Tuesday, 16 March 2010


Save for the Flashman books most of us know bugger all about far Afghanistan. There are certainly armchair experts, even the wives of serving soldiers, their expertise nourished by phone calls and emails from hubby set themselves up as defence correspondent bloggers, without ever having left Hemel Hempstead. The BBC and skymadeupnewsandfilth show us Whitehall propaganda as though this was World War Two, as though bald, angry luvvie, Ross Kemp, was Vera Lynn manque, the Forces Fag Sweetheart.

He will have his own, perhaps ignoble reasons for writing this book but Rory Stewart's The Places In Between is a hugely valuable antidote to the feeble dross which normally misinforms our judgement of the Invasion and partial Occupation of Afghanistan.

A travel book without pictures is hard travelling, but hard travelling is Rory Stewart's Zen-hobo schtick, Woody Guthrie meets Lawrence of Arabia, not for him a Land Rover to Kandahar, and a film crew; no, a modest, unsupported, blistering walk along the old Silk Road across Afghanistan; eat your heart out, Eddie Izzard, celebrity Marathon Man - isn't he the most revolting of transvestites, all these things he does, for charity ? - but probably Stewart's rucksack, filled with antibiotics and notepads, had no room for a digital camera and so The Places In Between has no illustrations, save a few wee maps, schoolboy stuff, or junior officers, for the use of. It will, however, be a conscious, editorial judgement, not to have pictures, the prose requiring none, presumably; that's a moot point, at least it is around here, in bonny Scotland, and the spartan and entirely unnecessary omission of illustrations is a huge irritation to we miserable few who are not globe-trotters. Although the book, the stuff it relates, is different enough to merit perseverance, some illustration of the scale and barrenness of Afghanistan would have helped, without distracting; there is a happier medium, between film and prose.

I learned recently that Stewart has the snaps and that he lectures around the world about his journey, utilising them in a quaint slideshow -see YouTube Rory Stewart Lectures parts 1 - infinity - but my edition of the book has nothing to ventilate his meetings with remarkable mullahs, headmen and shapeshifting warriors - one minute Taliban, the next fighting for the puppet government of Karsai the Pimp in a war without end, Bismillah. Stewart reveals that it is often brother against brother and then brothers against cousins and then cousins against the next village and so on, comprehension of the hostilities impossible, even to those involved.

Rory, perhaps casting around for a project to enhance his extraordinary cv - Guards officer, governor of an Iraq province, writer, film-maker and now Tory prospective parliamentary candidate, and all whilst still resembling a sixth former - hit upon the idea of tracing the steps of a mediaeval Moghul emperor across parts of the Old Silk Road, where the villages, caravanserai-style, are never more than a day's march apart and wherein - an Islamic rule - he must be given hospitality and shelter, however poor his hosts. He remarks, tellingly, that in many villages people dined mainly on Naan bread; there was neither power nor sanitation, the only evidence of technology being the ubiquitous Kalashnikov propped against the wall, a mute, potential contradiction to the weighty and convoluted etiquette of successive village elders. Here, says Stewart, loyalties shift like desert sand. He knew most of this stuff before he set off in the steps of Babur the Great, yet he went unarmed and alone, relying on his wits and his knowledge of Persian dialects to see him through a hostile terrain, in deep snow and likely to encounter many with reason to suspect, hate or kill him. Hard travelling such as this would be a commendable feat in the Lake District; in Afghanistan, now or at any time I suppose, it was Odyssean.

Claiming it for himself by citing it in his bogus political heroes, Prime Minister Snot has devalued courage as he has devalued the pound and the nation, the horrible fucking bastard. The staggeringly narcissistic, one-trick pony and busted-flush Messiah, Obamalama, writes acres of glowing, flowery pages devoted to his own entirely unremarkable yet by his own lights heroic journey - his Da left his Ma and he is of mixed race parentage, No Shit? And don't call him Barry, he courageously prefers Barack, that's about it, now that he travels Air Force One Class, in the middle of an army of crophead pyschopaths. Rory Stewart, should he be elected, will be a rarity, perhaps unique in UK politics, a person of real, demonstrated courage, insight and ingenuity.

The Places In Between can be read as largely apolitical but then Animal Farm can be read as a fairy story and to miss the politics of either is to miss the point. Stewart, in his succession of meetings with Afghani men, it is nearly always men, is observing power, not of a party political kind, the kind which so taints and corrodes our own societies but of a more robust and potentially explosive nature, the sort which comes from the barrel of a gun or a knife in the back.

