Rory Stewart: the Post-Imperialist Poster Hero

Rory Stewart at full stride across Asia

One young Scotsman’s dauntless walk across Afghanistan — at peril from bandits, wolves, dysentery, snow-blindness and Taliban thugs with Kalashnikovs — makes a crackling fine and best-selling adventure. But that can’t be the only reason Rory Stewart’s account of The Places In Between is the gift book and assigned reading for all incoming students at Brown University (also at Brandeis University and doubtless other campuses) in this war-rattled presidential campaign season of 2008.

Some wise spirit of the moment in America seems to have designated Rory Stewart as the poster hero for something we long for, or something we’re trying to learn. And it became the up-front business of my conversation with the author to nail that something: not simply why the book enthralls, but why the committees of deans want us to search its meanings.

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Rory Stewart (24 minutes, 11 mb mp3)

Stewart’s own message these days, seemingly at odds with the book, dwells on disengagement and abject failure:

Rory Stewart at rest

My message is not actually a very attractive one. It’s not one that resonates a great deal. Essentially what I’m trying to say is that we need to focus on what we can do rather than on what we want to do, and that’s psychologically quite difficult.

The situation in Afghanistan, the situation in Iraq — these are intolerable situations. These are situations where people want to say: surely we can’t just stand by with civil war imminent — 93 percent of the world’s heroin being produced in Afghanistan, terrorists on the Pakistani border. Surely we ought to do something. And my response is: ought implies can. We don’t have a moral obligation to do what we can’t do.

And that sense that you could be faced with an intolerable situation, whether it’s in your personal life, an illness maybe, or whether in public policy, which you can’t do anything about is something people really don’t want to take on. People prefer to pretend they can do something, or just do anything rather than admit that there’s nothing they can do.

Rory Stewart in conversation with Chris Lydon, August 27, 2008.

So what of the lure and excitement of this book, The Places In Between?

Is it about the sheer bravery of a wiry but slight, unarmed, no-tech civilian extending his curiosity and goodwill across real mountains to The Other?

Is it the example of the old-fashioned visitor who shows up, as Kipling’s Kim or the real T. E. Lawrence once did, with a gift for languages and a respectful store of cultural lore?

Is it in fact about nostalgia for paleo-colonialism — for the 19th Century civil servants of the British Empire, even in Afghanistan and Iraq. In what may be a giveaway footnote on page 247, Rory Stewart pines for the old days. “Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing…”

In the blind pit of unending Western wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, can Rory Stewart be taken to demonstrate a radically different way to engage, and still to prevail?

To my reading the most wonderfully ambiguous moment comes late in the trek toward Kabul. Government soldiers who are in fact village boys (“new uniforms from America and salaries from Iran”) waylaid Rory Stewart and, when he tried to ignore them, came after him:

I had gone twenty yards when I heard running behind me; my sleeve was grabbed; I turned to shake the man off and he punched me in the face, his knuckles striking my cheekbone just below the eye. I stumbled and then turned around with my fists ready. He stepped back and we circled each other, me feeling clumsy under my pack…

“Stop,” I said. “This is wrong. I’m a Briton. I am a guest of your Governor Khalili. You have just punched me in the face. I’m a very important man; you can’t do this to me. What is your name? … What are you all laughing at? You are evil men… thugs.”

I saw three more check posts over the next twenty kilometers… The commander announced he was driving me to the headquarters in Bamiyan — fifteen kilometers back down the road I had been walking on for three hours — for further questioning. Despite having resolved only three hours earlier never to defy a policeman again, I lost my patience.

“No, I refuse,” I replied. “I am a guest. I am a close friend of the governor. I stayed in his guesthouse. He has given me permission.” None of this was true. I walked on ignoring the angry shouts behind me, and to my relief no footsteps followed and the shouts faded. I turned up a narrow gorge toward the snow peaks, and saw no one for four hours.

Rory Stewart, The Places In Between, pages 267 – 269.

The knockout winners in these pages are Stewart’s Eton- and Oxford-accented air of authority, the power of his narrative and the primeval power, perhaps, of pale skin. Orientalism, in a word. But there is in fact nothing so simple about Rory Stewart or his views, which have kept unfolding since The Places In Between. And still I wasn’t prepared for his renunciation of “the project.”

