WALKING TALL – RORY STEWART INTERVIEW
Article first published in The Scotsman on 19 June 2008.
When Prince Charles asked Rory Stewart to found a charity to rebuild Afghanistan, he was fully aware of the scale of the task, having earlier made an extraordinary trek across the country. Now he’s back home and eager to reacquaint himself with Britain.
IN ORDER to reach the headquarters of the Afghan charity Turquoise Mountain you must head not for Kabul, but for Crieff. For it is here, up a long, twisting drive past a field of Highland cows in the depths of Perthshire , in the chaotic study of a Scottish baronial house, that the nerve centre for an organisation that employs 350 people dedicated to restoring the ancient capital of Afghanistan is based.
This is the family home of Rory Stewart – former Blackwatch soldier and old Etonian made an OBE, onetime deputy governor of Maysan in southern Iraq, but perhaps best known as the man who walked across war-torn Afghanistan in 2002 with only a dog for company, an experience he documented in his award winning book The Places in Between.
This week Stewart, incredibly accomplished for a man of just 35 years, announced that he has set himself a new challenge: a walk across Britain. He will retain his position as head of Turquoise Mountain, but after two and a half years in Kabul he is returning home to Scotland – for the next few months at least – while a new managing director takes over the day-to-day running of a charity that Stewart built from scratch.
“I’ll probably start from home in Crieff, walk down into England and end up on the south coast,” he tells me. “I like connecting to places by foot, and I’m interested in experiencing how somewhere like Crieff connects to somewhere like London.”
The last time I met Stewart was on a snowy January day just after New Year. He was holed up in his family’s home in Crieff on a brief return visit from Kabul, glued to his laptop as he negotiated the intricacies of Afghan bureaucracy with just a log fire and a dozing ginger cat for company. Even then, when I asked him about his future plans he talked, almost wistfully, about returning more permanently to Scotland.
“I would like to personally make sure that Turquoise Mountain is stable, then I really would like to come back here and see if there’s something I could do for Scotland. “I don’t know much about Britain. I’ve been working overseas for most of my adult life. So I’d like to see what sort of problems there really are here. It’s a question of asking, ‘Where are we going, how purposeful are we?’ And see if there’s anything that can be done to find possibilities for change.”
Stewart is big on change. It is something he attempted during his stint in Iraq as deputy governor of the Iraqi province of Maysan and senior advisor in the province of Dhi Qar – a role he took on shortly after coalition forces entered Iraq and which he wrote about eloquently in his second book, Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq.
It is also something that he has done with Turquoise Mountain, the charity he founded after being asked to by Prince Charles (for whom he once worked as a tutor to Prince William and Prince Harry) and Afghan president Hamid Karzai – both of whom were keen to found an organisation to restore the beauty of war-ravaged Kabul while providing employment for the city’s hundreds of traditional craftsmen.
“The Prince asked me if I’d go out to Afghanistan as a favour and have a look at what could be done. So I went out for ten days, not really expecting to do much except come back and write a letter explaining why I couldn’t do it. But when I got there I found that this whole stunning area in the centre of Kabul was going to be demolished. All these craftsmen would lose their jobs, these shops and houses would be demolished, so I thought that if I was lucky we could bring together a plan which would begin to invest in restoring that wonderful old city, invest in the old buildings and see if we could save it.”
And, after a fashion, he did. In stark contrast to the traditional image of a Western aid worker, Stewart roamed the streets of Kabul in immaculately pressed suits, hand-stitched in Savile Row, meeting with locals and talking to them in fluent Pashto and Persian, listening to their concerns and doing his best to understand the intricacies of Afghan culture and politics, instead of bulldozing in with his own, preconceived ideas.
“Rather than telling Afghans they have the wrong tent, the wrong wheat, the wrong sheep or whatever, which a lot of foreigners going there seem to do, this was a project that said, ‘Your traditional crafts and methods are great, your product can be Afghan, and we’ll help you rebuild these things and make them better.'”
Two and a half years on, with the help of funding from the likes of the Canadian International Development Department and the School of Traditional Arts in London, the buildings are still standing and under regeneration, while 5,000 tons of rubbish has been cleared from the streets.
The charity has established the country’s first Centre for Traditional Afghan Arts and Architecture, provided employment for more than 300 Afghans, and started training a new generation of Kabul’s citizens in traditional crafts. In a country where many charity projects fail because of the cultural complexities of operating in a war zone, it is a significant achievement. And while Stewart is ready to physically move on (“although not really, I got 32 e-mails from Kabul this morning,” he confesses), it is clear that the country is still close to his heart. Indeed, part of his attraction to Afghanistan was, he says, the similarities it shares with the country of his birth.
“As a Scot, I instinctively feel a sympathy towards a culture which is based on generosity. It’s very refreshing. Afghans think they’re the best people in the world and their country is the best place in the world, and it’s strange because you go there and it doesn’t really look like it, and yet they assume that everybody else envies them. It’s a very non-hierarchical, democratic society. It’s a place where you know people. Although you’re working in a city of millions, it also feels like a village.”
He could indeed be talking about Scotland. He says he feels like an outsider when he comes home, but is enthused by the wind of change currently blowing through this country.
“I think it’s quite exciting, looking at it from the outside. Salmond’s doing something which isn’t happening in Westminster politics, which is actually catching a sense of people’s imagination.
“He’s responding in some quite interesting ways to people’s narratives about themselves and the way they think about what it means to be Scottish. That’s the kind of politics that is probably more like what people want to see.”
It has been mooted that he may himself be interested in a role in Scottish politics. His positions in Iraq, and previous to that as Britain’s representative to Montenegro and as a junior diplomat in Indonesia would, some think, make him ideal. But Stewart downplays his interest in this sphere. “I’d like to see what the possibilities are, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to be a politician. I’m still pretty disappointed by elected politics. I think there are many different ways to achieve political change and I’m not sure being an elected politician is the best way of doing that.”
In The Places in Between, Stewart recounts being told by a member of the Afghan Security Service: “You are the first tourist in Afghanistan. It is mid-winter. There are three metres of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee.”
He didn’t, though his experiences led the New York Times to remark that he made “Medusa-slayingly gutsy travel writers look like the Hilton sisters”.
He is undoubtedly a one-off, a true Scottish adventurer who, refreshingly, does not understand the meaning of the word “no”. He says he is now thinking of writing a book about his 86-year-old father, a man who has, he says, “his own very eccentric Scottish perspective on most things”.
He is also mulling over a job offer from an Ivy League American university which, if it happens, he will take up next year. But right now it is a walk across his homeland that is foremost in his mind.
“The thing that interests me most about Scotland is how we differ from our neighbours. How do our ambitions differ? What kind of society are we? What can we learn from the mistakes of the past and how do we position ourselves in the world?”
If anyone can answer such a question, you get the feeling Stewart just might be the person to do it.