The Places In Between by Rory Stewart, Harvest Books (May 8, 2006), 320 pages
Travelogues are interesting when they have an angle to it. For example Bruce Feiler’s Walking the Bible is a journey from Egypt to Jerusalem along the path followed by Moses. Chasing Che is a motorcycle trip along the route that Che Guevera took. Jaya Ganga: In Search of the River Goddess is travel from the origins to the end of river Ganga, Chasing the monsoon is a journey of a man following the path of monsoons in India and Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud by Shuyun Sun follows the path taken by Huen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim who toured India during in the 7th century.
All those writers had a peaceful journey and most of their interesting narrative comes when they meet very interesting people on the road. Compared to them, Rory Stewart did not have it easy. For one he decided to walk from Herat to Kabul in January when it was still snowing in the mountains and second it was the January of 2002 when it was still not safe for anyone to walk through Afghanistan. With his knowledge of the language, customs, and sometimes pure luck, he survives and writes one of the best travelogues I have read.
He decided to take the central route through Afghanistan because it was shorter and the Taliban were still fighting in the southern route, not because he wanted to follow the path of any historical person. As he finalized the trip, he discovered that Zāhir ud-Dīn Mohammad aka Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire had also walked along the same route in January, five hundred year back, and had recorded his journey in his diary. Armed with Babur’s diary, Stewart sets of on foot ignoring warnings by Afghanis themselves.
After warning him that he is guaranteed to be killed during this trip, the security service in Herat gives him two armed body guards Qasim and Abdul Haq who walk with him for many days before turning back. From that point Stewart makes use of the Afghan hospitality in which the village chief or the tribal leader sends his son along with him to see him safely to the next village. Sometimes he walks alone, and for quite some part of the journey he walk along with Babur, a dog which was gifted to him in one of the villages.
Then as Stewart writes, “..never in my twenty-one months of travel did they attempt to kidnap or kill me. I was alone and a stranger, walking in very remote areas; I represented a culture that many of them hated and I was carrying enough money to save or at least transform their lives. I was indulged, fed, nursed and protected by people poorer, hungrier, sicker and more vulnerable than me”. While he gets food and shelter in most villages, he finds that in some villages people are reluctant. Then he has to remind them of Afghan hospitality and that he is a guest in their country and most of the time it worked.
Just before he enters the Darai-e-Takht village located in a gorge of the Hari Rud River, he gets shot at. When he is resting in an inn, he is joined by a thirty year old commandant of Obey, Mustafa, who had shot at him a while back. Mustafa it seems had shot at Stewart because Mustafa’s cousin had bet that he couldn’t hit Stewart. After listening to Stewart’s story, Mustafa agrees to give him a letter of introduction and provide him with five armed men as honor guard.
Most of the people he meets have fought in some war, either against the Russians or for the Taliban or against the Taliban. An excellent anecdote comes in the chapter where he meets Seyyed Umar Khan in the village of Garmao and asks him why he became a Mujahid. “Because the Russian government stopped my women from wearing head scarves and confiscated my donkeys”, he says. When asked why he fought against the Taliban he says, “Because they forced my women to wear burqas, not head scarves and stole my donkeys”. As Kaplan mentioned in Soldiers of God, the Afghans want to be left alone.
He also meets quite a number of people, like members of the Hazara tribe who hate the Taliban for the the killings they did. In village of Gorak he meets the headman’s son who shows him a copy of Koran which was burned when the Taliban burned their house. When asked to recollect the names and number of people who were murdered by the Taliban, they are not able to for the only thing they cared about was the Koran. As he walks through the Shaidan pass he realizes that it is a ghost town where the Taliban had killed about eighty men in the bazaar. Stewart also meets a Taliban commander in Wardak who asks him if Stewart thinks Usama bin Laden or George Bush is better and if he is a Muslim. Using his wits, he survives the interrogation.
In Bamiyan he climbs up the destroyed statues of the Buddha and sees that the Taliban had torched the interior of rooms to destroy some frescoes and had boot stamps on ceilings which were twenty feet high. Stewart notes that Buddhism was weakened by the Hindu revival in the first millennium and was extinguished by Islam. Then the Taliban destroyed even traces of it.
Even though Stewart sees pictures of Hritik Roshan in Herat and buxom Bollywood actresses in Kabul, there is one thing in which the Afghans will disagree with the Indians. The question is who owns the Koh-i-Noor? In the village of Dideros, a fat old man asks Stewart when the English are going to return the diamond to them. After Babur acquired it in Delhi, it passed hands from Humayun to Shah Jahan. In 1739 Nadir Shah, the ruler of Iran got it from Shah Jahan’s heir and took it to Iran across Afghanistan. Nadir’s son gave it to Ahmed Shah Durrani, the founder of modern Afghanistan who kept it in his capital in Khandahar and hence the Afghans think that the diamond is theirs.
Most of the people whom he met were illiterate villagers who did not have electricity or television. They knew very little about the outside world and the only thing that connected them to rest of the world was Islam. Even the rights of women varied from region to region. In some villages he never gets to see any women publicly whereas in some villages women talk to him. Even political power mean different things in different regions. Some people wanted a feudal lord and some hated a centralized government. In some places
violence had been inflicted by t
he Taliban and in some places the villagers had inflicted it on themselves.
Filled with anecdotes, excellent footnotes and drawings Stewart did on his journey, this book is a wonderful read. Once you read Kaplan’s book followed by Stewart’s, you will get a good idea about the politics and people of Afghanistan.