3.5 stars. Six weeks after the fall of the Taliban, Rory Stewart embarked on a walk across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul. The Places in Between describes his journey through harsh land and a huge mix of people, from kindly to threatening.
The author relied on the cultural value of hospitality to guests and travelers. This to me is fascinating: that a Westerner with only knowledge of local customs, a smattering of Persian language skills, and familiarity with the history and religion of the country can travel across a war-torn land, being taken care of by those who have little themselves.
I never really emotionally connected with The Places in Between. I suspect one or more of a few reasons for this. Stewart never reveals much about himself, so I don’t feel contact with him on a personal level. He tells his story with a very stoic and understated tone, so while I’m certain that his journey was both hazardous and difficult, the sense of those dangers doesn’t come through. His walk wasn’t about the land he passed through; we get some descriptions of geography and terrain but not many.
The dizzying whirlwind of people that he met gets only a capsule treatment, by nature of his very limited association. His three government-assigned travel companions early on are described in much more detail, and their portrayals are very good–perhaps the latter half of the book suffered from this lack of a personal connection.
It’s also a bit repetitive: Stewart has a long day walking, comes to a village, finds the leaders and requests hospitality, partakes of a meager and silent dinner, might have brief conversations ranging from friendly to threatening, experiences bouts of dysentery, and gets letters of introduction to the next village(s). He intersperses history, primarily of the medieval emperor Babur, and that provides some continuity to his journey.
On the other hand, this is a book that I am glad that I read. My surface understanding of Islam, Afghanistan, terrorism, and the Taliban is so limited. Stewart shows that the culture of Afghanistan is hugely diverse, and its governance must be incredibly complex. I almost feel more confused after reading this book, but I fear that is due to my narrow understanding rather than any deficiency of the author’s text. (Now I realize the full depth of my ignorance!) And yet the hopeful strength of this book is that it shows the common bonds of humanity cross barriers of religion and nationality.
The Places in Between is informative and interesting, though not as compulsively readable as I had hoped.