I started my travel reading project with the first country on the list – Afghanistan. Originally I had decided to read one travel related book on each country written by a local author. But an initial research online yielded quite a few interesting book suggestions, and I couldn’t make up my mind. Finally my sisters’ Afghan colleagues’ came to my rescue and based on her recommendation I decided to read – Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi and The Places In Between by Rory Stewart.
The Places in Between by Rory Stewart is my second book on Afghanistan and so very different from Atiq Rahimi’s Earth and Ashes and the Khaled Hosseini’s books that I have read in the past.
Rory Stewart is an academician, author, professor, diplomat, documentary maker and politician from Scotland. In 2000 – 2002 he spent many months walking across Asia – Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal and ended with a walk across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul. His book “Places In Between” chronicles his journey through some remote and inaccessible parts of central Afghanistan just a few weeks after the fall of the Taliban regime. He began this walk in winters retracing the steps of Moghul Emperor Babur and along the parts of the legendary Silk Route. His idea was to do this walk solo and to rely on the local villagers for food and a place to stay for the night. Initially thought to be a spy, he is accompanied by two mysterious government guards and just before midway on this journey he is joined by a Ghordish war dog, whom he names Babur.
Throughout this book I was unsure whether to classify this journey as – a risky foolish endeavor or as a brave adventure. The reason being that the author decided to walk solo; through remote parts of a war-torn country; with just a wooden staff; and to top it all – just after the fall of the Taliban regime. The landscape is war ravaged, unsafe and unsettled and in many places the roads still have active mines and a threat of wolves. Quite a significant part of this journey is through the high mountain regions and passes and the snow increases the level of difficulty of the journey. But while reading about his journey and experiences somehow you end of feeling that maybe the effort was worth the results.
I liked this book for not being a typical travelogue or acting as an indirect guidebook but for being a really well written travel narrative. The book makes for an engrossing read and is unlike anything else written about Afghanistan in the last few years that I have come across. It concentrates only on the author’s experiences on the journey through this slowly changing landscape and give snippets of his meetings and interactions with a variety of local people. The best part about this book was the author’s ability to provide a unique personality to each and every person he met and interacted with on the road. He met all kinds of people – rural warlords, drug dealers, farmers, security officials, ordinary villagers, local mullahs, kids and his description of their attitude and views are what makes this book such a beautiful and insightful read. One actually realizes how different the thinking and mindset of the local people can be – what you think is wrong may not necessarily be wrong for someone else. For example the entire world felt Taliban was oppressing the locals of Afghanistan and were not right for the country, but many local Afghani’s mentioned to the author that there was more security during the Taliban reign.
The author talks about the four main tribes here – the Tajik, the Ghorids, the Hazara and the Pashtuns and provides a quick insight into their ancestry, means and areas of living, and the complexities of these intra and inter tribe interactions. The author mentions that there are several differences between these groups and these differences are so deep, elusive and difficult to overcome that the western philosophies of village democracy, gender issues and centralization are hard to sell concepts. He describes Afghanistan as “a society that was an unpredictable composite of etiquette, humor, and extreme brutality.”
He also touches upon the Afghanistan’s rich cultural legacy and its destruction under the Taliban (Bamiyan Buddha statues) and the continued destruction post it. He comes across the beautiful and difficult to reach Minaret of Jam and then some locals who have discovered the Ghorid Empire’s lost city of the “Turquoise Mountain”. He saw the looting of the artifacts with no care for the archeological context or the damage they were doing to the site.
There are some really interesting learnings and observations from the book such as the locals here don Kalashnikov guns as women in other places take their handbags, how people speak about importance or memories of a place from the killings or executions there, they hate dogs as its considered impure and cut off their ears to make them fierce, some people consider that Kohinoor should be returned to Afghanistan, there was an Iran funded revolution in the Hazara areas, you can assess possibility of mines by sheep droppings, locals slice the nostrils of the donkey to make breathing easier for them at high altitudes, etc.
The writing style is simple yet effective and very realistic. He does not glamorize the journey and you actually relive the highs and the lows of his journey, with him. He has included some of his artwork in the book that lends another personal touch.
Overall I loved the book and recommend it to everyone interested in reading about this country in a different light. I know that, as a woman, this is a journey I will never be able to undertake and I’m really glad to be able to experience a small part of this country with Rory Stewart.