Thursday, June 06, 2024

33. The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

A friend recommended this book to me, sort of out of the blue and it looked up my alley (British dude walking) and I was lucky enough to find it right away at my local library.  Now that I have read it, I have mixed feelings about it.  First off, I have to acknowledge it is a very well-written book, very accessible and clear.  And the journey itself is insanely impressive and crazy, all the while its craziness is very much downplayed by the author in classic British understatement.  However, that understatement is also tamping down a lot of privilege going on behind the scenes here.  Stewart is basically a Scottish aristocrat with a possible military intelligence background and definitely a strong diplomatic background (which he has continued quite successfully into a significant political and academic career).  It's not that he doesn't acknowledge that his sufferings are his own choice and that he is consciously aware of the differences in his life context compared the people he meets on the road.  There is just a subtle attitude of slight superiority or something in this book that only once gets made explicit in a footnote where he tries to argue that the original British colonial exploiters in the Middle East were more engaged and connected to the locals than any of the "experts" coming in after 9/11.  Again here he is broadly right, but it's the attitude behind that made me go whoah.  Also the New York Times calling it a "a flat-out masterpiece" really doesn't help.

Stewart basically walks from Herat to Kabul, across extremely dangerous environments.  Until he gets close to Kabul, the danger is mostly environmental, but it is no joke. You do not get any real sense of the true discomfort he was experiencing.  He mentions quite a few times that his boots were soaked through but only once that actual temperate, which was -20!!!  He also is suffering from dysentery most of the time and eats the most minimal diet, with basically stale bread and water at points for several days at a time.  It's pretty fucking hardcore if you have ever done any actual hiking and read between the lines.

Also hardcore is his social/tourist courage.  He is basically walking through a country that has been engaged in 2 civil wars (to put it simply) first against the occupying Russians and then against the Taliban and now only slightly "pacified" by the coalition led by the Americans.  It's a really dangerous place.  Yet he just goes and knocks on people's doors and asks if he can spend the night.  As an individual on foot, most people are not threatened by him but more confused.  The Islamic tradition of hosting is also a factor, though much diminished with the extreme poverty (and destruction from war) that many of the villages he visits are experiencing.

It's a really interesting book, just to get a sense of how remote and removed these places are, not only from the foreign empires that are invading them, but even from their own cities and regions a few hundred miles away.  At the same time, Stewart peppers his narrative with lots of neat history (particularily the journey of Babur, Afghanistan's first Mughal emperor) so you get a sense of how connected it once was.  It is also a bit repetitive and not a lot goes on but him walking. I didn't mind this at all, but just noting it for those who want to argue that it is a masterpiece.  Anyhow, I'm glad I read it.

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