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Following in Babur's footsteps,
This review is from: The Places In Between (Paperback)
"The Places in Between" is the chronicle of Rory Stewart's journey by foot from Herat to Kabul, accompanied by nothing else but the occasional villager or passing soldier and his local dog, named Babur. This is a fitting name because Stewart, who would later be appointed to an important government post in occupied Iraq (The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq), not only wants to explore the beautiful Afghan landscape but also study the traces of its history in the present. The original Babur was one of the few leaders in Afghan history who had united the whole territory and who considered it central to his empire, and he is particularly interesting because he left an autobiographical text which is remarkable for its honesty, its objectivity, and its insight into the norms of those days. With these two Baburs, knowledge of local language and customs, and a bag full of medication, Rory Stewart sets out to traverse the sublime deserts and snow-capped mountains of central Afghanistan.
The tale is very well written and makes for easy and highly compelling reading. It is a telling fact that he makes his journey, which consists in essence out of endlessly repeated harsh day marches from one village chief's tent to the next, interesting to people who have never even been near the area. Stewart is very nonjudgmental overall, probably in part because he is entirely reliant on the kindness of strangers (who are often as hostile as they are hospitable to travellers) in the classic manner of travel writing. The book sheds some light on the highly complicated chain of political and ethnic conflicts within Afghanistan - almost every Afghan male has fought in at least one, if not more, war in the country. It is clear that loyalties are usually not quite as clear-cut as one would like them to be in order to understand them: very often the same feudal lords who had opposed the Taliban later joined them, and sometimes Iran-supported islamists are the greatest enemies of local chieftains, and so forth. Stewart's book does not really delve into political analysis, but certainly shows 'ad oculos' what the real meaning of politics is in Afghanistan.
All this is not to say that Stewart is necessarily an entirely reliable guide. The American edition of the book indicates that Rick Loomis took pictures of him along the way, but having a cameraman along is not mentioned anywhere. Moreover, it is clear from the facts that Stewart has been in the British Army, knows Dari as well as local politics thoroughly, has been involved with the Kennedy School of Government and finally his later appointment as governor in the occupying government in Iraq, that it is highly likely that he is a spy of some sort. Given this fact, the fact that Stewart was allowed to undertake his trip at all is quite remarkable, and it does seem some strings were pulled to make it possible. Of course, he himself says nothing about this. The result in any case is an insightful and highly readable book that will appeal to anyone interested in Afghanistan.