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From AudioFile

In 2002, in the midst of war and a typically harsh winter, Rory Stewart embarked on the seemingly insane undertaking of walking across Afghanistan. That it was madness was explained to the accomplished Scots journalist, but he was not to be dissuaded, especially since the journey was part of the larger scheme that he had already accomplished: to traverse the Muslim world on foot by way of Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. Thankfully, he lived, and nearly as marvelous a reason for celebration is the book that resulted, a glowing achievement in the rich history of travel writing. Stewart's narration of his own work further reveals a traveler of deep insight and humility (without a trace of sentimentality), and a man of rare courage and grace. M.O. © AudioFile 2007, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The New Civil ­Service
I watched two men enter the lobby of the Hotel ­Mowafaq.
           Most Afghans seemed to glide up the center of the lobby staircase with their shawls trailing behind them like Venetian cloaks. But these men wore Western jackets, walked quietly, and stayed close to the banister. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the hotel ­manager.
           “Follow them.” He had never spoken to me ­before.
           “I’m sorry, no,” I said. “I am ­busy.”
           “Now. They are from the ­government.”
           I followed him to a room on a floor I didn’t know existed and he told me to take off my shoes and enter alone in my socks. The two men were seated on a heavy blackwood sofa, beside an aluminum spittoon. They were still wearing their shoes. I smiled. They did not. The lace curtains were drawn and there was no electricity in the city; the room was ­dark.
           “Chi kar mikonid?” (What are you doing?) asked the man in the black suit and collarless Iranian shirt. I expected him to stand and, in the normal way, shake hands and wish me peace. He remained ­seated.
           “Salaam aleikum” (Peace be with you), I said, and sat ­down.
           “Waleikum a­-­salaam. Chi kar mikonid?” he repeated quietly, leaning back and running his fat manicured hand along the purple velveteen arm of the sofa. His bouffant hair and goatee were neatly trimmed. I was conscious of not having shaved in eight ­weeks.
           “I have explained what I am doing many times to His Excellency, Yuzufi, in the Foreign Ministry,” I said. “I was told to meet him again now. I am ­late.”
           A pulse was beating strongly in my neck. I tried to breathe slowly. Neither of us spoke. After a little while, I looked ­away.
           The thinner man drew out a small new radio, said something into it, and straightened his stiff jacket over his traditional shirt. I didn’t need to see the shoulder holster. I had already guessed they were members of the Security Service. They did not care what I said or what I thought of them. They had watched people through hidden cameras in bedrooms, in torture cells, and on execution grounds. They knew that, however I presented myself, I could be reduced. But why had they decided to question me? In the silence, I heard a car reversing in the courtyard and then the first notes of the call to ­prayer.
           “Let’s go,” said the man in the black suit. He told me to walk in front. On the stairs, I passed a waiter to whom I had spoken. He turned away. I was led to a small Japanese car parked on the dirt forecourt. The car’s paint job was new and it had been washed recently. They told me to sit in the back. There was nothing in the pockets or on the floorboards. It looked as though the car had just come from the factory. Without saying anything, they turned onto the main ­boulevard.
           It was January 2002. The American­-­led coalition was ending its bombardment of the Tora Bora complex; Usama Bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar had escaped; operations in Gardez were beginning. The new government taking over from the Taliban had been in place for two weeks. The laws banning television and female education had been dropped; political prisoners had been released; refugees were returning home; some women were coming out without veils. The UN and the U.S. military were running the basic infrastructure and food supplies. There was no frontier guard and I had entered the country without a visa. The Afghan government seemed to me hardly to exist. Yet these men were apparently well ­established.
           The car turned into the Foreign Ministry, and the gate guards saluted and stood back. As I climbed the stairs, I felt that I was moving unnaturally quickly and that the men had noticed this. A secretary showed us into Mr. Yuzufi’s office without knocking. For a moment Yuzufi stared at us from behind his desk. Then he stood, straightened his baggy pin­-­striped jacket, and showed the men to the most senior position in the room. They walked slowly on the linoleum flooring, looking at the furniture Yuzufi had managed to assemble since he had inherited an empty office: the splintered desk, the four mismatched filing cabinets in different shades of olive green, and the stove, which made the room smell strongly of gasoline.
