Experiencing Afghanistan on foot

BOOK REVIEW

The Places in Between

By Rory Stewart

Harvest Books, 2006

Softcover, 320 pp., $14.

Five hundred years ago, a displaced young prince named Babur traveled across what is now Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul. Five years ago a Scot, with a history traveling across Middle Eastern countries, made the same journey on foot.

Rory Stewart’s “The Places in Between” travelogue serves as one of the best descriptions available about Afghanistan. It tells of a very rural land that is worlds away from the few urban centers it falls between.

Stewart describes Afghan-

istan and the people he meets. He relies on the hospitality of strangers and stays with different hosts each night. His portrayals of the people he encounters are candid. He points out practices that Westerners might find appalling and does his best to explain them.

There are four ethnicities in Afghanistan, and each one is as distinct as a separate nation.

Many villages have had their identities defined by recent events. One is known for how many of its residents died in a raid by the Taliban. Another is known for being funded by foreigners.

The major players in the conflict wracking Afghanistan are described mainly by the results of their actions. Stewart describes the heavy legacy of terrorist tactics and the easy access to arms, including those left behind by the Soviets.

Stewart writes about the role of the U.S. and British “coalition forces” and the UN’s involvement in the country. To the majority of Afghans who live in rural villages, these organizations have little meaning beyond ideological concepts.

According to Stewart, local lords, chieftains and the allegiances and aggressions between them matter more. There are no two-dimensional politics here. Heredity, location, ethnicity and former alliances all mesh to form a village headmaster’s or chieftain’s political portrait.

Stewart’s goal is to immerse himself in the culture and learn as much as he can from the people he meets. After a year and a half of backpacking, he ends his journey to return home.

When discussing the effects of the new Afghan government and its creators, he reserves any sort of assessment until late in the book. He builds a case for his assertions and puts his opinions in context.

In addition to learning about the people of Afghanistan, the author also gives us a travel journal. The terrain of Afghanistan is incredibly harsh, yet often beautiful. Much of Stewart’s path was mountainous and he sometimes had to travel through extreme blizzard conditions.

At some points his chances of success seemed bleak. If not for his four-legged friend, he might still be on a mountain pass buried under several feet of snow. Stewart describes these dire points with certain objectivity. Even when he states his thoughts, there is an outside detachment that betokens a matter-of-fact realism.

The best part is reading about how the author changes. In the beginning he is apprehensive yet steadfast. In the end, it’s apparent that through his journey, much of Afghanistan has become part of him.

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