Book: The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart (2004)
By Pamela Douglas Webster
(Note: Take a quiz about Afghanistan at Something Wagging This Way Comes)
Rory Stewart set out to cross Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal on foot. It was his personal mission to follow in the footsteps of Babur, the Central Asian conquerer founded the Mughal dynasty of India.
But his journey was interrupted when Iran withdrew his visa and Afghanistan, then in the grip of the Taliban, would not allow him to enter the country.
After a hiatus of sixteen months, the Taliban fell, and Stewart resumed his journey in Herat, Afghanistan. Halfway through his trip, Stewart met a new traveling companion—a dog he named after the conqueror who had inspired him: Babur.
Stewart relied on the Muslim tradition of offering hospitality to a stranger to support his journey. Although many of his hosts had little themselves, no one turned Stewart away when he asked for somewhere to stay or food to eat. In a sense, even his dog came to him as a form of hospitality.
Dogs did not have a good life in war-scarred Afghanistan. Some clerics interpreted Muslim law to say that dogs were ritually unclean.
When Stewart met Babur, he was toothless and poorly treated. And despite Muhammad’s words that all animals should be treated with kindness, children routinely threw rocks at the cur and adults saw him as only fit for fighting or protection.
Valued by no human around him, the nameless war dog was offered to Stewart to protect him from the wolves living in the mountain ranges he was soon to cross.
At first, Stewart wasn’t certain the dog, who was obviously elderly, would be able to make the 700 kilometer trip to Kabul. But he liked dogs, had a soft heart, and decided pretty quickly that not only would the dog accompany him to Kabul but would return home with him to Scotland.
As the pair traveled together, Babur offered less protection to Stewart than the man did to the dog. When they entered villages, dogs would often attack the pair, and Stewart routinely had to rely on stones and his walking stick to keep his dog from being injured.
Given that Babur’s life with the Scotsman was very difficult, it’s amazing enough that the dog continued to follow him. But, far surpassing the desire just to keep up, there were times when the dog seemed fully invigorated by his adventure.
Babur seemed prepared to examine, mark with urine, and take possession of every meter of the next six hundred kilometers…. All his movement was conquest and occupation…. He was like a canine Alexander.
When only 100 kilometers from the end of his trip, Stewart realized his friend Babur, unlike his fabled namesake, would not be able to finish it. So he arranged for a French photographer to drive the dog to Kabul where Stewart would be reunited with him after completing the walking sojourn.
The Places in Between is a rich story of the diverse history of Afghanistan. It’s where Greek, Persian, and Hindu cultures met.
Stewart is an engaging and knowledgeable historian. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in 300 pages. But I would like to have known more about the man.
He tried and failed several times to explain his need to walk every step of the journey. And his reactions, whether to a bullying military leader or to a compassionate host, were muted and understated. I felt as if Stewart embodied the stereotypical strong, silent man, with deep feelings but no idea how to express them.
The one time he lets his emotions have free rein is in the very last paragraph of the book.
Stewart arranged paperwork, airplane tickets, and vaccinations for Babur to come to Scotland and then traveled on ahead. In London, he got the word that his faithful friend had been killed by kindness.
After a lifetime of eating only bread, Babur received a rack of lamb from the family who was caring for him until his departure. Unable to to chew the bones, the dog died from swallowing the bone shards.
I don’t imagine Babur would have been very impressed to see me crying now, trying to bring back five weeks’ walking alone together, with my hand on a grizzled golden head, which is Babur, beside me and alive.
With that last quote, I finally felt I understood something about Rory Stewart, not only his head, but his heart.
Disclosure: I’ve illustrated this post with photos from Flickr used under the Creative Commons license. Click on the pictures to learn more about the photographers and the images. The book illustration at the top and book titles are links to allow you to buy them at Amazon. Although it won’t cost you any more, we will get a small commission to help cover our costs.