Every now and then I happen to lay my hands on a creased, coffee-stained copy of glossy travel magazines. Be it Condé Nast, be it Monocle, it’s bound to eventually pontificate over which country, or city, is the next big thing (or the next Paris, Italy, Maldives, you get the idea).
I don’t know if Rory Stewart, the author of the book I’m reviewing today, browsed through the silky pages of such respectable pillars of modern-day journalism; sure thing, if he did he mustn’t have jotted down “Jackson Hole, Wyoming. WAY better than Boulder this year” on his notepad. Otherwise I don’t think he’d have embarked, as he did, on a walk across Afghanistan.
The year is 2002, arguably a turbulent one, even for Afghan standards. Ground Zero has stopped smouldering not long before, and I’m pretty sure that CNN is still broadcasting the footage of the American roughnecks galloping on horseback against the Taliban. To the East of the country, the US Army has just finished besieging Tora Bora, the big prize having quietly slipped away from their hands. Elsewhere, it’s winter.
This is precisely the moment when Rory Stewart, a Briton who happens to be an ex soldier and ex diplomat (and, incidentally, an extremely gifted writer), arrives in Herat, in the west of the country.
This point is not the start of his journey, for Stewart has been on a walkabout for quite some time now, but it’s the beginning of The places in between. Indeed, after having walked from Nepal to India, through turbulent Pakistan and into Iran, he’s now arrived at the last stage of his very own grand tour, all done pedibus calcantibus: Afghanistan.
His plan is astonishing in its simplicity and braveness: to go cross-country through the inner core of a nation that has been ravaged by 20 years of civil war, followed by almost ten of hardcore Islamist rule, and still very much a battlefield. All this on road where the army of Moghul emperor Babur was decimated by the elements, when he did the same journey in the XVI century. A road where a single man, unharmed, with no one waiting for him, might very well disappear. “Fucking nutter” as one Special Forces soldier told him along the path.
What follows is one of the most astonishing travelogues I’ve ever read, a tale of harshness both on the natural and human landscapes. Stewart walks, sometimes alone, sometimes with a small escort appointed by local warlords, and later with the dog Babur, in a land whose inhabitants – never refined by contact with outsiders – have in facts been hardened by the many years of war. Every village was a microcosm of ethnicities, history, religion and recent past. Aimaq, Hazara, Ghorak, Pashtun: every village seemingly belonged to a different group, had suffered at the hands of the Soviets, or of the Taliban, or both. Sometimes the villagers were warm and welcoming, sometimes suspicious, sometimes openly aggressive.
It’s hard to say what impressed me more of this journey. Sure, the sheer audacity of it is astonishing – I mean, Afghanistan? In 2002? – and the descriptions of the landscapes are worth of Colin Thubron. However, what I enjoyed the most is Stewart’s style. It sounds so terribly cliché, I know, but there’s a particular dry style, inevitably posh but also extremely frank and matter-of-facts, that only British writers seem to possess. Think Ernest Shackleton in South, think Ranulph Fiennes in, well, anything he’s said or written; this is, in my opinion, Rory Stewart’s writing. He is moved by the kindness of strangers, saddened by the destruction of one country’s heritage at the hands of barbarians and looters, frightened by menacing thugs and angered by despots; yet, he remains honest in his writing, doesn’t succumb to hyperboles and doesn’t feel the need of exaggerating his behaviour, or magnifying his achievements.
The Places in Between is also an interesting critique of the hypocrisies of the Western aid industry, something I had read as well in the African dispatches of Tim Butcher and Paul Theroux (Blood River and The Dark Star Safari, respectively). There were NGOs and professionals who knew their stuff, who spoke the lingo and were out there with the aim of doing their best, but also many who had decided that hunger was rife and decided to solve a problem which, in fact, wasn’t there, doing more damage than good.
Books covers, these days, have this annoying habit of being covered in praises by authors, periodics, newspapers and trend-setters, so badly that, sometimes, the space dedicated to the plot has been unceremoniously been binned, replaced by the five stars some self-obsessed columnist has given it. This is, unfortunately, no difference on The Places in Between, but for once I concur with all those captions from the Guardian, Spectator or, even, the Torygraph. No matter how much manure can the Telegraph cram into a single page of its Comment, there’s no way to disagree over the fact that Rory Stewart penned down a classic.