Monthly Archives: August 2006

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AFGHANISTAN: SCOTSMAN’S TREK EXPLORES ‘PLACES IN BETWEEN’

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Interview first published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty by Heather Maher on 18 August 2006.

In the winter of 2002, a 29-year-old Scotsman set out from Herat, in western Afghanistan, to walk 800 kilometers to Kabul. Rory Stewart — an Oxford-educated former British Foreign Service officer — was told to expect to meet death along the way — whether from cold, wolves, or a Kalashnikov. His book, “The Places In Between” is the story of that journey and of Afghanistan’s people and history. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke with Stewart.

RFE/RL: Tell me about the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which you founded after you finished your walk and now run in Kabul.

Rory Stewart: The Turquoise Mountain foundation is a project to help a community in central Kabul work to preserve and restore the old city of Kabul, which was threatened with demolition. So we’re working on a section of the old city and we’re doing a range of activities, from improving infrastructure [and] clearing rubbish to restoring a series of very beautiful late 18th- and early 19th-century courtyard houses. We also run a school, which trains calligraphers, illumination painters, woodworkers, masons, and ceramicists.

Even without a government, without a police force, without a formal structure of rule of law, local political structures do provide security and people are generally kind to other humans.

RFE/RL: I noticed on the foundation’s website that you are asking for traditional craftspeople to come work with you?

Stewart: Yes, we’re hoping to encourage exchange programs to bring over international craftsmen to work in Kabul and work alongside Afghan craftsmen.

Cultural Identity

RFE/RL: In your book, you describe talking with villagers from the valley of Jam who are plundering ancient sites and showing little respect for the significance of the artifacts they find and are selling. You seem slightly horrified by their lack of recognition of the historical value of what they’re looting. Is that when you first had the idea to try and do something to protect what is left of ancient Afghanistan?

Stewart: Yes. I think one of the great casualties of these kinds of conflicts — in the case of Afghanistan it’s 25 years of war — is to a county’s cultural identity, and to its history. Because people have other priorities during a time of war. And I believe that in a generation’s time, Afghans will be very sorry to have lost the traces of their history — which once made them one of the real central civilizations of the world. So we’re hoping, through working with craftsmen and through working with historic buildings, to support Afghanistan’s traditional culture and use it to create economic opportunities for a new generation.

RFE/RL: How do people in Kabul feel about this kind of preservation work you’re doing?

Stewart: I feel that the community we work with is very supportive. They’re a very proud community, they’ve been living there for two or three-hundred years in this particular part of Kabul and they’re very keen to make sure these buildings — which they value and which their families have lived in for generations — are preserved. But at the same time there are very aggressive, new property developers who have very little interest in history and who want to send in the bulldozers and build a new generation of [what are] often East German-inspired tower blocks.

Final Leg

RFE/RL: When you began your walk in Herat in the middle of winter, many people warned you of a certain death — either from weather, war, or wolves. You seemed unafraid. What was it that let you think you could succeed in reaching Kabul?

Stewart: Partly because I had been walking for 18 months already across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal; and I’d heard similar warnings in parts of those countries, too, which had proved to be untrue.

Generally, my experience is that even in the most fragile, most traumatized, most war-torn countries, most people are extremely hospitable, dignified, generous, and welcoming. And that even without a government, without a police force, without a formal structure of rule of law, local political structures do provide security and people are generally kind to other humans.

RFE/RL: But in fact you did encounter hostility. You were beaten up once and another time came close to death at the hands of an angry crowd. Were you surprised to be attacked like this?

Stewart: Perhaps I should put it the other way around. Perhaps, in a sense, looking back, it was surprising that it didn’t happen more often. You’re right, on a couple of occasions — once I was beaten up by Hazara militiamen in Bamiyan and then, once, surrounded and threatened with death by a group of young Taliban men in Wardak. But given that this was a country in the throes of an invasion with no government or structures, perhaps what is notable is that it didn’t happen more often.

RFE/RL: You encountered so many different ethnic groups in your walks — each with different histories, different views of the West, different ways of greeting a traveler. Were there any commonalities?

