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A book for walkers and Near East gawkers

In mid-April, Jerry Lazarczyk and I hiked several miles through six inches of snow along the Conservation Trail near West Valley. Although it was not easy going, I found myself conscious of how much harder hiking could be. The reason: I had just finished reading Rory Stewart's account of his 2002 walk across Afghanistan just after the Taliban had been defeated in his book, "The Places in Between."

Stewart is a young Scottish hiker, clearly one of those cross-country marathon walkers like our own Andy Skurka, who is just now commencing a 6,875-mile Great Western Loop hike. But Stewart hikes in Asia and his trips address added dangers. He walks among illiterate and often unfriendly people carrying Kalashnikovs.

I recommend Stewart's book to hikers but also to anyone concerned about our role in the Near East. Although I consider his writing excellent, however, I also consider him terribly foolish for undertaking this extremely dangerous hike.

He is told over and over that he will be killed by the people of the next village and is, in fact, shot at by men who moments later, without apology, join him for supper. It seems that every village has suffered: 40 killed here, 120 there. And he is warned to recall Dr. Brydon, the lone survivor of the 1842 British retreat from Cabool when 16,500 British forces were killed. (For a frightening account of that episode read Philip Hensher's "The Mulberry Empire.")

Stewart tells us: "Places in the Scottish Highlands are also remembered for acts of violence. But here the events recorded were only months old. They were inflicted not by the Russians, but by one community on another. The settlement of Tangia was now only a line of red mud pillars like giant rotting teeth. The school in Ghar had been destroyed. Everyone knew the men who did these things. They had watched them at it."

It is hard to understand many of the people he meets. Stewart pets his dog and is warned, "Our Prophet tells us not to touch dogs. We must do special ablutions if we have touched a dog."

"Where is that in the Koran?"

"I can't remember exactly."

"I thought you were a Hafiz -- that you had memorized the entire Koran." Sheikh recited passages for the village in the evening.

"I have memorized it," Sheikh replied. "I can recite it in Arabic from end to end -- more than 100,000 words. But I don't speak Arabic, so I don't understand precisely where the individual pieces are."

Even the book's humor has a dark side. In one episode, Dr. Ibrahim, the new governor of Ghor, stood to talk about democracy.

"Don't use the word democracy. It is un-Islamic," shouted a mullah beside him.

"Democracy is not an Arabic word; it is English," relied Dr. Ibrahim.

"Well, in that case it's all right," said the mullah. "I don't suppose this exchange meant anything to anyone, but everyone seemed satisfied," Stewart says. Then he adds, "Three months later, before they could reach the assembly in Kabul, three of the new Loya Jirga delegates from Ghor were killed by local militia."

Stewart talks of our policy makers who come "from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance and civil society; and to speak of a people 'who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government.'

"But what did they understand of Seyyed Kerbalahi's wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon in the way they carried briefcases? The villagers I met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world. Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics, and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of 25 years of war differed from region to region. These differences were deep, elusive and difficult to overcome. Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts."

That Stewart remains alive I attribute to dumb luck. But despite the foolhardiness of his undertaking, he tells a wonderfully informed and important story. Hikers or not, we can all learn from his account.


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