Towards the end of the book Stewart lets rip at the futility, the stupidity and the arrogance of the current Infidel presence in that distant shithole. Oh, he almost cries, the impudence of these Presbyterian mass murderers and their careerist public administrators. Having chronicled the disparate feudalities of a dog's breakfast of a land, often living several centuries in the past, Stewart contrasts this Devil's melange with the air-conditioned youngsters doing Obama's and Brown's vain, stupid opportunistic bidding in Afghanistan's beleaguered capital, trying to impose on this alien place a set of spurious values to which even they do not hold:

I doubted that the new policy makers in Kabul understood much of this. For the last three months, whenever I reached an internet cafe, I had received an email from someone who had gone to govern Afghanistan. They started passing the UN application forms around in 2001 and then the circulars appeared: "Please don't expect to write to this email - there is no internet connection in Kabul. " Finally, there were messages from new addresses "@pak.id" "@afghangov.org" "'@worldbank.org" "@un.org," talking about the sun in the mountains. I now had half a dozen friends working in embassies, thinktanks, international development agencies, the UN and the Afghan government, controlling projects worth millions of dollars. A year before they had been in Kosovo or East Timor and in a year's time they would have been moved to Iraq or Washington or New York.
Their objective was (to quote the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan) "The creation of a centralised, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law". They worked twelve- or fourteen- hour days, drafting documents for heavily-funded initiatives on "democratisation", "enhancing capacity", "gender", "sustainable development," "skills training" or "protection issues". They were mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, with at least two degrees - often in international law, economics or development. They came from middle class backgrounds in Western countries and in the evenings they dined with each other and swapped anecdotes about corruption in the Government and the incompetence of the United Nations. They rarely drove their 4WDs outside Kabul because they were forbidden to do so by their security advisers. There were people who were experienced and well informed about conditions in rural areas of Afghanistan. But such people were barely fifty individuals out of many thousands. Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90% 0f the population of Afghanistan lived. They came from post-modern, secular, globalised states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women's rights and fibre-optic cable networks, 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 centralised multi-ethnic government".

But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi's wife who had not moved more than 5 kilometres from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon the way they carried a brief case? The villagers whom I had met were mostly illiterate, far from electricity or television, knew very little about the outside world and had very distinctive attitudes towards politics, Islam and ethnicity. The people of Kamenj understood political power in terms of their feudal lord Haji Mohsin Khan. Ismael Khan, in Herat, wanted a social order based on Iranian political Islam. Hazara such as Ali hated the idea of centralised government because they associated it with the domination of other ethnic groups and with their suffering under the Taliban. These differences between groups were deep, elusive and very difficult to overcome. Village democracy, gender issues and centralisation would be difficult concepts to sell in some areas.

Their policy makers did not have the time, structures or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organisations, even when they were mutually contradictory.

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister Snot, the horrible fucking bastard, cannot deliver a fit-for-purpose national health service or police service or education system or pension arrangements or immigration policy ir tansport infrastructure or energy-delivery policy and the legislature he heads is as full of thieves as is Mr Karzai the Pimp's family. Meddling all over the world, like some far-sighted visionary, some adroit global-scaled public administrator here, at home, Brown is such an incompetent, despised, risible figure of contempt and ridicule that he cannot even sack the members of his cabinet of all the fools.

Barack Obama, both nigger-made-good and suave, urban sophisticate, cannot even deliver a health service of any kind, cannot rebuke the thieves on Wall Street, nor deny the impetus of Uncle Sam's all-consuming military-industrial complex.

What place have knaves and gobby dimwits such as these, Brown and Obama, YesWeCanning, in the proxy management of complex, ancient, tribal Afghanistan, whilst their own nations slide into police-state repression, austerity and Ruin?

And crucially the so called insurgency in Afghanistan has killed nearly three hundred British citizens without Ahmed even having to get a passport or a UK visa. By what deranged arithmetic does Field Marshal Snot, tearing his nails in the wee small hours, make sense of this madness? Sending Tommy as a propitiary human sacrifice is not actually defeating terrorism, simply making it easier for those who would kill us to do so.

Rory Stewart's book tells us of an Afghanistan which the BBC and skymadeupnewsandfilth, embedded, compliant, never visit. It is a real place and foreign - and it will not easily bend itself to globalisation or the New World Order of Mandelstein and Merkel and the French dwarf - none of whom would ever risk a hair on their heads for their countries, fuck, no; vous etes 'avin le laff, n'est ce pas.

