I’M A DON QUIXOTE AT HEART
First published in The Daily Telegraph by Nigel Fandale on 11 June 2016.
Rory Stewart, diplomat, adventurer and modern-day Lawrence of Arabia, has trekked solo through Afghanistan, come under siege while a deputy governor in Iraq and is about to set out on another hazardous mission. Is the man mad? asks Nigel Fandale
It’s not the crisply tailored suit and tie that make Rory Stewart OBE stand out in a London hotel lobby. It is not even his dark, slightly dishevelled hair – hair that allows him to pass for a native while travelling across dangerous terrain in the Middle East. It is the small, incongruous rucksack slung over his shoulder.
The rucksack is not an affectation. The man is one-part diplomat, two-parts explorer – and he is about to fly back out to Afghanistan, where he is running a project to preserve the country’s heritage. He is, moreover, a figure from a bygone age: imperial, heroic, a Lawrence of Arabia who has somehow slipped through a crack in the space-time continuum.
That is not to say that he is physically imposing. When, at the relatively tender age of 29, he was appointed deputy governor of a province of 850,000 people in the Marsh Arab region of southern Iraq, he was known as ‘boss’, ‘governor’ and sometimes, because of his slight, 5ft 8in frame, ‘chicken legs’.
That was in September 2003, six months after the American-led invasion. In that role, he had not only to negotiate hostage releases but also to deal with gangsters, tribal vendettas and a full Islamic insurgency, during which his governor’s compound was besieged for three days by mortars and heavy gun fire, an experience that even he had to admit was ‘slightly alarming’.
I say ‘even he’ because, for all his mildness of voice and gentle, Old Etonian manners, Rory Stewart is made of strong stuff. In 2000, he took an 18-month sabbatical from the Foreign Office to go on a solitary, 6,000-mile walk across Asia. His journey culminated in a six-week trek through Afghanistan, shortly after the collapse of the Taliban. It took him over some of the world’s most forbidding terrain, in an area where American forces were hunting Osama bin Laden.
Besides mountain ranges and freezing temperatures, he had to contend with Pashtun soldiers demanding that he voice his support for al-Qa’eda. As he wrote in The Places in Between, an evocative account of his journey: ‘The new government had been in place for only two weeks; there was no electricity between Herat and Kabul, no television and no T-shirts. In many houses the only piece of foreign technology was a Kalashnikov.’
It helped that he was a speaker of Dari, the local Persian dialect. He also speaks Farsi and some Arabic, which was one of the reasons he was chosen to be a deputy governor in Iraq. Other reasons include his background. After Eton, a short-service limited commission with the Black Watch and a degree in history and philosophy at Balliol, Oxford, he became, like his father before him, a diplomat and was duly posted to a war zone, Kosovo.
He has written a new book, Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq. ‘I was actually extremely reluctant to write a book because I was working for the Government,’ he says. ‘My previous book had been about what I did as a private citizen.’ Does the Civil Service Code apply to him? ‘I’m not sure.’
Was the book vetted? He shakes his head and grimaces. ‘One of the flaws of my new book, I think, is that I sometimes gave into the temptation to see things as slightly comical or exotic. It can seem strange, especially when people are mortaring you or screaming that you are an infidel in these very artificial, melodramatic engagements. But I wanted to convey the texture of ordinary people’s lives, what their expectations of government were and how they negotiated cocky, strutting, self-confident foreigners.’
There were indeed some strange episodes. He was given so much development money by the Americans that he wasn’t able to get through it all. In one month alone, he was encouraged to spend $10million: the money arrived vacuum-packed in million-dollar bricks. He ran out of projects and had to return $1·5million. ‘It felt surreal, at times. As if we were in a parallel world, normalised only because of the way Saddam had administered these provinces through personal governors who only handed out cash to Ba’ath party supporters.’
He is being modest. His book is not flawed. It is a compelling, insightful and beautifully written memoir that makes you suspect that the occupation, or liberation, depending on your viewpoint, was doomed from the start. ‘Better plans and more troops might have given us a small advantage in 2003,’ he says. ‘But direct foreign rule was never going to turn Iraq into a liberal democracy.