Stewart: I think one of my real lessons was that villages are very different each from the other, that it’s dangerous to generalize. And one of the big mistakes that foreigners have made intervening in places like Afghanistan, or even Iraq, is to imagine that you can generalize about communities in remote areas who almost by definition because of the lack of communication and contact with the rest of the world are very, very isolated.

A single day’s walk — 25 kilometers — can take you from a place governed by an old, feudal family who are relaxed and friendly towards the West, into a community run by a radical Muslim cleric with connections to Iran, trying to stir the community up on a jihad.

Some communities want a very centralized government; others want a very strong degree of local autonomy. Some are interested in notions of human rights; others emphasize security.

If there was something in common between them, I think that most of the villages have a relatively conservative vision of Islam and talked to me predominantly about Islam — perhaps because it’s one of their great ways of reaching out and contacting the outside world.

Helping Afghanistan?

RFE/RL: That raises another point. Do you think the international community – by that I mean the Americans and British — understands how to help Afghanistan? You imply in your book that foreigners are somewhat misguided in their efforts to assist with development and social issues, and for all their well-meaning policy plans and projects, they’re really not making a real difference in people’s lives.

Stewart: I think that’s true. The international community has basically decided that in order to achieve sustainable development, economic development, and improvement in living standards in other people’s countries, it’s necessary to change governance structures.

In other words, the conclusion for the last 10-15 years has been that there’s no point just building dams and roads unless you have a clean, effective, accountable, and responsible government. These interventions are not sustainable. Now, they may or may not be right about that. Where I disagree with them is the notion that this is something that foreigners can actually deliver. Because by its very nature, political change — i.e., the kind of changes which the minister of finance in Afghanistan described when he said, ‘Every Afghan is committed to a gender-sensitive, multiethnic, centralized government committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law’ — is a type of change which is very difficult to explain to somebody in a remote rural community. I’d find it even difficult to translate into Dari.

And if we’re serious about bringing those kinds of changes – and those are very, very radical changes, philosophically, structurally, politically – we would have to have much, much more understanding of these countries than we’re ever likely to have and much more patience than we’re ever likely to have.

We tend to go for six months, or a one-year contract, do workshops, talk nicely about democracy, but don’t really engage in what would be a very long-term, very messy, and very uncomfortable business of really convincing Afghans, or Iraqis, to really believe in the vision that we hold, and to fight for that vision.

RFE/RL: Are you surprised at all by the resurgence of the Taliban, especially in the south of Afghanistan?

Stewart: I’m not so surprised, no. Because my experience was that many of the villagers I encountered were sympathetic towards the Taliban, or at least sympathetic towards their religious ideology.

A single day’s walk — 25 kilometers — can take you from a place governed by an old, feudal family who are relaxed and friendly towards the West, into a community run by a radical Muslim cleric with connections to Iran, trying to stir the community up on a jihad.

Generally, their objections to them were that the Taliban came from an alien ethnic group, or that the Taliban had killed them or stolen livestock, or property. But the south is a Pashto area, the Taliban are a Pashto ethnic-supported party and there is a lot of conservative Islamic sentiment there which provides quite a natural support base for a movement such as the Taliban.

‘Prince Of The Marshes’

RFE/RL: Switching to your time in Iraq and your posts as the deputy head of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s offices in Dhi Oar and Maysan. You accomplished quite a bit — obtaining funds for infrastructure repair, developing employment programs, the timely payment of local government employees, repairing schools. Yet in your book about that time — “The Prince Of The Marshes And Other Occupational Hazards Of A Year In Iraq” — it seems you were frustrated.

Stewart: In the end, the problem from my point of view was that Iraqis basically did not want American and British people in their country running their government. For very good reasons, very understandably. They were suspicious of outsiders, resistant to change, reluctant to cooperate and work together with the Coalition in these reconstruction projects. And that ultimately doomed the entire enterprise.

The enterprise couldn’t work because however many schools we repaired, however many roads we built, however many employment programs I launched, the political parties were conservative, Islamist parties who wished to impose conservative Islamic social code, that were opposed to foreigners, and whose entire ideology had very little to do with the ideology of the coalition.

So in the end, that failure to win consent, the failure to win the political debate, is what doomed the occupation.

RFE/RL: Can I ask where you learned Dari?

Stewart: I learned Dari initially in Tehran. I learned Farsi and then I worked on it more in Kabul, and then on my walk across Afghanistan.

