Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

ISBN: 978-0-14-305330-9

I remember sitting in a college English class a LONG time ago listening to my professor talk about the first known English novel: Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. He told us that because no one had ever read any fictional account before, people thought that the book was a travelogue. I had absolutely no interest in reading that book. I knew the basic premise already: man gets shipwrecked on island, happens upon local native he names Friday, tells us about his days, blah, blah, blah. Back then, I was stubborn. I didn't want to waste my time reading about real life (or in this case, what could be perceived as real life,) I had the newspaper and all of the classes I was taking for that. Now, at the ripe old age of 31, I see things differently. I don't mind learning a little while reading books; I don't have the same escapist mentality as I once did.

About 10 years ago, I read an article in The New Yorker about a British Conservative MP named Rory Stewart. The article was a profile of Stewart, from a prominent family, educated at Oxford. Like most well-to-do Scots, Stewart decided to walk across Asia. Pretty crazy thing to embark on, right? Especially when Afghanistan, just after the Taliban is expelled, is the last stop on your trip. The article mentioned the book he wrote about Afghanistan and I was immediately intrigued. I went out and bought the book and now, 10 years later, I've read it. I procrastinate, so what? Better late than never.

Upon embarking on his trek, Stewart decides that he is going to do it alone in the same footsteps as Babur, the great  Mughal Indian emperor of the 16th century. The journey begins in Herat and is set to end in Kabul. He began in January of 2002. I don't know if you realize how fresh the Taliban was at this point. They were ousted in November of 2001. That is a span of two months! One would have to imagine that as oppressive as they were, there were still some allegiances around the country and a British foreigner would not necessarily be welcomed with open arms.

Although he wished to travel on his own, he also had to have what where ostensibly letters of permission for travel to ensure his safety. He began by meeting with the then-governor of Herat, Ismail Khan and one of his officials. They granted him permission provided he would travel with several soldiers as escorts. Not wanting to insult the authority, he begrudgingly accepted (not that refusal was an option.)

He left with Qasim, Abdul Haq and Aziz. Qasim was a know-it-all who really didn't know much, Abdul Haq was a bit of a gun-toting maniac and Aziz, Qasim's cousin, was ill and not fit for travel, especially not by foot.

Stewart took everything with a grain of salt knowing that the soldiers would not continue with him past their governance. We see glimpses of his very dry sense of humour in his writing when describing Abdul Haq: "I was learning that Abdul Haq's rifle was his favorite possession, narrowly beating his hand grenades. I had watched him use it as a comic prop, a walking stick and a source of impromptu firework displays when he was bored."

After departing with Aziz, Qasim and finally Abdul Haq, he finds a new traveling partner in a mastiff he names Babur. Babur was a fighting dog and his ears and tail had been cut off. Dogs are seen as unclean animals and are not companions in Islam. They are mostly used in battles and for sport. Stewart is actually pleased about receiving Babur and plans to take him home to Scotland to give him a better life.

He projects a very light tone throughout the book which is interesting given its subject. He passes though villages filled with people who would never leave. They are extremely poor, have no education, and would never leave. The only thing that they know is Islam. Thanks to their customs, Stewart is welcomed as a traveller. 

Babur, however, is not. Stones are hurled at him, other dogs are sicked on him, but he remains loyal, if not a little reluctant, to his new master. While Stewart struggles through bouts of diarrhea and exhaustion, the old, creaky Babur gives him the motivation to continue.

It's a good read, chock full of history about a country and tribes that you will probably never learn about. I found Stewart to be likable for the most part. There were instances that I felt a small sense of entitlement when traveling in a strange land. It is definitely worth a go. So go do it.

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