Tim's Reviews > The Places in Between

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart
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's review
May 13, 2009

There are some people you hear about and all you can think is, "Are you nuts?" Take Rory Stewart for example.[return][return]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.[return][return]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.[return][return]Stewart's book, first published in Britain in 2004 and released in trade paperback in the U.S. in 2006, 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 cake walk. As Stewart notes in the preface,[return][return][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.[return][return][return]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.[return][return]Stewart has other companions also, 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.[return][return]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.[return][return]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.[return][return]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.[return][return]Balance of review at http://prairieprogressive.com/2006/07...

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