Review: The Places in Between

Someone recommended that I read this 2004 book by Rory Stewart (a Scot with quite a CV). Although I enjoyed it, I am not sure that the average person would be too enthusiastic about reading a series of mano-a-mano encounters in which tribal customs mix with male violence and companionship.

The book focusses on a “missing link” in  Stewart’s early 2000s walk across Iran, Pakistan and India, i.e., the section in Afghanistan that was closed until America overthrew the Taliban (for the moment).

To the reader’s benefit, Stewart was willing to risk his life while (a) walking a month along a “road less travelled” that no one local knew from end to end and (b) negotiating a “fluid” security and governance situation in regions where the Taliban had killing locals only a few months earlier. Stewart reminds me of  Thesinger (1959) and Sir Richard Francis Burton (19th c.)

This book is thus a travelogue that focusses more on culture and anthropology than on fine dining and the sights. Stewart is utterly vulnerable to the idea(l)s and whims of the people he encounters, the hosts on whose hospitality he depends, and the complex humanity of a culture (or mix of cultures) that outsiders have forever misunderstood and underappreciated — at their peril.

So it’s obvious that he should pick up a dog-as-companion on the way.

He names the dog “Babur,” in honor of the historic Babur who (a) walked the same way (losing many men in the process) and (b) conquored India in the 16th century.

Here are a few insightful passages:

  1. I took out my notebook and sketched Abdul Haq, who was sleeping on his back with his rifle across his thighs, his large chest slowly rising and falling. He had a clear, honest face. I found my fondness for him difficult to reconcile with what I knew of his enthusiasm for killing people and making small children cry.
  2. Islam does not encourage strong social distinctions, and the war and social revolutions in villages had destroyed many of the old feudal structures in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, villagers were very aware of one another’s backgrounds. A multitude of points of etiquette, tradition, and tribal identities differentiated a servant such as Wazir from a feudal lord… Class did not necessarily reflect education and experience. My current host, Seyyed Umar, was a wealthy man from a respected family of landowning clergy, but he could not read or write and had never been abroad. Abdul Haq, who was from a much humbler background, was literate and had traveled. What mattered was power and that depended on allies.
  3. Why did you become a Mujahid [resistance fighter]?” I asked Seyyed Umar. “Because the Russian government stopped my women from wearing head scarves and confiscated my donkeys.” “And why did you fight the Taliban?” “Because they forced my women to wear burqas, not head scarves, and stole my donkeys.” It seemed if the government did not interfere with his women’s headdress and his donkeys he would not oppose it.
  4. Babur seemed prepared to examine, mark with urine, and take possession of every meter of the next six hundred kilometers. Only once or twice in my eighteen-month walk across Asia had I felt some magical claim to the territory I touched with my feet. But Babur apparently felt it all the time. The warm stream of urine was set like a flag to mark his new empire. All his movement was conquest and occupation. He seemed ready to ponder and possess every place in the world. He was like a canine Alexander.
  5. This was a very useful map. It specified everything in terms of a man on foot: the best tracks, the distances that could be walked in a day, whom you should speak to in each village… Day one: Commandant Maududi in Badgah. Day two: Abdul Rauf Ghafuri in Daulatyar. Day three: Bushire Khan in Sang-i-zard. Day four: Mir Ali Hussein Beg of Katlish. Day five: Haji Nasir-i-Yazdani Beg of Qala-e-Nau. Day six: Seyyed Kerbalahi of Siar Chesme… I recited and followed this song-of-the-places-in-between as a map. I chanted it even after I had left the villages, using the list as a credential.
  6. Though most communities, whether Islamic or Hindu, and Muslims talked a great deal about their formal religious responsibilities to a mosafer (traveler), or meman (guest), in practice people often welcomed me reluctantly. This was understandable—they were often very poor, lived tough lives, and were suspicious of the few strangers they met. I was often disappointed by their hospitality. Only later did I begin to see how fortunate I was that they provided me almost every night with shelter and bread to eat.
  7. Six years earlier [1996], two thousand families had lived in Shaidan. Three years ago the Taliban had killed eighty men in the bazaar. A year ago, fresh from dynamiting the giant Buddhas thirty-five kilometers away, they killed one hundred and twenty. Seven months before my arrival, they found the village empty and torched it. Most of the population had fled to refugee camps.
  8. Some [foreign aid workers], such as the two political officers in Chaghcharan, were experienced and well informed about conditions in rural Afghanistan. But they were barely fifty out of many thousands. Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women’s rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people “who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government.” But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? [snip] These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome. Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some areas. Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory. [snip] The differences between the policy makers and a Hazara such as Ali went much deeper than his lack of food. Ali rarely worried about his next meal. He was a peasant farmer and had a better idea than most about where his next meal was coming from. If he defined himself it was chiefly as a Muslim and a Hazara, not as a hungry Afghan. Without the time, imagination, and persistence needed to understand Afghans’ diverse experiences, policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change.
  9. Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.
  10. Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression. Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.
  11. Almost every morning, regrets and anxieties had run through my mind like a cheap tune—often repeated, revealing nothing. But as I kept moving, no thoughts came. Instead I became aware of the landscape as I once had in the Indian Himalayas. Every element around me seemed sharper, the colors more intense. I stared, expecting the effect to fade, but the objects only continued to develop in reality and presence. I was suddenly afraid, uncertain I could sustain this vision. This moment was new to me. I had not dreamed or imagined it before. Yet I recognized it. I felt that I was as I was in this place, and that I had known it before. This was the last day of my walk. To feel in these final hours, after months of frustration, an unexplained completion seemed too neat. But the recognition was immediate and incontrovertible. I had no words for it. Now, writing, I am tempted to say that I felt the world had been given as a gift uniquely to me and also equally to each person alone. I had completed walking and could go home.

I give this book FOUR STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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