Friday, 1 June 2007

Book Review---The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

ISBN 0-15-603156-6
The Places In Between by Rory Stewart
Harcourt Inc.
Pages: 299

"The Places in Between" has a great narration of travel. Rory Stewart writes this with the juxtaposition of a sage, writer and comedian. He philosophizes, sees the depth of character in humanity and has a sense of humour despite many odds.

Stewart's travels in Afghanistan were fraction of a much longer journey, a walk across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. However, in this book we only get a glimpse of his walk from Herat to Kabul. Walking through bitter cold, in snow, it almost seems an impossibility to complete the journey but he does it for us to read about it.

Stewart dresses up in Shalwar Kemis worn by most Afghans. He merges into them. Only difference being he does not have a beard. He loves those Afghans who are not always welcoming. In his own words, despite sometimes being "greedy, idle, stupid, hypocritical, insensitive, mendacious, ignorant and cruel, these people never attempted "to kidnap or kill me" — even though he “epitomized a culture that many of them hated." For average citizens of Afghanistan, some of whom had worked for or aided the Taliban, he beholds with admirable calm.

Stewart, who speaks Persian, has no illusions and is mater of fact mostly. Armed only with a wooden staff tipped with a metal nub foraged from an old Soviet armored personnel carrier, he begins his journey with two companions who are rather forced on him. He is at times accompanied or escorted by villagers along his trek. He even ends up with a full-time companion, a retired fighting dog "the size of a small pony" that is earless, tailless and has more gums than teeth. Stewart names him "Babur." Together they face the toughest part of the journey, through deep snows, blizzards and mountain passes. At times Stewart must almost literally drag Babur along. Stewart commendably does not give in to sentiment. He is about to collapse from cold and exhaustion, "half buried in deep powder," he looks up to see Babur barking at him. "His matter-of-factness made me feel that I was being melodramatic. If he was going to continue, so would I."

Babur's 16th-century autobiography, the "Baburnama," is among the books Stewart packs, he following a route used nearly 500 years before by Babul the first emperor of the Munhall Empire. The quotations from Baburnama are a delight. He draws the parallels at numerous instances.

While some villages appear relatively unscathed from years of warfare, others have been severely damaged or traumatized. The effects of war appear even in geographic descriptions. Afghans refer to many places and locations by some tragic or brutal event that occurred there, not by physical attributes.

The loss of great cultures is evident by the villagers looting and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Talibanis.

The Places in Between uncovers and revels in the diversity, strains and struggles of the people, their land and culture. It is a fascinating journey into a place as diverse as Afghanistan. A man’s walk brings all of it alive for us. We get a very good glimpse into a world wholly unknown to us.

I have posted it in my reading room blog. As no one read it there, I am re-posting it here!


  1. I was never a reader.

  2. THanks for posting it here--this will go on to my reading list and because of the subject, probably move up beyond many of the books. As you know, books about journeys in strange places are always welcomed in my hands!

  3. steve: It is never too late!

    sage: I will go and chk your review. I have that book but yet to read it. Too many on my read list!

    I liked this book very much. Stewart has narrated it very well and it holds ones interest till the end.

  4. Gautami, I read something very similar recently, the title is 'Three Cups of Tea" and the author was Greg Mortenson an American climber who built schools in the Taliban-occupied areas of Afghanistan and in the North West Frontier region of Pakistan. I see a lot of similarities between these two men!