Wednesday, December 16, 2009
It Doesn't Seem Possible
With Afghanistan in the news almost every day, I thought I should know more about the country. I had read Khaled Hosseini’s works of fiction set in that country and Greg Mortenson’s first book on setting up girls’ schools there. I wasn’t quite ready for something as serious as Taliban by Ahmed Rashid. But I did have Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between. This is his chronicle of his walk between Herat and Kabul in the winter of 2002, just after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. He had already walked across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. This was the missing piece. It wasn’t that he didn’t have other means of transportation. He was offered rides and warned against walking alone. But Stewart meant to walk, literally, every step of the way.
For the most part Stewart was alone. Only as he reached the more isolated, primitive villages did rules of hospitality dictate that he be provided a guide to the next village. At one point he was given a dog to be his companion. Was it really a gift? For the most part it was a liability. Now Stewart had to find food not only for himself but also for the dog. In some of the villages a dog was considered unclean and Stewart was refused lodging.
Many of the villagers were illiterate and had never been even as far as an hour’s walk outside their village. No electricity or television: hence very little knowledge of the outside world. Living in caves. Differences and jealousies between and among their groups deep and violent. But there amid these impassable mountains remnants like the Minaret of Jam and Turquoise Mountain of a lost culture.
Here is how Stewart describes himself at the end of the journey:
“My stomach had gone and I had a hacking cough. The zipper on my jacket had jammed; one of my bootlaces had snapped; and the rice bag covering my backpack had fallen to pieces. I had bedbug bites and prickly heat; my nails were long; and my hair had not been cut in four months…I ran my filthy hands over my failure of a beard, my black eye, my blistered lips and peeling nose, and looked at my clothes, which had gone unwashed for three weeks.”
As one man’s journey, this is a fascinating book. As a picture of what lies ahead of us in our country’s efforts in this region, it is terrifying.
PS: The rest of Rory Stewart's biography is equally amazing. Read it here.