‘Retrospective analysis that focuses on the failure to stop looting in the early days, or the abolition of the Iraqi army or the de-Ba’athification programme, is missing the point, which is that, even if those things had gone right, it would still have been a mess. It’s partly because of who we are, and what our culture is, and partly because of what Iraqi society was like after the fall of Saddam.’
He had been in favour of the invasion. ‘I thought it would be a good thing. I felt that a lot of the opponents of the war had underestimated how horrendous Saddam was. I went in thinking that, with a little bit of goodwill, it shouldn’t be too difficult to out-perform Saddam and make Iraq more humane and prosperous. But the goodwill simply wasn’t there. These things were difficult to predict. I haven’t seen anyone who was anti the war predicting that this would be the mess we would be in.
‘As the months rolled on, it became clear to me that the hostility among quite large areas of the population meant our errors were being magnified. People keep saying “the electricity in Iraq still doesn’t work”, but it still doesn’t work in parts of Afghanistan and Kosovo: the difference in those countries is that large numbers of people are well disposed toward us and are prepared to see our failure as incompetence, rather than a deliberate conspiracy to humiliate them, which is how the Iraqis see it.’
Did the Iraqis not believe that our presence was temporary? ‘No one believed that. Even when the date of hand-over was clear – June 30, 2004. However much I said, “We are leaving in three months”, I couldn’t get anyone to believe me. Even if they had, they were just so horrified and insulted by our continuing presence that the fact that we would eventually hand over didn’t matter to them.’
So we should withdraw now? ‘My instinct is that Iraqi politicians are much more competent than we give them credit for, and that, among the many evils, the least would be taking the risk of withdrawing and letting them take more responsibility. The Iraqi government is canny enough to come to some accommodation with the insurgents and they haven’t so far been forced to do that because of the presence of our troops.’
One day, during the Sadr insurgency in April 2004, 5,000 people suddenly arrived outside Stewart’s building, shouting, ‘Death to the governor!’ and ‘Mr Rory is a donkey!’ When the shells started landing, did he think his number was up?
‘I was surprised by the feeling that, subconsciously, I had always been expecting it. Maybe because I’d read children’s stories about it, or watched films about it. Watching my bodyguard team, former soldiers who were manning the guns on the roof and defending the compound during those three days of siege, I felt calmer because I could see how calm and professional they were being – not just rising to the challenge but almost enjoying it.
‘There is a degree of play-acting for someone like me. I was in charge of planning how to react and it was quite empowering. The more difficult experience was for my civilians, who were locked in a room with no idea of what was going on, just hearing 100 mortars and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] slam into the compound, and the sound of a 50-cal on the roof, but not being able to see what was happening. Although it was theoretically more dangerous being outside the concrete room, at least we could see what was happening.’
He must have gone into Iraq with every expectation of not returning. Did he write last letters to his parents? ‘Oh yes, all that sort of thing. Every time I left Britain I mentally prepared myself and felt, as far as I could be, at ease with the world. I’d said what I wanted to say to my parents and friends.’
He dedicates his new book to his father: ‘A great man, a fierce ally and a most constant friend’. ‘He’s now 84 and just flew back from Fiji, where he’s been writing a guidebook. He’s an amazing man. Fought at D-Day. When I was a child, he was posted to Malaysia and there he would take me out into the jungle and teach me jungle craft. Between six and nine every morning, before I went to school, he would take me fencing in Hyde Park.’
Rory Stewart didn’t take his sword with him for his trek across Afghanistan. Instead, he took a dictionary, a walking stick, two pairs of socks, a change of clothes, a sleeping bag and some emergency rations. He suffered diarrhoea, dysentery and bed-bug bites, and survived on little more than bread and vegetables. Now and again, Stewart’s diplomatic skills failed him. He got it badly wrong in Bamiyan, the site of the desecrated Buddhas in Afghanistan, when he ignored the security patrol’s orders to stop. ‘One of them chased after me and punched me in the face. The others just kicked me. In the end, I talked myself out of it and got away with one black eye.’
