Thursday, August 10, 2006

A man, his dog, and some other men with Kalashnikovs

From Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between (2004)
“Peace will come only when all the foreigners have left this country,” snapped a new arrival. “Are you a Muslim?”

I began to explain again. He spat on the ground, turned his back, and walked off, followed by five others. The Taliban head, however, took his leave gracefully, embracing me and wishing me luck. I hugged him with a show of respect and affection I did not feel.

I was left with the original three men.

“Why don’t you go down to the river there and examine the spring,” suggested the one who had asked me for money.

“No, thank you,” I said, “I am in a hurry . . . I have to get to Maidan Shahr before dark . . . I must keep going.”

“Go on.”

“No, thank you,” I said seriously. “I must keep going.”

They all laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” I asked.

“Because if you had gone down there, you would have been killed,” they replied.

I lead a quiet life. I like to stay at home. I like to read in my chair by the window, watching the birds and petting one of our cats. I like to get to bed at a reasonable hour and get up early to run along the quiet lakefront. I like to cook dinners and serve them to friends. I like to see my wife at the beginning and end of each day. I enjoy traveling, but I freely admit that I’m not an adventurous traveler, usually opting for the familiar, or places where I know I’ll see friends. And that’s okay. Day to day, I’m contented, happy to live what is a remarkably peaceful, stress-free existence.

But without people like Rory Stewart, my quiet life would be much, much less interesting. Because Rory Stewart is insane, and Rory Stewart is daring, and he doesn’t like to be home in the same bed night after night. He doesn’t mind danger—in fact, he seems to court it; then, after courting it (and, fortunately, having it spurn him), he writes about it, well. As I said, I think he might be insane.

The evidence? In January of 2002, mere months after the fall of the Taliban, he walked the length of Afghanistan. He had no reason to do so, other than an interest in the region and a desire to complete the central leg of a walk that had already seen him cross Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. He took nothing but a pack, a walking stick, a knowledge of Arabic, and the hope that the historically generous Muslim hospitality remained in force in the region. He survived the walk, and the product is The Places in Between, a travel book that holds its own against Robert Byron’s and Peter Fleming’s classic works on the region.

It’s of course a trip I would never even contemplate. And even if I did, my wife, or my friends, or my parents, would surely dissuade me. They would point out that I was insane. Stewart has parents, with whom he’s apparently close, for he mentions them frequently. He acknowledges that they worry about him, but that worry doesn’t stop him from making his trek. In the face of freezing temperatures, snow-bound mountain passes, minefields, and the constant threat embodied by gun-toting men in remote, essentially lawless lands, he trudges on, talking to strangers, sleeping on floors, and sketching portraits in his notebook (many of which are, thankfully, reproduced in the book). Worries that would stop me in my tracks merely force him to be a bit more alert.

And because he’s undaunted, we get to learn up close about a region that is most often reduced to accounts of military actions and high-level political maneuverings in Kabul. Afghanistan appears in Stewart’s narrative as a land steeped in the minutiae of local history, where a young man can recite his genealogy going back fifteen generations, where places are remembered and described by the acts of violence that occurred there,and where decades of war have left a mixture of convoluted, overlapping loyalties that defy quick understanding. More ancient history remains fully present, as well. Stewart walks the route taken by Tamerlane’s descendant, Babur, founder of the Mughal empire, and he is able to plot his journey so that each night he is at a new town largely because medieval caravans traveled about the same distance in a day, and many of the caravanserai that sustained them each night still stand. Mosques and minarets from Tamerlane’s time dot the landscape, as do more ancient monuments, like the carved niches for the giant stone Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Sometimes, Stewart walks alone, but for much of the book he is saddled with three agents of the Afghanistan security service, foisted upon him at his entrance into the country. They are violent, argumentative, brave, fascinating, and infuriating, their rapid-fire mixture of threats, boasts, and complaints forcing an ever-changing view of Afghanistan, its people, and its future. At other times, Stewart walks alone, accompanied only by a dog he adopts halfway through the journey; occasionally he picks up temporary companions of dubious intentions, like the men at the opening of this post. They are not by any means the only people to jokingly threaten Stewart’s life; nor are they the only ones whose actual intentions are difficult to divine. But plenty of other people, despite their poverty, are generous beyond belief to this stranger who appears out of nowhere, and their kindness and conversation helps sustain Stewart’s enthusiasm for his project.

Throughout, he remains, as the best travel writers do, quiet, open, friendly, and, somehow, unafraid. That poise means that by the end of the book, he’s still somewhat of a cipher (though he displays clear passion about human life and human rights, and about history and artifacts). Yet I think his sublimation of the self is probably necessary to this sort of journey; a more engaged, more forceful personality—someone less able to subdue his frustrations, confusions, and even, at times, anger—would have been far less well-equipped to handle the rigors and privations of the walk. At times, such equanimity enables Stewart to reach a state of peaceful communion with the land that is positively enviable.

So maybe he’s not insane after all. Maybe he’s as contented as I am. Maybe the open air and an uncertain future are his version of my chair by the window. Regardless, I am grateful, and I selfishly hope he keeps traveling and writing and drawing.


  1. My rudimentary knowledge of Arabic and I are travelling through an essentially lawless Muslim land (or, okay, even a reasonably lawful one) facing tough men.

    "Peace will only come when all the foreigners have left this country. Are you a Muslim?"

    "Yes, of course I am, Allah be praised, though soon I must be leaving this beautiful country."

    Should the conversation turn theological, I would beg the forgiveness of my colleagues over certain key points of doctrine, giving them to understand that I was only a recent, enthusiastic convert.

    But maybe someday Rory Stewart will be read in Afghanistan as Alexis de Tocqueville is read in the U.S. today - that is, by blowhard politicians in service of far-fetched points.

  2. What frequently happens to Stewart is that someone will ask one of the men he's with if he's a Muslim, and the man will say, "Yes, he is." Or "Is he an American?" "Yes, he is. And he's very rich."

    You can see how that sort of thing could get you into trouble. How Stewart kept his cool is way beyond my understanding.