Afghanistan's Road Less Traveled

"The Places in Between" by Rory Stewart
Copyright 2004
(available in the Berkeley Public Library as well as in locally owned independent bookstores.)

reviewed by Daniel Borgström

There were three roads across Afghanistan. Any of them would have taken me from Herat to Kabul, and, I may as well admit it, I took the easiest one: the newly built first-class highway which passed through Kandahar, the southern route. That was 40 years ago now, and ever since then I've regretted not having taken the central route through Bamiyan where giant statues of Buddha were carved into the stone cliffs--vestiges of a long-ago civilization. It's on the old Silk Road.

Afghanistan was relatively peaceful when I visited, back in 1968. But even then it was notorious for its bandits, and travelers were sometimes murdered. The middle route was said to be the most dangerous, an inner-city-at-midnight sort of place. For foreigners, and probably for Afghanis as well, it was the road less traveled.

So what was it like in the middle route? What did I miss besides bandits? Well I just finished a book by a traveler who took that route more recently, in January 2002. He did it in the dead of winter, on foot, wading through snow in sub-zero weather, in a rugged, mountainous terrain.

"The Places in Between" is the chronicle of a month-long trek from Herat to Kabul, following the Hari Rud River up through the middle of Afghanistan. The author, Rory Stewart, is a Scotlander, a former employee of the British Foreign Service, and an historian. He is also a linguist, having a working knowledge of Persian.

This knowledge enables Stewart to communicate directly with three ethnic groups who speak a dialect of Persian: the Tajiks, the Aimaq, and the Hazara. A good observer and excellent writer, he records encounters and conversations with the skill of a novelist, bringing the Afghanis to life and describing them non-judgmentally, neither idealizing nor demonizing them. The book is a very readable introduction to the Persian speaking cultures of central Afghanistan.

Stewart sets out from Herat, with letters of introduction from the local warlord, Ismail Khan, accompanied by three of the warlord's soldiers as guides for the first quarter of his journey. Perhaps they are also intended to keep tabs on him in case he turns out to be a British spy.

The soldier-guides become part of our experience. They're Tajiks, and during the week they travel together with Stewart, we come to know them. Through their words and actions we learn about them and their world. Although they are quite capable of brutality, one of them being particularly trigger-happy, they turn out to be surprisingly amiable, and Stewart develops a successful relationship with them.

Qasim is in charge, but Stewart seems to communicate best with Abdul Haq. Still, the soldiers' presence is hampering, and, when they part company, Stewart comments, "I liked Abdul Haq but I preferred traveling without him. He had dominated my view of the landscape. The dangers and the geography of the country had been filtered through the mind of a man who was a Mujahid of Ismail Khan."

A week into the mountains, Stewart is on his own, which is what he wanted from the beginning. The locals are generally civil and many are hospitable, but a few are neither. In a Hazara village children pelt him with stones, while their elders stand watching. "Why don't you stop your children?" he shouts. "Is this how Hazara treat a traveler?" An old man shrugs; the other adults do nothing.

War damage was especially severe in the Hazarajat. Being Shia, the Hazara had been targeted with particular intensity by the Taliban. Stewart passes several bombed-out towns. He also sees the rubble that remains of the Buddhist sculptures at Bamiyan--deliberately destroyed by the Taliban.

But not all the vandalism was done by the Taliban. Standing alone in the wilderness at Jam is a single, solitary minaret which towers over the empty landscape. Its origin had puzzled generations of travelers, till villagers began digging in the surrounding area, finding artifacts and art treasures which they sell to art dealers for one or two American dollars. A finely carved chess set, centuries old, had fetched somewhat more.

The location appears to be the ruins of a lost city once known as Turquoise Mountain, capital of the Ghorid empire, destroyed during the Mongol invasion around 1220. Now in the 21st century the archeological site is being looted and destroyed for all time.

This remote, inhospitable region had formerly been a prosperous land of wealthy cities and thriving civilizations. But that was long ago, centuries before even Emperor Babur came this way in 1504.

Emperor Babur was an earlier traveler who had taken this route 500 years before, also in winter, trudging through the same deep snow and bitter cold. Stewart carries a copy of the journal which Babur kept of his experiences, and occasionally quotes from Babur, citing experiences paralleling his own. This gives a sense of depth to his account.

Stewart's trek begins only weeks after the U.S. toppled the Taliban, replacing them with the warlords of the Northern Alliance. For many Afghanis, at war for decades, killing has become a way of life, and the entire country must be suffering from massive post-traumatic stress disorder. What is really amazing is not the anger, the brutality, or the trauma, but the hospitality and kindness shown by many of the inhabitants. There are examples of people who guided him to the next village, sometimes involving all-day hikes though the snow and cold, refusing to accept payment for this service. This hospitality, freely given, is also part of Stewart's Afghan experience.

So how do the people Stewart meets feel about being liberated from the Taliban? It's not always clear. Even soldier-guide Qasim, who'd fought against the Taliban seems to have a positive opinion of them. "Road security was very good under the Taliban," Qasim tells Stewart. "The Taliban were very good people; al-Qaeda foreigners were bad but Taliban were good."

Headmen of some Tajik and Aimaq villages appear to have been local administrators for the recently toppled regime. Afghanistan is a complex world of constantly shifting alliances, often confusing and sometimes scary. Eventually, nearing Kabul Stewart enters the region of a very different linguistic group, the Pashtuns, and he's warned that these people are Taliban. It's hard for him to know what to believe, and the fact that few Pashtuns of this district speak Persian (or English) make it difficult to communicate and learn much about them. It doesn't help that he comes close to being robbed and murdered here, and this being near the end of the book, it tends to leave us with an unfairly bad impression of the Pashtun people.

Each traveler has his own experience; these can differ. My own encounter with the Pashtuns--decades earlier--was the memorable high point of my travels in that region. I think the Pashtuns deserve better press. Nevertheless, with that exception, I enjoyed Rory Stewart's book and recommend it highly.



Please also see:

Passing through Afghanistan & Pakistan by Daniel Borgström

SAHAR, The Voice of the Pashtuns, a monthly publication