However, unlike many travel books and many books with political overtones, it's carefully observational, documentary, and quietly understated in a way that gives the reader room to analyze and consider. Stewart focuses on his specific journey and concise, detailed descriptions of what he encountered and lets any broader implications of what he saw emerge from the reader's evaluation. He describes how he reacts to the remarkable natural beauty and almost-forgotten ruins that he encounters, giving the reader a frame and a sense of the emotional impact, but he's not an overbearing presence in the book. The story is clearly personal, but he doesn't dominate it. This is a very difficult line to walk, and I don't recall the last time I've seen it walked as deftly.

I suspect every reader will take different things from The Places in Between. One of the things that struck me most memorably is the web of personal loyalties, personal animosities, different tribes and history, and complexity of Afghan politics that Stewart walks through. Afghanistan is not coherent or cohered in the way that those of us living in long-settled western countries assume when thinking about countries. While there are regions with different ethnicities or dominant tribes, it doesn't even break down into simple tribal areas or regions divided by religion. The central mountain areas Stewart walked through are very isolated and have a long history and a complex web of rivalries, differing reactions to various central governments, and different connections. Stewart meets people who have never traveled more than a few miles from their village, and people who can't go as far as his next day's stop because they'd be killed by the people in the next village. It becomes clear over the course of his journey why creating a cohesive western-style country with unified national rule is far less likely and more difficult than is usually portrayed in the US news. The reader slowly begins to realize that this may not be what the Afghans themselves want, and some of the reasons why not.

At the very end of his walk, Stewart reaches Kabul, the heart of the western intervention in Afghanistan and the place where all the political theorists and idealists came to try to shape the country. He describes the impact of seeing draft plans for a national government, which look ridiculous in the light of the country that he just traveled through. It's a rare bit of political fire that's all the more effective since it's one of the few bits of political commentary in the book.

There's much more to this book than political implications, though. Stewart followed roughly the same path as Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, did in 1504 at roughly the same time of year. He quotes occasionally from the Baburama, Babur's autobiography, which adds a depth of history to the places Stewart passes through. The Minaret of Jam in the mountains of western Afghanistan is one of the (unfortunately rare) black and white pictures in the center of this book, and Stewart describes the legendary Turquoise Mountain, the lost capital of a mountain kingdom destroyed by the son of Genghis Kahn in the 1220s, of which the minaret may be the last surviving recognizable remnant. He describes the former Buddhist monestaries at Bamyan in Hazarajat (the region of central Afghanistan populated by the Hazara) and the huge empty alcoves where giant statues of the Buddha had stood for sixteen centuries until destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. This book is full of history of which I'd been almost entirely unaware, described with a discerning eye for necessary detail.

A large part of that recent history is violent, and here is where Stewart's ability to describe and characterize the people he meets along the way shines. It is a tenet of both Islam and the local culture to give hospitality to travelers, which is the only thing that makes this sort of trip possible. Stewart is generally treated exceptionally well, particularly given the poverty of the people (meat is extremely rare, and most meals are bread at best), but violence and fighting fills the minds and experiences of most people he meets. He memorably observes at one point that one of his temporary companions describes the landscape in terms of violent events. Here, he shot four soldiers. There, two people were killed. Over there is where they ambushed a squad of Russians. It's striking how, after decades of fighting either for or against first the Russians and then the Taliban shapes and marks their mental map of the world. It's likely that few of the people Stewart meets are entirely truthful with him, but even that is an intriguing angle on what they care to lie about, what they think will impress him, and how the Afghan people he encounters display status or react to the unusual.

I could probably go on raving about this book for pages more, but the summary is that you should buy this book and read it. It's both one of the best bits of travel writing I've ever read and an invaluable insight into a part of the world that the United States does not understand. The history and sparse beauty of the central mountains are worth reading about by themselves, as is Stewart's personal adventure (and I haven't even mentioned the dog that accompanies him much of the way). It's all the more rich and relevant given its emergent commentary and background for the current war being fought there. Stewart necessarily tells only part of the story of Afghanistan, but he tells far more of the story than I had prior to reading it. It should be mandatory reading for anyone making decisions about how to proceed in that region.

This is one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Highly recommended.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-12-19

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