Book review: ‘The Places in Between,’ by Rory Stewart
Special to the Daily
The world turned upside down on Sept. 11, 2001, and the last place that the average person wanted to go for an adventure in the wake of that terrible and pivotal day was Afghanistan, the home of Osama Bin Laden and the tense breeding ground of the Taliban.
Scottish journalist Rory Stewart, though, felt differently. The attacks on the United States took place while Stewart was already months in to a walking tour of Asia and the Middle East, so he felt the shift of that day while traveling in countries close to the homelands of the perpetrators. He made the choice to continue his travels, and the result of the experience is his fascinating book “The Places in Between.”
He enters Afghanistan only months after 9/11, and initially he is detained and questioned. Finally, the authorities acquiesce, but only if he takes two armed escorts, an arrangement that does not sit well with him. His journey begins in Herat, a drab and rundown place, heavily influenced by the Soviet era, and he is eager to depart. His intention is to follow the footsteps of Babur, the 15th century Mughal emperor, but he quickly realizes that, although they travel the same route, there is little connection between the land during Babur’s time and the Afghanistan of today.
At every turn, he is met with disbelief and incomprehension, as no one can understand why he is there and why he has chosen to walk. His plans are viewed with skepticism and mockery. Mostly, everyone feels it is an exceedingly dangerous undertaking. Stewart’s argument, in his own defense, is that a walker’s pace really allows for observation, as so much is missed when one chooses to travel by car or other conveyance. He insists that there is “a magic in leaving a line of footprints stretching behind.”
He has saved Afghanistan for last, and with 15 months of relatively uneventful walking behind him, the war-torn country proves to be quite the hurdle in more ways than one. At every turn, he marvels at the seemingly universal claim to victimhood that pervades the country, with no one wanting to take ownership of the volatile situation.
Burdened with his tense and angry minders, he is convinced they have been given to him to take him to a remote location for execution, and he can’t wait to be free of them. They, too, are not pleased with the assignment, wondering how fate has placed them with the only individual in the country interested in walking anywhere. Instead of convincing them that their company is not necessary, a third man, a relation, joins the walk. As Stewart resigns himself to their presence, he uses the opportunity to weave them into his narrative, with vivid descriptions and pen and ink drawings.
As they meet people along the way, he begins to realize the complexities of status and class in the country, especially in the tribal-led villages, and he finds the rituals regarding the hosting of guests fascinating, yet stressful and somewhat perilous. The origins of the deeply ingrained tribal divisions and vendettas that perpetually plague the country become more understandable to him. What is harder to comprehend is the violent nature of his minders, especially, unfortunately, the one wedded to his weapon. He realizes that to truly be able to connect with the villagers on his own terms he must find a way to part with the men who want to control his movements. They, with their weapons ready, preceding his steps into a village makes his reception as a guest tainted.
Adding to his dislike for their presence is their utter lack of interest in his desire to follow the historical path of one of their country’s historical figures. In truth, he finds this disinterest fairly universal in the rural population. With good reason, his minders — and the people he meets along the way — are more concerned with their day-to-day problems and the really violent and dangerous daily circumstances.
The book takes a dramatic shift, in both tone and focus, when the author is offered a dog, a massive, sad and abused beast that has never felt a gentle touch, but instead has been trained to fight.
His ears and tail have been cut off, and he has been fed only naan bread during his sad life. He has been so misused that he barely flinches when the children of the village pummel him with rocks. Stewart makes the impulse decision to take the dog with him, even though he is walking across a dangerous foreign country and has no idea how he will get the monstrous animal back to Scotland.
He names the dog Babur, in tribute to the historical figure whose path he is following. The dog warms to Stewart slowly but is less than happy with the long walks, as he is old and malnourished.
Along the way, Stewart learns that dogs are seen as unclean and not worthy of care and attention, a view that rankles as he gets to know his new companion.
He grows very protective of Babur as they approach villages, for the large dog inevitably attracts angry and protective dogs and laughing children with rocks, all while adults look on with a shrug of indifference.
For animal lovers, the story becomes much more than the tale of a man challenging himself or a story of culture and history.
It becomes a touching tale of friendship between a man and his unlikely companion. The final pages of Stewart’s account are sure to trigger some tears, as the strong bond woven between the two travelers is tested and challenged.
Stewart truly embodies the characteristics of the noble traveler, digging very deeply into the fabric of a culture with his writing, committing to his project with sweat and tears and blisters on his feet.
“The Places in Between” is a remarkable back-roads chronicle of a tortured nation by a man who saves a tortured dog.
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