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Thursday, 5 May 2016

Book review - The Places in Between

Aged 29, Rory Stewart set out from Kabul in January 2002 to walk from Herat to Kabul in Afghanistan. He wore traditional walking clothes for that country: a long shalwar kemis shirt, baggy trousers and a Chitrali cap, with a brown patu blanket wrapped around his shoulders.

He had previously walked in Iran, Pakistan and Nepal and considered this outing ‘adventure’ to connect his walk in Iran with that in Pakistan. He was advised by several that he was going to his grave. The Taliban had left Herat a mere six weeks before he arrived, and there were still plenty of sympathisers lurking in the hinterland. Indeed, ‘twelve foreign war reporters had been killed in Afghanistan in the previous two months’ (p59)

Stewart seemed reasonably well equipped as he speaks some French, Persian (Dari), and Indonesian. He has also studied Latin, Greek, Russian, Chinese, Serbo-Croat, Urdu, and Nepali languages, though he reckons the last three are ‘very rusty’.

He had to trudge through snow a lot of the way, over inhospitable terrain, from small village to small village, following the Hari Rud River. He met a fascinating assortment of people. Some days he would subsist solely on bread and rice, and attempted to sterilise drinking water with chlorine tablets. The journey took him 36 days, and while reading this I felt I was there much of the time!

He came across the Minaret of Jam, re-discovered in its isolated place in 1943.

 Minaret of Jam - Wikipedia commons

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it stands 65m (213ft) and its provenance is a mystery, though it is believed to date from at least the 1100s. Illegal digging that began in 2002, while Stewart passed through, has uncovered a great deal of archaeological remains, suggesting perhaps here lay the lost city of the Turquoise Mountain, which was razed by Genghis.

‘Genghis obliterated the other great cities of the eastern Islamic world, massacring their scholars and artisans, turning the irrigated lands of central Asia into a waterless wilderness and dealing a blow to the Muslim world from which it barely recovered.’ (p174)

On page 143 he is introduced to Babur the dog; in fact he named the animal, in honour of Babur in whose footsteps he now trod. Babur had golden fur, black brindle and white round the muzzle, and was a mastiff, its ears and tail having been lopped off for fighting. It had very few teeth and weighed about ten stone. The village mastiffs were bred to fight and guard against wolves, dogs and other humans. Thereafter, he accompanied Rory for almost all of 700km to Kabul.

Throughout, his prose is descriptive and often eloquent: ‘The snow lay heavy on the thin black branches of apple and mulberry trees and formed a thick crust on the drystone walls…The crust glittered with shards of light as though fragments of glass had been scattered over the powder.’

He points out that there were a very large number of faiths in medieval Muslim Asia. ‘In the mountains of western Iran and Iraq there are still Yezidis, whose syncretic faith combines Islam, Zoroastrianism and Christianity and centres around the worship of a fallen angel in the form of a peacock.’ (footnote, p178)  And now, some ten years after this was written, these same Yazidis have been persecuted, massacred and driven from their homes by the deranged adherents of the so-called IS.

He did not carry a detailed map as he didn’t want to be thought a spy. Instead, he obtained letters of introduction from one village head to the next on the route. ‘Day One: Commandant Maududi in Badgah, Day Two: Abdul Rauf Ghafuri in Daulatyar, Day Three and so on…’ He’d recited this regularly, a song-of-the-places-in-between as a map, using the list as credentials. ‘Almost everyone recognised the names…’

Another fine description: ‘By the Hari Rud were tall stands of bushes that resembled dogwood. Their branches were orange and yellow and they rose like stands of flame out of the river ice. Silver trunked willows, too, with dark brown buds and a few pale gold leaves that clattered like cicada wings in the freezing wind. As the snow melted in the sun, the Hari Rud became at first a clean turquoise ice sheet and then a torrent of black-blue water…’ (p224)

There were moments of suspense, when he was accosted by gruff men carrying weapons, wanting to know why he was walking. And there’s humour as well – his first encounter with the dog Babur, and this: ‘They had wrapped their black turbans under their chins and over their ears, framing faces that were lined, tanned and bearded. Villagers don’t wash in the winter. There was a strong smell.’ (p227)

Many of the places he stayed were war-damaged, the people poor. Yet he received the generosity of some feudal chief, and was always glad of the protein to help him through the journey’s ordeal. He understood that meat was very precious and not for a dog… (p229) ‘Everyone was hungry and carried a gun and this was not beneficial for the wildlife.’ (p229) The privation of some is hard to imagine. A chief’s wife stated: ‘I was born in this village. I am the fifth and only surviving wife and I have never been more than an hour’s journey by foot from this village in the forty years that I have been alive.’ (p241)

In his acknowledgement at the front of the book, he expresses his gratitude to the many individuals who helped him, who in fact saved his life, and the book teems with them: ‘… every feudal chief seemed to see it as his obligation to provide me with an escort to the next chief, so that I was being passed like a parcel down the line. These men were willing to walk a full day through the snow to accompany me and then a full day back in the other direction. I always insisted they took some money, but they were clear that they were doing it for me as a traveller and it was sometimes difficult to persuade them to accept.’ (230)

He does not shun away from the terrible toll suffered by the population: ‘Yakawlang had been one of the largest towns in Hazarajat with a literate and politically engaged population.  The Taliban attacked the town in 1998 and executed 400 men against the clinic wall. Since then 75% of the population of Yakawlang had either died or fled.’ (p247)

Magical prose again, this time at sunset: ‘… a chain of frozen lakes. The waterfall had frozen into bloated stalactites, steaked with intense copper oxide green and turquoise blue and sulphur yellow, and creamy with snow where they struck the water. The low sun sank into the straight cleft of the cliff behind me. The coloured alchemy of the ice drained into twilight.’ (p252)

There are poignant moments too, notably when an impromptu musical session is started up in the village: ‘… had not been able to hear music performed in public during the four years of the Taliban regime.’ Eloquent, the sadness of the tune and tone and in the expression of the listeners, ‘and so too was the beauty shared between us.’ (p275)

A superb book from a remarkable man.

The Turquoise Mountain Foundation, founded in 2006, is a non-profit, non-governmental organization specializing in urban regeneration, business development, and education in traditional arts and architecture. It provides jobs, skills, and a renewed sense of national pride to Afghan women and men. Rory Stewart was the Executive Chairman until shortly after his election to the UK Parliament in May 2010. The Wikipedia page lists considerable good work that has been done to date (

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