Sunday, October 17, 2010
The Places in Between by Rory Stewart
In 2002 former British Soldier and intermittent diplomat Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan from Herat To Kabul, despite many warnings that he would die on the way. The Places in Between is his enlightening, frequently very humorous book about his journey.
Beginning with the sheer challenge of getting Afghan authorities to permit his walk, Stewart then has to contend with a constant stream of unusual companions, beginning with his two security service body guards, the sullen Qasim and the boisterous, violence-obsessed Abdul Haq. Then about halfway through his journey, having lost those two he picks up a new companion, who is certainly as memorable as any human in the book: Babur, an aged, broken down mastiff who accompanies Stewart all the way to Kabul, and whose death on the final page of the book will affect any reader who possesses a heart.
The things Stewart writes about are wide-ranging, handled in short, 3-5 page chapters with titles like "Crown Jewels," "Marrying a Muslim," and "Little Lord." He highlights lots of little odd features of the Afghan people, such as their seemingly random questions about American customs, interrogations that are actually designed to reveal how in line with Muslim doctrine the interviewee is, or even how difficult it can be to get certain towns to honor the world famous Muslim value of hospitality. In between the cultural notes, he also speculates on history, archaeology (Stewart visits what he is positive is the site of the legendary Turquoise Mountain),
and politics (he has some interesting things to say about Tony Blair and the Koran).
The book is heavily laced with excerpts from the journals of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, whose footsteps Stewart is following in, and the pages are also dotted with little cartoonish sketches that Stewart has drawn of everything from his hosts to painted pots, which add an amusing, very British character to the story.
The Places in Between is an excellent work of modern travel and adventure writing, and is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in either world travel or in the current politics and culture of Afghanistan. It's well-written, intelligent, insightful, and just entertaining to read.