‘Afghanistan The Most Appealing’

RFE/RL: Do you have any plans to make another walk?

Stewart: I’d very much like to travel more in the valleys between Bamiyan and Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan and explore some of the side valleys there, which people haven’t been into much.

RFE/RL: You’ve walked across Iran, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Which country did you enjoy crossing the most?

Stewart: Of them all, I think Afghanistan was the most appealing country. I found such generosity. Only in Afghanistan, of all the countries I’ve walked across, did people insist on accompanying me from one village to another; take a real interest in accommodating me, feeding me.

The beauty of the landscape, the astonishing complexity of the surviving pieces of historical culture — such as the Minaret of Jam, or the domes in Chist-e Sharif — the challenge, the physical challenge of crossing a landscape of that sort. The physical beauty of seeing tents on a hillside, or men on horses riding towards you, really made it, I think — and I’ve been to 67 countries — the most enticing, enthralling, exhilarating place to travel across.

st/stewart

EQUAL PARTS BLISTERS AND ENLIGHTENMENT

st/stewartArticle first published in The Washington Post by Teresa Wiltz on 9 August 2006.

There really is no good reason why Rory Stewart did it, except that, well, he wanted to do it: something about adventure and the lure of the land, the thrill of putting one foot in front of the other, leaving a trail of footprints behind him. Walking meditation a la the Sufis, etc., etc. Go forth and ruminate.

Humans are hard-wired to walk, and so Stewart, Scotsman/diplomat/author, reasoned that in the walking, perhaps he, a “gibbering ape,” could manage to unlock a spiritual experience of mystical proportions. Perhaps not. But, for nearly two years, walk Stewart did, across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal, ending his sojourn with a long and painful trek through the rugged mountains of Afghanistan in early 2002.

In the dead of winter. In the middle of war.

Truth is, for all Stewart’s great expectations, he didn’t feel particularly enlightened as he trudged along in his Berghaus lace-up boots, $10,000 in cash strapped around his waist. (Gore-Tex is all very well and good, but when one is encountering nine-foot snowdrifts, technology can do only so much in the quest for dry feet.) No, he says, most days, he’d start out feeling one with the universe, memorizing snatches of Persian poetry, thinking through philosophical arguments or reading the Bhagavad-Gita, in one hand, walking stick in the other. Within the first hour or two, all would be well. And then the pain would set in, and he’d obsess about his aching knee, his blistering feet, the growling knot in his belly. And the walking meditation would become a walking whine.

Or so he says.

You take the allegations of whining with a hefty chunk of salt because to meet Stewart, the author of “The Places in Between” and “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq,” is to be exposed to a man well versed in the art of self-effacement. Yet somehow it doesn’t seem like an act, more like a cross between the culture of British self-deprecation and the musings of a 33-year-old man whose confidence has yet to catch up to his accomplishments, a man with an exceedingly large hard drive for a brain.

“I’m just not very good about talking about myself,” says Stewart, who spent a year in Iraq serving as coalition deputy governor of the southern provinces of Amara and Nasiriyah. “I don’t trust myself when I’m talking about my motivations.”

He’s written the It book of the summer, and when he’s introduced to an enthusiastic Monday afternoon crowd at Politics and Prose, he says, “Thank you for this very warm introduction, which I really don’t deserve. . . . I really don’t have much wisdom to impart.”

He’s written a book that haunts the bestseller lists, a book for which critics have heaped on the praises, lauding his “luminous” prose, his nerve and determination and even comparing him to Byron.

Mention this, and Stewart furrows his brow, rakes his hand through chocolate brown hair, murmurs distractedly that, yes, it’s very nice of them to say that, isn’t it?

In his books, he quotes Machiavelli, Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” and from the diary of the Mogul emperor Babur. Ask him which he identifies with most, and he declares, “I amDon Quixote. I’m an absurd anachronistic figure . . . tilting at windmills.”

