Lisa (Harmonybites)'s Reviews > The Places in Between

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart
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Mar 16, 12

bookshelves: 2012-around-the-world, biography, history, memoir, non-fiction, political, travel
Recommended for: Everyone
Read from March 14 to 15, 2012, read count: 1

Just weeks after the fall of the Taliban in January of 2002 Scotsman Rory Stewart began a walk across central Afghanistan in the footsteps of Moghul conqueror Emperor Babur and along parts of the legendary Silk Road, from Herat to Kabul. He'd find himself in the course of twenty-one months encountering Sunni Kurds, Shia Hazala, Punjabi Christians, Sikhs, Kedarnath Brahmins, Garhwal Dalits, and Newari Buddhists. He said he wanted to explore the "place in between the deserts and the Himalayas, between Persian, Hellenic, and Hindu culture, between Islam and Buddhism, between mystical and militant Islam." He described Afghanistan as "a society that was an unpredictable composite of etiquette, humor, and extreme brutality."

And he conveys all that in a way that only someone having taken such a journey, taken step by step, burning shoe leather, could have given us. This didn't impress me much at first, when he begins it I wasn't hearing much about Afghanistan I didn't know. But certainly by the time I got a third way through I was much more impressed. He had a gift for vividly describing the people and the landscape.

I have to admit, I found heart-breaking to read how dogs are treated in Afghanistan. It's said Muhammad once cut off part of his own garment rather than disturb a sleeping cat. Unfortunately, he didn't feel equal affection for dogs, and they're "religiously polluting." They're not pets, and they're never petted. A quarter of the way in his journey Stewart has a toothless mastiff pressed upon him by a villager and he named him Babur. The evidence of past abuse could be seen in missing ears and tail, and someone told Stewart the dog was missing teeth because they'd been knocked out by a boy with rocks. Stewart found the dog a faithful companion and said he'd call him "beautiful, wise, and friendly" but that an Afghan, though he might use such terms to describe a horse or hawk would never use it to describe a dog.

Then there was how Afghanistan's precious historical and cultural legacy was being destroyed. I think many Westerners certainly know about how the Taliban dynamited the giant Bamiyan Buddha statues over a millennium old because they considered them "idols." Just as profound a loss is discovered by Stewart in his travels. There is a legendary lost city, the "Turquoise Mountain" of the pre-Moghul Ghorid Empire. Archeologists couldn't find it--but when passing through the area, Stewart had found villagers who had, and were looting artifacts with no care for the archeological context or the damage they were doing to the site, selling the priceless wares for the equivalent of a couple of dollars on the black market. This is what he tells us about his discussion with the villagers about the lost city:

"It was destroyed twice," Bushire added, "once by hailstones and once by Genghis."
"Three times," I said. You're destroying what remained."
They all laughed.


Many a time I wished George W. Bush and Tony Blair could have taken that journey with Stewart and learned the lessons he did. He gives you a sense of the complexity and diversity of the culture and of Islam--and just how ludicrous and ignorant were the assumptions and goals imposed on the country by the invading Westerners. I certainly know that, especially as a woman, this wasn't a journey I could have personally taken, so I felt all the more privileged to look over Rory Stewart's shoulder as he took the journey across Afghanistan.
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Reading Progress

03/14/2012 page 105
35.0%

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue I have this on my shelf and have been considering it for Afghanistan. Now I think I really should read it. Thanks for the great review.


message 2: by Judy (new) - added it

Judy This is my read for Afghanistan. I'm glad to read this good review of it.


Lisa (Harmonybites) Sue wrote: "I have this on my shelf and have been considering it for Afghanistan. Now I think I really should read it. Thanks for the great review."

There's just a lot that's telling in it. For instance, he talks about how both Blair and Bush tried to show respect for Islam in the wake of 9/11 in ways that, well, were counterproductive. For instance, Bush took to carrying around a Koran, and Stewart talks about how one time Bush was seen on television dragging a Koran absent-mindedly across a desk--with his left hand--which Muslims find sacrilegious. If the people involved with policy and on the ground in Afghanistan had read this book, I can't imagine for instance they'd have burned those Korans.

So yeah, I think well-worth the reading.


Lisa (Harmonybites) Judy wrote: "This is my read for Afghanistan. I'm glad to read this good review of it."

It really does what I think the 2002 Around the World group is hoping for--really let you walk around a culture. I'm glad you think I did well by it. Thanks!


message 5: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue You definitely did well. Thanks.


message 6: by Lewis (new) - added it

Lewis Weinstein Thanks for a terrific review. We should never have been there (other than to get Osama bin Laden and his coharts) and we should get out now as fast as possible. There never was and not now any achievable mission.


message 7: by Lisa (Harmonybites) (last edited Mar 18, 2012 09:56AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lisa (Harmonybites) Lew wrote: "Thanks for a terrific review. We should never have been there (other than to get Osama bin Laden and his coharts) and we should get out now as fast as possible. There never was and not now any achievable mission..."

I'd agree--except indeed to get Usama. And possibly to destroy the ability of the Taliban to base and train terrorists in their country. But nation-building? And I think the book shows many of the reasons why the West has such problems doing any good there. Stewart I found out later at first supported the invasion of Iraq and was involved there as a coalition administrator. And wrote a book about that too I'm definitely now interested in reading; he is a Member of Parliament now.


message 8: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue Definitely agree with you both.


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