The places in between
[ bookreviews ]
Afghanistan, one of the poorest, least developed nations on the planet, has long been the cross-roads of central Asia, intersection of the famous Silk Road where Eurasian civilizations traded, waged war and destroyed each other in a litany of power struggles which now seem of little relevance to the contemporary world.
British civil servant-journalist Rory Stewart walked through the heart of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and his often dangerous encounters with a mélange of Afghans - good, bad and ugly - are recorded in The Places in Between.
The book has been reviewed as travel commentary in some sources, but Afghanistan's role in the expanding global cultural wars of this century, makes The Places in Between a particularly informed window into a vanishing world, a core-sampling of what Jared Diamond might call a collapsing culture.
For better or worse, Stewart provides a point of view into the cultural mindset of Afghanistan's central region, a vast wasteland stretching a thousand miles from Herat in the west, through the Hindu Kush mountains and down the Bamiyan Valley, to Kabul, capital and largest city in the east .
This ancient area is pockmarked by war and repeated invasions by Indo-Aryans, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Mauryans, Kushans, Hepthalites, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, British, Soviets and, of course, now, the United States.
The region spawned al-Qaeda, first as a Soviet resistance force funded by the US, Pakistan and Arab business interests through Osama bin Laden, then expanded by bin Laden to propagate Islamic terrorism across the world, most infamously with the September 11 attacks in the US.
Stewart walked through this dangerous land for about 40 days after the fall of the Taliban in 2002. He survived by his wits and knowledge of Asian culture as well as political contacts and personal references from local warlords and leaders. Stewart also relied on Muslim religious obligations to provide hospitality to the mosafer (traveler), and welcome the meman (guest) with food and shelter in exchange for conversation and news of the world beyond the local village.
As he trekked from one village to the next, Stewart crossed dangerous clan boundaries and warlord fiefs, taking the reader deeper into the exotic Afghan culture where one's friend's friend morphs into one's enemy based on mistaken identity or some ancient wrong - typically murder.
Intolerance, vengeance, violence, suppression are the defining insights of Stewart's journey through this broken, male-dominant culture. There are virtually no insights into the world of Afghan women in The Places in Between. Women are nonexistent on the surface of this primitive society, superfluous in a feudal, illiterate land.
Stewart's observations are mostly apolitical, but he is clear about the deep disconnect between Afghans and visiting middle-class western policy makers, like himself , assigned to reshape the nation:
"Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 per cent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women's rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people 'who desire peace at any cost and understand the need' for a centralized multi-ethnic government.
"But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi's wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon in the way they carried briefcases? The villagers I had met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world." (p246).
According to information on the CIA Factbook, Afghanistan is made up of 80% Sunni Muslims, 19% Shi'a Muslims, and 1% other religions. The literacy rate is 36% for the total population, 21% among women, and there are about 25,000 Internet users among the population of approximately 31 million people.
The median age is 17 years old, 44% of the population is aged 14 or younger, facing a life expectancy is about 43 years. The average annual income is $800. More than 80% of workers are agricultural and the unemployment rate is 40%. About 53% of Afghans live in poverty, with an annual inflation rate of 16%.
Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of opium and its expanding poppy cultivation and growing opium trade accounts for one-third of the nation's GDP, and this, according to the CIA, is one of Kabul's most serious policy challenges.
The Places in Between captures a culture lost to dysfunction, mired in pointless tradition and mind-numbing routine. There's a sense that the villagers Steward elucidates will bend to postmodern intrusion because ultimately technology and democracy are simply another occupying force, one of many to be exploited for profit and power by warlords and their allies. Given the nation's median age, and one assumes, rebelliously youthful aspirations, Afghanistan could be ripe for an explosion of elementary Islamic democracy, an indication of a future beyond war; but the notion of 'planting seeds of western democracy' seems utterly beyond reality.
Stewart is always sensitive to this cultural disparity and he's insightful about the damage done by decades of decline:
"Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics, and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of twenty-five years of war differed from region to region... These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome. Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some areas." (p246).
These regional differences extent to the past as well. During a visit with a warlord in the Valley of Jam, Stewart shows more respect for the Afghan past than the local leaders. He reminds his hosts, who have been scavenging ruins of an historic site for artefacts to sell to foreign collectors, of their obvious exploitation:
"In my village," said the man from Beidon, "we have found weapons where my father said Genghis's first attack was defeated. He made his second attack at this very time of year, while the snow still lay on the ground, sending one army up the old wooden causeway from Kamenj."
"It [the ruin] was destroyed twice," Bushire added, "once by hailstones and once by Genghis."
"Three times," [Stewart] said. "You're destroying what remained."
They all laughed." (p156).
Stewart says their 'excavation' may be robbing the ruins of the Turquoise Mountain, a lost capital of the 12th-century Silk Road empire. There is apparently little local respect for this past, and no effort is made to sustain history or preserve its architecture. Here is Stewart's take on another act of cultural terror - the infamous destruction by the Taliban of the giant Bamiyan Buddhas:
"As Buddhism moved, it changed. In Tibet is incorporated the preceding Bon-Po religion and spawned new demonologies. In eighth century northern India, it became scholastic; among the forest monks of Sri Lanka, pragmatic; in Newar, Nepal, married monks practiced inverted tantra; and in Japan, Zen devotees contemplated minimalist paradoxes. Afghanistan was where Buddhism met the art of Alexander's Greece. There, in the Gandharan style, it developed its most distinctive artistic expression: the portrayal of the Buddha in human form. The colossal statues of Bamiyan were the legacy of this innovation." (p257).
Dated from the third and fifth century, the Buddha statues were carved in limestone on the side of a cliff rising 2,000 feet above the sweeping Bamiyan Valley. Both statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Stewart speculates that the local Bamiyan inhabitants actually have no idea who Buddha was, nor the origins of the historic works.
Like T E Lawrence (of Arabia) before him, Stewart is a remarkable traveler - part journalist, part adventurer, diplomat, soldier, spy (perhaps), loyal British civil servant. He risked his life in primitive circumstances, alone and on foot, at times accompanied by Afghan strangers, some surely murderers. But Stewart is always alert in the moment and his writing bristles with existential insight which lends the reader an experience a rural Afghanistan that is both visceral and humane.
And like Lawrence, Steward is capable of infusing the act of walking with a spiritual dimension, the experience of centering one's mind, intensifying the clarity of the existential moment. Here he writes about a momentary insight late in his Afghan journey along the Ghazni-Kabul road:
"Almost every morning, regrets and anxieties had run through my mind like a cheap tune - often repeated, revealing nothing. But as I kept moving, no thoughts came. Instead I became aware of the landscape as I once had in the Indian Himalayas. Every element around me seemed sharper, the colors more intense. I stared, expecting the effect to fade, but the objects only continued to develop in reality and presence. I was suddenly afraid, uncertain I could sustain this vision.
"This moment was new to me. I had not dreamed or imagined it before. Yet I recognized it. I felt that I was as I was in this place, and that I had known it before. This was the last day of my walk."
1 Stewart's route mirrored the journey of Zahiruddin Babur (1483-1530), a famous Mongolian prince and first Emperor of Mughal India, who, like Stewart, kept a literate journal of his arduous travels through mountain blizzards and desert dust. Stewart draws interesting parallels and resonances from Babur as he goes, deepening insight into the history of the region. From 2000-2002 he walked on foot across Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, a journey of 6,000 miles. [Back]
2 Stewart is the chief executive of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a program combining historical preservation with teaching youth traditional Afghan building and craft skills. Stewart was appointed to the position by Prince Charles. [Back]