Saturday, March 17, 2007

Book Review: The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

Read The Places in Between by Rory Stewart expecting not great personal insights or expansive vistas. Be wowed by the accomplishment of survival of the most brutal of individual journeys.

Afghanistan is a bleak, poor, hopeless place where feudalism still reigns. It was here that Al Qaeda found a home from which to attack America in 2001 under the protection of The Taliban. In swift retaliation, America attacked Al Qaeda and defeated The Taliban. Left behind were a barely civilized population of people, four basic cultures spread across hundreds of miles of barren, cold land, ravaged by centuries of invasion, war, subjugation, and occupation. They do not trust their neighboring villages let alone outside visitors.

Against this backdrop, in January 2002, Rory Stewart, a Scottish historian and writer, decided to walk from Herat in the west to Kabul in the east. I still don’t know what drove him other than a desire to come to terms with himself, although this story doesn’t address that well. Stewart was actually completing a leg of a much larger walking journey of this part of the world. His footpath through Afghanistan, single-minded and determined, is brutal and demanding. His writing, though in narrative form, is a journal of struggle and observation. This was no trek of whimsy – he cheated death many times and in many ways. What was breathtaking was not the vistas nor the epiphanies, but getting through at the end – walking through his front door at home in the UK.

Don’t expect to close the pages of The Places in Between thinking, “I want to make that walk someday.” Expect instead to breathe a sigh of relief and think, “If it was a necessary walk, I’m glad he took it and I’m glad it’s over!” Yet, also expect to understand why the war in Afghanistan has been such a struggle for America, as it was for Russia before us and the invaders and occupiers before them.

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