He took it as a compliment when British special forces, meeting him in deep snow, wound their transport window down to tell him, ‘You’re a f—— nutter’, before motoring on, leaving him on the road, exhausted in frozen socks. Did he wonder if he was, actually, a nutter? ‘I did feel in Afghanistan that I had overstepped the mark. One of the reasons I ended the walk there was that I realised how lucky I was going to have to be to make it to Kabul and felt I owed it to my parents to come back if I made it that far. I never regretted it. I could have been shot, but it felt like being an explorer and that was exhilarating. No one else has walked across Afghanistan in the winter maybe in the past 20 years and possibly the past 400 years.’
Did he feel lonely on his walk? ‘My objective was to try, as much as possible, to force myself into village culture, so it was easier travelling alone because it gives me sufficient vulnerability and isolation to push myself into a village and talk to people.’
When I ask why he felt the need to do that trek, he talks of the near-hypnotic pleasure of walking, of the unhindered connection with the physical world made by his rhythmic progression. ‘But also my great text is Don Quixote. I think, in a sense, we are all Don Quixote. One aspect of being human is creating heroes and playing a grand game with your life. Like Don Quixote, though, we all realise that what we are doing, as we are strapping ourselves up and putting on our helmets, is faintly ludicrous. The kind of glamour you are pursuing is vain and dies with you. It means nothing.
‘But you do it because it makes you feel alive. On high ridges looking out over an intense, dark blue sky I feel more alive – more alive than I would feel walking down the King’s Road, where I feel a tiny, isolated, irrelevant person surrounded by people in fashionable clothes and huge adverts for underwear that I don’t really understand.’
The lonely self-exploration: how does that impact on his love life? ‘I’m pretty single. It is very difficult, that aspect. The reality is, I feel much lonelier in London than I do on an Afghan mountain. In London you feel you ought to have all these things – the wife and children – and so you feel more lonely. Whereas, in Afghanistan, I have a whole rationale, a story I can tell myself.’
According to his friend, the actress Clemency Burton-Hill, ‘Rory has great equanimity, optimism and integrity. His adventurism is not gratuitous. He operates on different parameters from the rest of us, to a moral purpose.’ Women, I put it to him, must love his swashbuckling ways. ‘I don’t think they do, actually. I hoped my walk would impress the girls – definitely – but I don’t think it did.’ His full lips part into a wide, toothy smile. How about the family seat in Crieff, Perthshire – that must make hearts flutter? ‘No, I think what I need is a sports car.’
It is academic anyway, for English debutantes at least, because, for the next two years, Stewart will be in Afghanistan, a country that in recent weeks has become almost as dangerous for Westerners as Iraq. Does he blend in there? ‘I’m not very good at growing a beard. It comes out all wispy and rubbish.’
Has he learnt to live with the threat of being taken hostage? ‘Being an Arab speaker, or being immersed in their culture, doesn’t seem to help. Look at Margaret Hassan in Iraq. The only thing that does help a bit is body language, I think.’ He pats his chest. ‘I instinctively do this, all the time. It’s all about manners. How you sit. How you place your feet. The amount of energy you put into greeting.’
He holds his hand to his chest and says softly: ‘Salaam aleikum. Chetor hastid? Jan-e-shoma jur ast? Khub hastid? Sahat-e-shoma khub ast. Zinde bashi.’ It translates as: ‘Peace be with you. How are you? Is your soul healthy? Long life to you.’ Or more simply, ‘Hello’.
‘When I was in nasty situations in Afghanistan I thought if I can just get them to say “salaam” back I will be 50 per cent safer. I smiled a lot in Iraq, but Afghans are much more reserved and austere …
‘But none of this being polite to people on the street is going to stop me getting my head chopped off!’ He laughs the enigmatic laugh of a Kipling hero, an intrepid Englishman, a nutter.