Before reading Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, I listened to an audio version of the book. I liked it a lot, but I had trouble remembering unfamiliar names, of people and places. Also, occasionally, my mind wanders if I listen as I drive to work. A few days after being captivated by the recording, I decided I had to read it.
Mr. Stewart walked across Afghanistan in January, 2002 (He had also walked through Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal). People told him he would die. Fortunately, he knows Persian, and was able to converse with the people he met. It was not an easy hike - some of the mountains were under nine feet of snow, and foreigners are not always welcome. It's a different world over there, folks!
'"How much does it cost to buy a wife in England?"
"But you are already married."
"I want a second wife."
"Nothing. You don't have to pay in England."
Then why don't I just go to England and get one for free instead of paying five thousand dollars here?"
"No reason," I said.
Abdul Haq looked at me suspiciously.'
"Why did you touch the dog?" asked Sheikh, the twelve-year-old trainee mullah.
"I like dogs. Does no one ever touch him?"
"Of course not. He's an unclean animal. Our Prophet tells us not to touch dogs - particularly when we pray. We must do special ablutions if we have touched a dog."
"Where is that in the Koran?"
"I can't remember exactly," said Sheikh, "but it's there."
"I thought you were a 'Hafiz' - that you had memorized the entire Koran..." Sheikh had come here from an even more remote village to study with the mullah. He recited passages for the village in the evening. In honor of this, he had been allowed to join me and the adult guests at dinner.
"I have memorized it," Sheikh replied. "I can recite it in Arabic from end to end - more than one hundred thousand words. But I don't speak Arabic, so I don't understand precisely where the individual pieces are."
"But a dog was religiously polluting, dirty, and dangerous. Later, Afghans were variously to describe Babur (the author's dog) as big, strong, ferocious, useless, tired, or decrepit. I called him beautiful, wise, and friendly. Afghans would traditionally only use such adjectives for a man, a horse, or a falcon."
Stewart writes in his dedication, "Almost every group I met - Sunni Kurds, Shia Hazara, Punjabi Christians, Sikhs, Brahmins of Kedarnath, Garhwal Dalits, and Newari Buddhists - gave me hospitality without any thought of reward."
Reading the book, I absorb it much better than I did listening to the recording. I also get to see the author's drawings of scenes and people, and some amazing photographs as well. The audiobook, though I loved it, was not enough.
I asked my friend if she had read The Places in Between. She said her book group had read it along with A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby. Newby published this account of his mountain-climbing expedition in northeastern Afghanistan in 1958. I think I know what I'll be reading soon.
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