The Places In-Between, by Rory Stewart
In 2002, Rory Stewart made a walk across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul. A scholar of Afghan history and language, he aimed in those grave first years after 9/11, to learn “what [Afghanistan] was like now.” Part memoir, part political and cultural history, Stewart (who served as MP in Britain’s House of Commons from 2010-2019, and is now a fellow at Yale), was fluent in the language, and shape shifting enough in his appearance to pass as Afghani, or as The Guardian phrased it, “travelling in disguise through places famous for killing infidels.”
Stewart’s journey retraced an ancient trek made at the start of the sixteenth century by Barbur, First Emperor of Mughal India. As Stewart writes, Herat was one of the most civilized cities in the Islamic World, and at age twenty-two, Barbur was the prince of a poor kingdom in Uzbekistan. He set out to conquer Kabul, and subsequently “pressed on east to conquer Delhi and found the Mughal Dynasty.” Though in the process of going by foot over passes buried under ten feet of snow, Barbur nearly dies, an eerily resonant detail for Stewart’s contemporary retracing.
Stewart’s walk took place soon after the Taliban takeover and the American military invasion. Beyond the obvious personal risk was the uncertainty of travel by foot—weather, sufficient food, water, shelter. In the course of the journey, Stewart is put up in huts, palaces and abandoned castles, fed sumptuous meals and a few that are questionable. He’s given aid by warlords and village headmen, though his only sure protection is a walking staff with a metal tip. Early on, Stewart comes into possession of giant Mastiff, and names him Barbur. The dog proves to be protection, but mostly a comfort and a complication—given the animal’s changeable attitude about long-distance walks.
Stewart’s account is part rumination and reflection, as here, as the recent war puts him in mind of a more familiar landscape, one defined by acts of violence and death:
“Places in the Scottish Highlands are also remembered for acts of violence: the spot where Stewart of Ardvorlich shot a MacDonald raider, or where the MacGregors decapitated Ardvorlich’s brother-in-law. Around my house in Scotland the Gaelic place-names record death: ‘Place of Mourning’ or ‘Field of Weeping.’ But here the events recorded were only months old.
A graduate of Eton College and later Oxford, Stewart, who was born in Hong Kong, is the son of an Edinburgh-born British soldier and diplomat, Brian Stewart, who would serve at the highest levels of Britain’s MI6 secret service. Following his father, the younger Stewart would join the Foreign Service, and at 26, was appointed the British Representative to Montenegro; later, in 2003 following his walk across Afghanistan, he served on the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government installed by US-led forces after the invasion of Iraq. Posted in the southeastern governorate of Maysan, Stewart aimed to help the Shia Marsh Arabs who’d suffered under Saddam, but instead encountered the hostility that came as a response to that failed foreign intervention. The experience later led Stewart to state the invasion was a mistake, one he would chronicle in The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. Three years before, Stewart’s experiment in Afghanistan had shown there are better ways to understanding a country, a culture, and its people. In the end, The Places In-Between is an account of that experiment, as well as a personal story, and a chronicle of worldly exploration informed by global politics.