           The week I had known Yuzufi comprised half his career in the Foreign Ministry. A fortnight earlier he had been in Pakistan. The day before he had given me tea and a boiled sweet, told me he admired my journey, laughed at a photograph of my father in a kilt, and discussed Persian poetry. This time he did not greet me but instead sat in a chair facing me and asked, “What has ­happened?”
           Before I could reply, the man with the goatee cut in. “What is this foreigner doing ­here?”
           “These men are from the Security Service,” said ­Yuzufi.
           I nodded. I noticed that Yuzufi had clasped his hands together and that his hands, like mine, were trembling ­slightly.
           “I will translate to make sure you understand what they are asking,” continued Yuzufi. “Tell them your intentions. Exactly as you told ­me.”
           I looked into the eyes of the man on my left. “I am planning to walk across Afghanistan. From Herat to Kabul. On foot.” I was not breathing deeply enough to complete my phrases. I was surprised they didn’t interrupt. “I am following in the footsteps of Babur, the first emperor of Mughal India. I want to get away from the roads. Journalists, aid workers, and tourists mostly travel by car, but I—”
           “There are no tourists,” said the man in the stiff jacket, who had not yet spoken. “You are the first tourist in Afghanistan. It is mid­winter—there are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee. Do you want to ­die?”
           “Thank you very much for your advice. I note those three points.” I guessed from his tone that such advice was intended as an order. “But I have spoken to the Cabinet,” I said, misrepresenting a brief meeting with the young secretary to the Minister of Social Welfare. “I must do this ­journey.”
           “Do it in a year’s time,” said the man in the black ­suit.
           He had taken from Yuzufi the tattered evidence of my walk across South Asia and was examining it: the clipping from the newspaper in western Nepal, “Mr. Stewart is a pilgrim for peace”; the letter from the Conservator, Second Circle, Forestry Department, Himachal Pradesh, India, “Mr. Stewart, a Scot, is interested in the environment”; from a District Officer in the Punjab and a Secretary of the Interior in a Himalayan state and a Chief Engineer of the Pakistan Department of Irrigation requesting “All Executive Engineers (XENs) on the Lower Bari Doab to assist Mr. Stewart, who will be undertaking a journey on foot to research the history of the canal ­system.”
           “I have explained this,” I added, “to His Excellency the Emir’s son, the Minister of Social Welfare, when he also gave me a letter of ­introduction.”
           “From His Excellency Mir ­Wais?”
           “Here.” I handed over the sheet of letterhead paper I had received from the Minister’s secretary. “Mr. Stewart is a medieval antiquary interested in the anthropology of ­Herat.”
           “But it is not ­signed.”
           “Mr. Yuzufi lost the signed ­copy.”
           Yuzufi, who was staring at the ground, nodded ­slightly.
           The two men talked together for a few minutes. I did not try to follow what they were saying. I noticed, however, that they were using Iranian—not Afghan—Persian. This and their clothes and their manner made me think they had spent a great deal of time with the Iranian intelligence services. I had been questioned by the Iranians, who seemed to suspect me of being a spy. I did not want to be questioned by them ­again.
           The man in the stiff jacket said, “We will allow him to walk to Chaghcharan. But our gunmen will accompany him all the way.” Chaghcharan was halfway between Herat and Kabul and about a fortnight into my ­journey.
           The villagers with whom I was hoping to stay would be terrified by a secret police escort. This was presumably the point. But why were they letting me do the journey at all when they could expel me? I wondered if they were looking for money. “Thank you so much for your concern for my security,” I said, “but I am quite happy to take the risk. I have walked alone across the other Asian countries without any ­problems.”
           “You will take the escort,” said Yuzufi, interrupting for the first time. “That is ­nonnegotiable.”
           “But I have introductions to the local commanders. I will be much safer with them than with ­Heratis.”
           “You will go with our men,” he ­repeated.
           “I cannot afford to pay for an escort. I have no ­money.”
           “We were not expecting any money,” said the man in the stiff ­jacket.
           “This is nonnegotiable,” repeated Yuzufi. His broad knee was now jigging up and down. “If you refuse this you will be expelled from the country. They want to know how many of their gunmen you are ­taking.”
           “If it is compulsory, ­one.”
           “Two . . . with weapons,” said the man in the dark suit, “and you will leave ­tomorrow.”
           The two men stood up and left the room. They said good­-­bye to Yuzufi but not to ­me.

