Just after the fall of the Taliban, a doughty Scot walks across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul, observing, studying, starving, freezing, encountering poverty, cruelty, ignorance, generosity, warmth and terror.
Published in the U.K. in 2004, this remarkable text paves the way for Stewart’s account of his subsequent adventures in Iraq, The Prince of the Marshes, to be released in the U.S. in August. His stroll through Afghanistan was part of an extensive peregrination across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal, and the author confesses that he can’t really explain why he did it. Instead, he records in plain prose a frightening journey across a land only the naïve could call a nation. Stewart passed from the control of one “big man” to another, plagued by dysentery and always in danger from the elements. But the locals’ repeated warnings to not travel alone had less to do with the weather than with the whims of the Afghans he was likely to meet, armed and governed by only the most primitive moral codes. In various harrowing moments, Stewart was roughed up by young warriors, had to listen while armed men discussed raping young women (or one another) and kept walking while fully expecting a bullet in the back. His keen sense of when to persist and when to yield enabled him to survive. Stewart generally found shelter and simple food along his tortuous route, though often only with much complication. (It helped that he spoke several Persian dialects and was familiar with the region’s history, mythology and religious customs.) He saw unspeakable poverty and encountered deep ignorance of the outside world. Along the way, a huge, nearly feral earless dog joined him after being tormented in its village. Their eventual parting is only one heartbreaking moment in a narrative of painful poignancy.
Gripping account of a courageous journey, observed with a scholar’s eye and a humanitarian’s heart.