Now a Conservative member of parliament in the United Kingdom, Rory Stewart was the first Westerner to be in Afghanistan when US troops invaded the Taliban regime after 9/11. He didn’t enter the country as a solider, diplomat or spy, though several Afghan officials suspected as much. Nor was he there as a tourist. Indeed, Stewart, who took two years to walk the length of Afghanistan (Herat to Kabul), spent his time there primarily to attain the most intimate perspective possible on one of the most strategic countries on earth.
The Places in Between is the product of Stewart’s extraordinary journey, written as a detailed travelogue that draws from the author’s experiences, taking him into some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous and decrepit areas. Afghanistan is a country mired in decades of conflict, and Stewart wants to see first-hand how the people have coped. This is not a political book, though Stewart is a political man with a highly politicized background—he served in the UK Foreign Service and taught international relations at several post-secondary institutions.
The book’s primary purpose is the detailing of an innocent observer’s experiences in one of the Muslim world’s most troubled countries. Rest assured, Stewart’s is a deeply sympathetic portrait of Afghanistan, underpinned by a real respect for the Islamic tradition as lived by the people there.
He talks of being in hundreds of villages and evading near-death experiences, but Stewart’s consistent effort to see the bigger picture allows him to look past the kind of pettiness that some exhibited in an effort to take advantage of him. This deeply useful and sympathetic portrait of the social, cultural, and sometimes political conditions of occupied Afghanistan—from the perspective of a Westerner—should make for some good reading this Ramadan. It’s for anyone who’s interested in thinking about the Muslims’ place in the 21st century world.
The author’s perspective may not always align with that of the reader’s, but The Places in Between is full of the kind of universal empathy and compassion that animates much of what it means for Muslims to be living through Ramadan.