Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart

This book records the walk which Rory Stewart took in 2002 across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul. The Taliban had only recently been overthrown, and he wanted to take the opportunity of extending his walk through Asia, and also finding out about the situation on the ground.
    The walk took him several weeks, often through deep snow. He dressed in Afghan costume and spoke the language well enough to make himself understood, though he sometimes thought it best to conceal the fact that he was British, and not a Moslem. At one point he pretended to be Indonesian, guessing correctly that his hostile interrogators would no nothing about the country. On more than one occasion he wondered whether he would be shot.
         For parts of his journey Stewart followed in the footsteps of Babur, the descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, who in the early sixteenth century came from Uzbekistan and through Afghanistan to Delhi, where he established the Mughal Empire. Stewart read Babur's diary as he walked, noting the tribes Babur encountered and trying to locate landmarks like the legendary "turquoise mountain".
      Very few of the villagers Stewart encountered could have known anything about the New York Twin Towers outrage, and it became increasingly clear to him that their ignorance of the outside world was closely matched by the ignorance of their lives shown by the politicians in Washington, and by the newly-imposed government and their foreign advisers in Kabul. The village people had lived through, and to some extent were still living through, a background of violence: fighting perhaps against the Russians or against the Taliban, but often against the people from the next village. Now they had to cope with armed "security guards", who were in many cases no more than the arrogant private militias of some local boss. Stewart heard dreadful stories of massacres, villages laid waste, and the appalling torture of prisoners.  During the course of his walk he acquired a dog, but since Moslems considered dogs unclean beasts, this led people to treat him as a man of very low status, and in some villages the boys threw stones at him.
      Despite the fact that many of the people Stewart encountered were desperately poor, living in what were no more than mud huts in villages that had often been ravaged by war, they were almost always ready to provide him with food and shelter in their homes, or in the village mosque, and to accompany him on the road to the next village.

I met Rory Stewart briefly, because he has been since 2010 the Member of Parliament for my father's constituency of Penrith, up in the Lake District. He is a seriously intelligent man, and I would have every confidence in his ability to be a cabinet minister.

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