Proper book critics have hailed The Places In Between as a Bostin', Dog's Bollocks of a Travel Book and it may be that here we over-interpret its tales. I learned more, however, than I ever have about Afghanistan from reading it and for me the wee man's subliminal authorial message is the same as the one he recently delivered about Iraq - we shouldn't be there.

The Places In Between is in a library near you.


woman on a raft said...

Many thanks. I'd seen him on telly once or twice and noticed that even usually gobby interviewers bit their lips and slapped-down other guests for interrupting him, but I hadn't realized that the few short remarks he made, although easily the best in the programmes, also carried this level of integrity and authority.

Life is too short to read every book suggested, so it's important to know which are the must-reads. Will get on to it.

lilith said...

Is he married? He sounds perfect for Calfy.

Dick the Prick said...

No Lils, he's not and apparently he's on the hunt for bagging a bride.

He's the PPC for Penrith and he's gone and done exactly the same there, namely, went wandering round the constituency in the middle of winter with his rucksack on his back. He was also a Govenor in one of the provinces of Iraq. Quite staggeringly well qualified really.

Think i'll wander down to WHSmiths and walk away empty handed no doubt. Cheers Monsieur Ishmael.

Dick the Prick said...

Bollox - as suspected, if it ain't Danielle Steele WHSmith's want you to fuck the fuck off please.

Agatha said...

Dear Mr. Ishmael,
Thank you for bringing Rory Stewart's book to the attention of your readership. His journey was of a nineteenth century nature, bringing to mind the explorers and plant collectors who travelled the world's wild edge. The lengthy extract was particularly telling - describing all those clean, hard working strategist document-producers labouring away in a thought world several centuries away from the country they sought to bind in words, words and more words. The preposterously well-educated gilded youth would then be helicoptered into the next country on the list for terraforming in the onward spread of irrelevant words - rich, isn't it? And the same process is happening in the UK, with the production of a tsunami of policy documents and legislation which have very little to do with the lived experience of the people that the words seek to bind, contain and improve.
Thanks, Dick, for telling us that Rory has walked his prospective constituency. I wish he'd stand for some inner-city Birmingham tower-blocked slum and walk the territory and produce something to bring about constructive change.
We don't have a WH Smith where I live - how I'd love to go there and browse. And Borders has vanished. No more wonderful expensive imported magazines, book clubs and knitting groups. How could this happen?

lilith said...

Dick thanks, I will send him some photos and a CV.

call me ishmael said...

Draw your attention, ms Lilith, to the Ishmaelian by-law which forbids pimping, even of one's children, on these premises.

call me ishmael said...

Our erstwhile, astringent classicist, the much- missed Mr the dyers garden, cautioned that Stewart was every sort of mountebank and jackanapes, a neo-colonialist, a vain, calculating and condescending intruder. Sharp as a razor, if not always soft as a prayer, Mr tdg had a nose for these things and so I read the book mindful of his comments but at the end couldn't agree with them. Stewart seemed infinitely more patient than I would be among a bunch of warring, misogynistic, superstitious savages and his writing was studiedly spare and modest - itself full of places in-between,into which the reader may repair and meditate - without a trace of racism, something we must bring for ourselves. The ferocity of his attack on ms agatha's pointless gilded youth is all the more pungent for its apparent collegiate mildness.

I hadn't, as does she, transposed his scepticism about top-down nation-building to the " UK, with the production of a tsunami of policy documents and legislation which have very little to do with the lived experience of the people that the words seek to bind, contain and improve...." but it is of course true that unelected mandarins and former communist thugs enpalaced in Brussels toil similarly to improve our understanding and obedience.

I mentioned the library deliberately, mr DTP, however much we google, the library - and the librarian - have been there in good times and bad. We should try to support them by patronage, lest they be taken from us, although the Austerity bandits will probably close or privatise them, anyway; some ghastly, shit-eating, pipsqueak delinquent, like Gove.

There was more on Stewart, Mrs WOAR, a while back. A WOTSONTELLY post, Lawrence of Arabia ....something like that.

Mothers Ruin said...

Sean Langan made an amusing film travelling through Afganistan under the gaze of the Taliban. He has been back since, and possibly compromised his integrity, but his piece taken in the context of it's time is worth seeing if possible.
Langan behind the lines.

call me ishmael said...

Yes, MR, I remember, now that you mention it. A different thing, he was urgent, arch, knowing, making asides to the camera, like a human form of Louis Theroux. Always in the frame, the programme was about him. As you say, it is now a historical document.