Afghanistan: Scotsman's Trek Explores 'Places In Between'
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
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
noticed on the foundation's website that you are asking for traditional
craftspeople to come work with you?
Yes, we're hoping to encourage exchange programs to bring over
international craftsmen to work in Kabul and work alongside Afghan
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.
How do people in Kabul feel about this kind of preservation work you're
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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
RFE/RL: Can I ask where you
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
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.
Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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