'The Places In Between' by Rory Stewart
You may have seen Rory Stewart on Newsnight and other programmes whenever Iraq or Afghanistan is discussed, and it was one such appearance that made me buy this book. This guy has walked unaided across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. This book is about the Afghanistan walk, where he followed in the footsteps of Moghul Emperor Babur.
As he walks, he unwraps the geography and history of Afghanistan, as well as Islam. Tribal, poor, fundamentalist and repeated invaded or controlled by foreign powers, we get to meet this nation at war with outsiders as well as itself. We have the Northern Alliance on one hand and the Pashtun (Taliban from this group) on the others but within these, the four main ethnic groups, there’s lots of other groups who swap allegiances. It’s complex and difficult to see how any form of government can work in a nation that really isn’t a nation.
Stewart takes us into villages, houses and mosques and he focuses on the people he meets, many illiterate, some curious, some not, some violent, others hospitable. But it’s his exposure of fervent Islam that is of most interest. Afghanis constantly quiz him about the cost of a wife in Britain, whether you can marry your first cousin (very common) and so on. This is not anthropological, it’s religious. Islam is the political and social frame for all discussion. He explains why the Koran is not seen as being capable of translation and describes Bush using his unclean hand to pull a Koran (gift) across a table, upsetting the entire Islamic world.
Culture is another theme. He discovers a rare archaeological site being looted, a rare miniaret and describes the various cultures that existed in this region. Many were more liberal and very different from the rule ridden, forbidding rule of Islam. There’s a fine section when he walks past the dynamited Bamiyan Buddas.
He has little contact with westerners, troops, UN personnel etc, and avoids this topic as the book is about the country and its indigenous people, not the temporary invaders.
A lovely sub-story is his relationship with a mastiff who accompanies him for the most of the journey. Afghans regard dogs as unclean and won’t touch them. It’s truly touching.