Review on the Go: The Places In Between chronicles Rory Stewart’s walk across Afghanistan in the winter of 2002. Part travel memoir, part history lesson, and part rumination on all things from global politics to local hospitality, The Places In Between is engaging, well-written, and definitely worth a read.
It’s odd to write about Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between for Go Girl, mostly because his journey—a solo trek across Afghanistan—is an example of a kind of travel that I myself could never undertake, in part simply because I’m a woman and in part because I lack the strange combination of obstinacy, education and charisma that fuels Stewart in his quest (and I think he would call it a quest) to walk across large portions of Asia and the Middle East. That being said, Stewart’s book is a fascinating exploration of a part of the world I know far too little about, and the book is remarkably absorbing, largely due to the distinctness of Stewart’s journey and personality, as well as the dynamic, ancient and complicated culture of Afghanistan.
Stewart is an Oxford-educated Scotsman, who served briefly in British armed forces, worked for the Foreign Office, and recently (in 2010) became an MP for a Tory constituency in northwestern England. The Places In Between is about his 2002 walk from Herat, in western Afghanistan, to Kabul, the nation’s capital which lies over six hundred kilometers to the east. This walk was only a portion of Stewart’s much longer pedestrian journey across Asia, but the global political situation (particularly following 9/11), initially prevented him from completing the portion of his walk that went through Afghanistan, an Islamic republic bordered by Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China.
As Stewart began his walk, the United States was a few months into Operation Enduring Freedom—the war with Afghanistan that has been going on now for nearly a decade. Coalition forces from the US, Britain and Afghanistan had brought down the Taliban regime who had reigned in Kabul. But while the fall of the Tailban may well have made Stewart’s journey possible in the first place, the country Stewart finds himself in is by no means a peaceful one. The villages Stewart walks through are often involved in blood vendettas with neighboring communities, and the men he speaks with often “defined their landscape by acts of violence or death,” so that landmarks consist of where “young Commander Mullah Rahim Dad galloped when mortally wounded after an ambush” or “the grave of a young man who had died of starvation on his way to the refugee camp.”
As one man tells Stewart, his “journey is only safe for [him] because [he is] a stranger,” and even this safety isn’t a particularly comforting one. Stewart seems aware, though perplexingly unconcerned, that his margins for error are slim, and that a mistake—the wrong gesture, wrong word, wrong expression of political allegiance, or even just a wrong turn or misstep on unsteady ground—could have serious, life-altering or even life-ending consequences. Carrying letters of introduction from various government members and other important men, Stewart spends every night as the guest of a local leader or deputy, sharing their meals and their space. Every encounter is different, and nearly all of them feel tense. I found myself marveling at the bravura, the powers of eloquence and persuasion (particularly in Persian or Arabic), and the elusive mixture of foolhardiness and luck which allowed Stewart to survive his journey across a landscape rife with obstacles ranging from the threat of violent death to the dysentery and frostbite,
Reading The Places In Between was as much a baffling experience as it was an enlightening one. I learned a great deal about the history and geography of Afghanistan, but found I understood the country and the culture little better at the end of the book than I had at the beginning. And the same goes for Stewart himself, who as a narrator I found to be a bit of an enigma: highly educated, intelligent, charismatic and stubborn, but illusive whenever I tried to determine exactly what I thought of him, and exactly what I thought of the vision of Afghanistan presented to me through his eyes. One thing the book does convey clearly, however, is the complexity Afghani society, a complexity that has centuries of history behind it, deepening rifts and grudges while also creating a solidarity that might seem almost impenetrable to outsiders. The problems of globally-orchestrated interventions—either military or diplomatic—are myriad, and the misunderstandings are likewise many.
I haven’t really described the actual style of Stewart’s prose or the organization of The Places In Between, which is presented as a kind of polished travel journal, the culled down and edited version of the diary that Stewart writes of keeping every evening. I haven’t mentioned Babur, the first Emperor of Mughal India, who made a similar journey in the 16th century, and whose diary Stewart quotes often in his own writing, deepening the historical context of his own travels. Nor did I mention the other Babur, the dog Stewart adopts in the midst of his walk and who becomes perhaps the only presence in the story whose motivations are easy to understand. And I’ve said next to nothing about why Stewart chose to walk across Afghanistan in the first place. But as he writes in the book’s preface, he’s “not good at explaining why I walked across Afghanistan” either. And if you want to know why someone would walk across a dangerous, war-torn country alone in the middle of winter, then this is not the book for you. This is a book where the “why” may remain perpetually puzzling, but nonetheless it’s part of a puzzle worth staring at, and the “what” is fascinating enough all on its own.