About those windmills: Underneath the modest demeanor is a man of formidable will. In August 2003, Stewart, a former diplomat who served in Indonesia and Yugoslavia, took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad and offered to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority because “I thought I could make a difference.” (He was, he said, quickly disabused of that notion by the Iraqis.) Before that, he’d determined that he would walk through Afghanistan, and that meant walk , never mind the war being waged against the Taliban, never mind the jeers of kids who threw rocks at him, never mind Kalashnikov-bearing soldiers who demanded that he stop walking and explain himself. Never mind the dysentery that plagued him, or the numbingly bitter cold and the time he lay down in the snow, briefly giving up as the snow piled on top of him and he drifted off to sleep.

The SUVs, donkeys and horses proffered him were not an option, he says. Walking meant walking, every step of the way. Sometimes he walked solo, sometimes he walked with the toothless fighting mastiff he’d befriended, sometimes with the Afghan military escorts forced upon him by local officials.

The one time he was made to ride in a truck to his destination, he went back the next day and retraced his steps. It was a trip, he says, during which he relied on “the kindness of strangers,” knocking on doors, begging for a place to stay. He offered money, but most refused to take it, even though most were the poorest of the poor. At night he would sit with his sketch pad, drawing the people he encountered (his illustrations are scattered throughout “The Places in Between”).

He saw one woman during his trek across rural Afghanistan, a grandmother he spoke to for four minutes. The others were hidden away.

He was threatened, shoved, punched, treated with contempt, indifference and great kindness (often by warlords with horrible reputations). Sometimes he walked away from an encounter, expecting to be shot in the back. He was acutely aware that he was from a culture and a country that they loathed. Sometimes he slept on the floor belly to belly with snoring Afghan soldiers, other times alone in a bombed-out mosque.

He learned to modify his story to suit the circumstances. He’d claim to be a Brit when that suited. Other times he’d claim to be from Indonesia. (When in doubt, he says, it helps to claim you’re from a Muslim country that people know little about.) Other times, he’d tell people that he was a poet, or a professor of history.

In truth, he says, he was a tourist.

He’s slight of build, with cerulean eyes and dark, mussed hair, whose spikiness is likely to evoke comparisons to the absent-minded professor rather than the fashionable product-aholic. At a taping of “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” at WAMU-FM, Nnamdi marveled at the contrast between Stewart’s forceful dissertation on the state of affairs in Afghanistan and Iraq and his disarming baby face. “He looks like a teenager!”

At Politics and Prose, one septuagenarian exclaimed to another as she headed out the door, “He’s amazing. He’s just what I pictured. I fell in love with him when I read the book.”

He’s the child of a colonial family. His grandfather was stationed in India, and his father worked throughout Asia as a diplomat. Born in Hong Kong, Stewart is an Oxford-educated former military officer and diplomat who, obviously, takes very seriously the role of being a guest in a foreign land.

Colonialism, as he sees it, was a mendacious system: racist, exploitative, horrific. But at the very least, he says, colonialists set out to understand the countries that they took over, prepared to spend years at a time to understand the culture. Today’s “neo-colonialists,” foreign-aid workers and diplomats, parachute into a country, trying to impose Western culture on a people they don’t understand. It is, he argues, a “morally dubious” proposition.

He once supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Now he says, “It’s a catastrophe.”

Today, he lives in Kabul, where he heads up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, an organization dedicated to restoring historic portions of the city and setting up a school to train Afghan artists.

And one day he’d like to start walking again. This time through Borneo, chasing that which he cannot explain.

He marveled at how all those mystical moments quickly faded once he stopped walking. When he first returned from Afghanistan, he said, friends commented on his stillness, his seeming sense of enlightenment. Ten days later, he said, they were asking, What happened to you? He was back to hanging out in bars and “chasing girls.”

It’s hard to hold on to enlightenment, he says, when you’re pulling down 16- to 18-hour days.

So is he a religious man?

With great reluctance and apparent physical discomfort, Stewart says that he grew up Episcopalian, but . . .

“I’m a pretty bad Christian.”

That’s a pretty strong pronouncement for someone who wrote a book filled with spiritual musings, references to rosary beads, a man who seemed to navigate through life with a fairly strong sense of moral certitude.

Stewart’s discomfort increases. He runs his fingers through his spikes and grimaces.

“I don’t see myself as particularly profound,” he says. “I see myself as a slightly superficial, supremely flawed person.”

Aren’t we all?

He wrinkles up his face, pauses, then answers as any self-respecting, self-effacing pilgrim would: “I’m probably worse.”