Afghanistan – The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

3 Jul

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. Pic courtesy - Amazon

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart. Pic courtesy – Amazon

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.

21 Responses to “Afghanistan – The Places In Between by Rory Stewart”

  1. corneliaweberphotography July 4, 2016 at 09:41 #

    I have read this book a few years ago, and found it very intense and such a fantastic reading. If I may give you a recommendation of another extremely interesting book of a woman’s life of Afghanistan …. Nelofer Pazira ” A bed of Red Flowers”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • getsetandgo July 16, 2016 at 22:06 #

      Thanks a ton for the recomendation… I have added to my book list and shall definitely read it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. randommuzings July 4, 2016 at 12:03 #

    Great review. I haven’t read this book will definitely pick it up.

    I recently read the English translation of a Bengali book “Deshe Bideshe” by Syed Mujtoba Ali and loved it. He is also a scholar who travels to Afghanisthan to teach from Bengal and gives a very interesting account of Afghanisthan from 1927 to 29, witnessing a revolution against the then king by the bandits. Syed is a very witty and learned author and learnt so much about the history and culture of Afghanisthan from the book. Also although English was not the original language of the book, the language is brilliant. Usually I dont like and recommend Indian authors but would strongly recommend this book.
    Earlier I had read “Come back to Afghanistan” by Hyder Akbar, an American professor but that is just mediocre in comparison.

    Liked by 2 people

    • getsetandgo July 16, 2016 at 22:13 #

      Thanks Richa and Deshe Bideshe sounds like a fantastic read….I will definitely look for it and read it… I so agree with you on Indian authors and don’t read them unless they are recommended…


  3. The Smiling Pilgrim July 5, 2016 at 03:26 #

    I would love to travel around afghanistan some day and see all the country has to offer 🙂 I hope peace comes soon!


  4. Brenda Liang July 11, 2016 at 21:37 #

    thank you for the like, means a lot! I hope to see you stop by again soon 🙂 xX


  5. nomadicsojourner July 12, 2016 at 08:08 #

    Great review! I read this a long time ago and, coincidentally, was recently discussing it with a family member. I couldn’t remember anything beyond the general idea (and of course Babur), so it was nice to get reacquainted with it in this review. I have a love/hate relationship with travel writing, partly owing to your early conflicted thoughts about whether this was a travel book or foolish risk taking. It is a fascinating account, but it’s impossible not to think he could have easily been a statistic. But he’s obviously a smart, capable guy, so he had that on his side. I tried to read his account of his experiences in Iraq – Prince of the Marshes I think it was called. I wasn’t able to get through that one. I also think that travel writers have the challenge of presenting the journey as one you are, in a sense, accompanying them on, rather than serving up a cultural lecture. It was a long time ago, but I remember thinking the author got the right tone. I have also often wondered if it was actually safer during the immediate post-Taliban period than it would be now. I think it may have been. Sorry for the long comment.


    • getsetandgo July 16, 2016 at 22:21 #

      Hi, thanks for your comment and thoughts on this book and review. I agree with you on the challenges faced by travel writers but feel an additional challenge many of them fail in is to also focus on the place more than themselves and what’s happening to them…And to not be condescending about the place or its people…

      Liked by 1 person

      • nomadicsojourner July 16, 2016 at 23:07 #

        Well said. I don’t mind a little good-natured ribbing of the locals. I think that’s often a reflection that the person traveling is aware they are in a different environment, which I think is the point. But you’re exactly right – it often slips into condescending comments, and that’s not enjoyable to read (or to travel with).

        Liked by 1 person

  6. kirizar July 13, 2016 at 21:19 #

    There is a huge part of me that questions why anyone would take such risks, but I don’t suppose I could ever understand such compulsion. Perhaps the author is able to find meaning and necessity in the journey. I would ask you, though, if you could take such a trip of privation and uncertainty, would you?


    • getsetandgo July 16, 2016 at 22:22 #

      Hi, I understand the whole need for adventure etc but frankly I will never do such a trip or take such a huge risk…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. lexandneek July 16, 2016 at 03:07 #

    Hello! Thank you for liking our post on Vancouver Lookout Tower. Enjoyed reading your post on Afghanistan – The Places In Between by Rory Stewart.. Will look out for the book in our area. It’s always exciting to find and read good books!


  8. Jade July 16, 2016 at 17:27 #

    Great review. I have always found travel stories with a focus on people most interesting and captivating. I would definitely be picking this book up!


  9. ginalrodgers2013 November 25, 2016 at 09:00 #

    Thanks for reminding me to read this book. Afghanistan is a place I would like to visit one day.


  10. Camaleon January 29, 2020 at 22:31 #

    Hello! This is another one on my to-read list… I bought the book in 2018. In 2019 Rory Stewart became secretary of state for international development – that’s my field of work, and I felt it would be way too sycophantic to read a book by the minister. Having said that, he was the best secretary of state for a long time. Now that he’s nowhere near the post, I can consider reading it again… and think of Stewart as just the author.


    • getsetandgo January 31, 2020 at 14:20 #

      How cool is that… I really enjoyed the book and it’s so good to hear that that he made a good Secretary of State too… Somehow it’s good to hear that authors you like are good are professionals too… Hope you enjoy the book 🙂


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