In 2002 Rory Stewart, author and former British diplomat, walked across Afghanistan. The country had been at war for 25 years, its government in place for just two weeks, there was no electricity, no TV, and nothing on the road between Herat and Kabul, Stewart’s intended route.
The reason for this improbable tour was that he had just spent 16 months walking 40 km a day across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. He had wanted to make every stop of the way, but the Taliban refused to allow him into Afghanistan, sections of which it then controlled, and so he had to leave it out. Now he wanted to complete his unlikely tour, and see “the places in between.”
That was one reason, but he had another as well. As he later told a friend, he wanted to see the places between the deserts and the Himalayas, between Persian, Hellenic and Hindu cultures, between Islam and Buddhism. “I wanted to see where these cultures merged into one another.”
But why walking? Well, “I thought about evolutionary historians who argued that walking was a central part of what it meant to be human.” As a species, mankind colonized the world on their feet. He thought about friars and dervishes who approached God on foot, about the Buddha who meditated by walking, about Wordsworth who composed sonnets while walking.
It is true that the slower you go the more you see — and understand. The most mindless way to travel is the fastest of all — the airplane. Like Robert Byron, Eric Newby, and Peter Levi — all observers of this terrain — Stewart moved slowly, thoroughly. The trip was made, in a way, for itself. Getting to Kabul became a technicality. The important part was the journey.
And what an interesting one that was. Equipped with several of the local languages as well as a pair of stout shoes, a walking stick, and eventually a dog, Stewart has all sorts of adventures, close shaves and narrow escapes. He also gets to see the hidden Minaret of Jam and visits the site of the vandalized Buddhas of Bamiyan. Each Buddha was over 60 meters tall and had stood there for 14 hundred years. Just seven months before Stewart reached them, they had been dynamited by the Taliban.
He met other victims of the Taliban. One young man tucked his trousers into his socks. This helped him to walk. The Taliban had cut off his toes. When asked why they had done so, the answer was “Because I had not grown a beard.” This Stewart attempts, somehow, to understand.
One way to begin to understand would be to acknowledge cultural differences — something that is currently not always done. Political correctness is reluctant to admit any differences between even very distant cultures. The “implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention,” writes Stewart. “Their policy fails but no one notices. . . . If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.”
Stewart gazes at those from abroad who have said that Islam “is at root, a peaceful, loving religion — Christianity with a towel on its head.” Then he looks at a photo showing U.S. President George W. Bush “casually dragging a Quran across a table with his unclean left hand, while the mullah who presented the book struggles to smile.”
Acknowledgment of diversity might be the beginning of comprehension, Stewart thinks. And it is this diversity for which he searches, then discovers, and describes in these pages. We are where the Persian, Hellenic and Hindu cultures grind against each other like tectonic plates. Perhaps this is one of the things that make these pages so magically authentic. This, and the character of the observer.
Though Stewart knows he is on a quixotic journey, he deeply believes in what the trip discloses — the variety and diversity of our world, its many differences and complications. A kindly soldier threatens a child with a gun, friendly young men seek to entice Stewart to a quiet place where they can kill him. No big deal, there is no One World, they have their reasons in how they think and how they feel and their ideas on how different we are from each other.
One must first discover this and then, if one is as honest and as brave as Rory Stewart, celebrate it.
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