Copyright © Rory Stewart 2004
Illustrations copyright © 2006 by Rory Stewart
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and
retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work
should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact
or mailed to the following address:
Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 297 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; 1st edition (May 8, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156031566
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156031561
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (291 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #127,888 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Mr. Stewart has written an entertaining account of his walk across Afghanistan in 2002. The country was in shambles, the Taliban had just fallen and the Twin Towers had fallen a few months ago. As a nation, Afghanistan doesn't exist -- just a collection of warlords ruling their fiefdoms and encroaching each other's territories. So Mr. Stewart enters the county from Iran without a visa as if he was climbing Mount Everest -- because it was there.

The author is a superb storyteller and once the book has started, the reader will not be able to put it down. His writing style is conversational, as if he just arrived home and is telling you of his recent adventures. Why Harvest Books did not put this book out in hardback is beyond me. The reader should be aware that his next travel book "The Prince of the Marshes," will be out in August, 2006 where Mr. Stewart decided to move on to a less dangerous country than Afghanistan -- he went to Iraq.
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Writing with the understated humor in the best of Magnus Mills' novels (Restraint of Beasts, All Quiet on the Orient Express), Stewart accounts his long, arduous trek on foot through the brutal landscape of Afghanistan. Thought to be a spy, he is often accompanied by mysterious "guards" hired by the new government to supervise Stewart's meanderings. The conflict between Stewart and these guards provides much of the book's humor. But then about a third into the book, Stewart is offered a dog, a huge bear-like creature who is described as wise and weary. The dog, whom Stewart names "Babur," has been abused and neglected all his life and Stewart adopts him and determines to take Babur with him back to Scotland. For me, Stewart's tender relationship with the endearing dog Babur is the heart of the book. It will make you weep. This storyline alone makes the book worth reading. Of course, this book is much more than a man meets dog story. It is a firsthand account of the grotequeries that seethe within a country in a state of violent upheaval.
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"Someone in Kabul told me a crazy Scotsman walked from Herat to Kabul right after the fall of the Taliban"

Thanks for the book. For it was indeed a journey of great spirit and determination. Mr. Stewart was well prepared for this trip with vitamins and various medications he knew would be necessary to successfully complete this challenge; ibuprofen, antibiotics, just name it and he had it; sharing with the villagers he met on his way when they saw what he had and begged him.

Well written, well told. I was truly impressed with how hospitable the people of Afghanistan were; those whom he encountered and offered him rest and meals and at times water to wash with, at their various humble abodes where he was invited to stay for the night. Even through they understood little English, Mr. Stewart was able to communicate to them by speaking Persian. I love reading about anything in the Eastern and Asian side of the world, so I was with him all the way. I felt like I was alongside him as he climbed those steep slopes and when he walked on the flat valleys. I drank tea with Mr. Stewart from glass cups, ate stale bread with him and soup, and enjoyed the rest at the end of the day, sleeping on a carpet or just on the floor.

The attention given to him was enormous as he persevered onwards. My main concern was just before he got to Kabul when he had to travel through the deep powdery snow which was known to cause frostbite, making it necessary to amputate limbs for some in the past. I held my breath as he and his dog companion Babur made it out of the snow covered mountains, and alas into another bright day. God bless you Rory Stewart.
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Walking across central Asia without ruminating at length about the political and military crossfire would seem like an odd diversionary tactic by a writer any less assured than Rory Stewart. However, the Scottish author manages to evoke a powerful sense of what Afghanistan was like during his arduous, often moving trek through the wartorn country in 2002. Unlike Chris Ayres' humorous adventure of being embedded with the troops in Iraq in his blistering account, "War Reporting for Cowards", the then-29-year old Stewart is more straightforward with a true adventurer's spirit and an anthropologist's eye, as he set out on his own with his wooden staff through the central mountain range to Kabul. His immersion into the country was obviously aided incalculably by his fluency in Dari, which is the Afghan dialect of Persian, and his in-depth knowledge of the cultural custom and history of the country.

There is not a whit of romanticism in the author's vision, as he shares his experiences with people who have been grouped categorically by the news media with the hard-line Taliban. The most impressive aspect of the book is his ability to provide unique, almost idiosyncratic personalities to everyone he meets from the warlord Ismail Khan to his three Afghan traveling partners to a gregarious village headman to a war-beaten dog who becomes Stewart's constant companion. He names him Babur after the 16th-century Muslim emperor who traveled across Afghanistan to found the Mughal dynasty of India. Carrying the emperor's autobiography, the author draws compelling parallels with his own experiences and describes the Afghan people with becalming respect and admiration even if the ongoing threat of violence has hardened some of their sensibilities.
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