In the last part of this three-piece series I proposed the spontaneous, chilled-out brand of freedom championed by Laurie Lee in As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning as a means of release from lockdown claustrophobia. Since then, the UK has moved from a Covid-19 alert level of four to three. Pubs, restaurants and hotels re-opened on July 4th, while ‘air-bridges’ have begun to allow travel between the UK and specific European holiday destinations. Much as a thirsty man savours a long-awaited drink, this new-found liberty feels particularly good. And yet, our ‘new-normal’ is far from a return to how things were. A trip to the pub requires one to register their details on arrival. You are likely to have to book in advance, must order drinks digitally and, in some cases, must adhere to one-way systems while moving about. When travelling by bus, train or tram you have to wear a facemask and, on trips to the supermarket, it is likely you will spend as much time in the queue as actually shopping.
The country we emerge into is one of red tape and bureaucracy, terms and conditions. What freedom we have gained is dictated over by rules and guided by regulations. This is undoubtedly necessary to control the virus, and yet, this knowledge does little to alleviate the frustration…
A different sort of lockdown calls for a different kind of escape. Rory Stewart’s walk across Afghanistan, recounted in The Places In Between, is an examination of the seemingly ungovernable and a celebration of personal agency over toeing the line. For me, it was a breath of fresh air from the government’s suffocating exit strategy…
Rory Stewart, ‘The Places In Between’
In the winter of 2001-2, over 36 days, Rory Stewart walked east from Herat to Kabul in a straight line through the central mountains of Afghanistan. The country had only been liberated from Taliban control for 6 weeks and a new government in place for only the last two of those. Along this 800km+ trek there are only a scattering of administrative centres found at Obey, Chaghcharan, Yakawlang and Bamiyan. The villages in between these governmental oases are exceedingly remote and were without electricity or plumbing. In most houses, foreign technology was limited to a Kalashnikov and, ‘the only global brand was Islam.’
This ‘ungoverned space’ has been a great crossroads of cultures, religions and peoples. It is where Persian, Hindu and Hellenic culture come together. Where Muslims and Buddhists rub up against one another, Shias and Sunnis co-habit and mystical Islam meets its militant equivalent. It is where the first folds of the Himalayas rupture the Afghan desert and, as a result, has been a natural thoroughfare and obvious route for the Silk Road. It is a country that, in 2002, had been at war for the last twenty-five years. First with the Russians, then with the Taliban before the new government’s takeover under Ismail Khan. It is a patchwork nation – a great web of loyalties and feuds, cultural etiquettes and traditions. Along Stewart’s trek alone he crosses through the plains of the Tajik people; the hill province of Ghor, where the nomadic Aimaq tribes live; the high mountains of the Hazara and the deserts of the Pashtun tribe. The Afghanistan he discovers is exceedingly complicated and, at its very core, opposed to centralized government. Any decree on facemasks, advice on handwashing or edict on supermarket queuing is a world away.
It is also an incredibly hostile environment. Over the three months preceding Stewart’s walk sixteen foreign journalists were killed in Afghanistan. The country is filled with those who supported, or were actively part of, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Landmines litter the way between Herat and Kabul and wolves have been known to kill and eat people in the middle of the day. His route sees him cross high mountain trails he’s repeatedly been told are impassable in winter. He walks them in January, without a map. Stewart often does not know where he will sleep for the night. He relies, instead, on the hospitality of strangers and their adherence to Islamic guest rights. Gestures of surprising warmth and companionship are afforded him by these hosts, with a sense of shared human comradery often shining through hardened Afghan exteriors.
Time and time again Stewart is told that the journey is not possible or will result in his death. The security service inform him before he sets out, ‘you will die, I can guarantee’. They make him walk the first leg with two guards. It is one of these guards who discovers that there are multiple groups on the road ahead with plans to murder them and begs him to take a car. Stewart tells him he is ‘leaving in an hour regardless’ and walks. When passing into Pashtun territory, a hotbed of Taliban support, his Hazara host insists he travel by car. Stewart walks. Before he traverses the great snow plateau between Bamiyan and Yakawlang a group of Spanish doctors, fresh from the operating theatre and a morning of amputating frost-bitten legs, implore him to drive. Again, he walks.
Stewart refuses to accept the parameters others try to place on him. His independence and strength of will drive him on through a journey most people would consider impossible. He does so with only a stick and a dog for safety. What he truly relies on for protection is his own quick-thinking and ability to bluff. He turns changing the subject into an art form and weaponizes his knowledge of Islam. In Dideros, he is accused of being a British spy by an Al Qaeda sympathising Mullah. He denies this, before responding, ‘I have been travelling in Iran and Pakistan, where I was treated very well because Muslims know how to treat guests.’ The accusatory tone of the room quickly turns to one of conciliation as his hosts mumble, ‘Of course we treat guests well…’ ‘Because we are Muslims…’ ‘We honour travellers.’ Toward the end of his walk a man tries to take four hundred dollars from him. Stewart inquires, ‘is this a request for zakat?’, referring to the obligatory Muslim donation to the poor. The would-be mugger recoils at this, having had his pride and piety subtly questioned, and decides he no longer needs the money. While being straddled by a particularly unsavoury group in Pashtun territory, the ex-Taliban leader of the area quizzes him on his faith, repeatedly asking, ‘Who do you think is better: Usama Bin Laden or George Bush?’ Stewart masterfully dances around these questions, frequently mentioning that ‘[he is] a guest in [their] country’ and playing on their requirements to honour Islamic guest rights.
In As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning, Laurie Lee revels in his freedom, wallowing in a youthful lack of responsibility. Stewart, on the other hand, seems eager to discover the boundaries of what others deem possible, only that he may exceed them. He is almost entirely self-sufficient, relying on his own two feet for transport, his wit for protection and a sense of self-belief to drive him forward. Much like Afghanistan itself, he refuses to be told what to do. In a world where even leaving the house has fallen under the jurisdiction of others, the sense of having control over one’s own existence that suffuses The Places In Between can serve to remind us of more liberated times. It certainly did for me.
By Will Bruce
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