I think at the time I wrote the book, I imagined that if you planned better, if you knew more, if you cared more, it would be possible to do better — that the failures in Bosnia and Kosovo and Afghanistan and Indonesia that I’d seen were due to amateurism; they were due to lack of planning, lack of structure, lack of strategy, lack of commitment. But I then moved from Afghanistan to Iraq. And in Iraq I saw failure on such a monumental scale that I changed my view. I no longer believe that the problem is lack of professionalism. I believe these projects are intrinsically impossible.

The problem is not simply that we don’t have imperial officers anymore, or that that we don’t create the culture wherein they could flourish. But that even if we had the context and the individuals, they too would fail. Because the growth of nationalism, of Islam, the potential for resistance, the voices of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, their capacity to disrupt these kinds of projects, are now such that even were you to transplant some Macedonian general of Alexander the Great and try to put him in charge with sway over Afghanistan — with all the charm, dynamism, charisma and savagery that that would entail– he would still fail… I changed my mind because of Iraq.

Rory Stewart in conversation with Chris Lydon, August 27, 2008.

I asked him too directly perhaps: You’ve become a poster hero, Rory Stewart, but for what? For a recovered humility, he said. For an American self-examination, I think, that runs against the grain of The Places In Between and of the presidential campaign conversation that will be at a climax when we meet Rory Stewart again at Brown. To commenters, please: what is it we’ll really want to ask him, and ourselves, in October?

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  • I’m struck by the Emersonian question posed to Rory, sagely having nothing to do with the book and being thankful since I haven’t read it, I’ll paraphrase, “What’s a kid to do?” But more so by his answer, again paraphrasing, “go live among the people.” In a confounding, complex and confusing cosmos, it doesn’t get much simpler than that does it?

    But it dovetails with my own psyche on so many levels right now that I barely have breath to bring them to life. So please bear with me, there’s a question for Rory here somewhere – I hope.

    Rory’s observation that salvation awaits us when living among the family men is so bogglingly simple that one wonders why it needs to be put to words. And yet it subtly pricks at a point of guilt among us. With all our grand machinations and knee-jerk alignment with the establishment of Empire, blithely committing brutal acts of faceless dehumanization, attributing our sins to powerlessness or worse, incompetence… So here’s one question: In your view, is it possible to develop a sense of empathy through the simplest of human interactions with the Known Ones that can transcend and become a real force capable of repressing the other human urge to avoid the complexities of having an empathic view of the Unknown Other? How would that work politically – grassroots? peace corps? service for tuition programs? A walk in the wood? Or are we so well wired to reject the Utopian ideal that as stultifying as status quo may be, it’s the best we can hope for? Can empathy become a heroic enterprise?

    Maybe that’s too many questions. NAH, one more.

    How did your integration of another culture change your own view of your own culture or did it? And which aspects of culture were the most compelling – Music? Poetry? Beliefs? Food? … What I’ve found in my own life – recently converted to a closer association with my own community of men – is: it’s the food stupid. In the end it’s really hard to argue with a guy or beat him up with a mouth full of chow. And nothing evokes the spirit of humility more fully than serving up a batch of home cookin’. Conversely, being on the receiving end of service invokes, albeit a more subtle and possibly overlooked, acceptance of ingratiation.


  • nother

    An enthralling conversation. I look forward to reading this book.

    What hits home with me is the seemingly paradoxical position by Rory – we must be more empathic of the other and the differences of her culture, but we must also be prepared to shake that other’s hand…and see ourselves. Ultimately, the mantra I dance to is:

    We are ALL much more alike than we are different.

    And it’s with that idea in mind that I believe Rory had the confidence to put one foot in front of the other.

    I love the idea that Rory presents about nobility, if that individual is capable of it on a personal level, it will be possible to extend that nobility out. It must happen from the inside out, or from the bottom up (as President Obama likes to say). And Rory is apparently putting this to practice inside Afghanistan.

    And ahhh…humility, what a concept! Rory Stewart doesn’t just preach it; he embodies it by exposing his own process of being wrong. And by being secure enough to not just admit it his avarice, but to dissect it as a western individual – he thereby is a credible witness to our avarice as a western culture.

  • I think plaintext asks a great question that seems to be missing from the book: “How did your integration of another culture change your own view of your own culture or did it?” Building on that search for some reflexivity about the trip on the trip, I would ask Mr. Stewart how his own cultural experiences and inherited frames for perceiving the world shaped his encounters with other cultures along the way?

    It was fascinating to hear Rory Stewart reflexively re-evaluate the book and his intentions in Afghanistan after knowing what he knew in Iraq, however, I still think there is more to tease out in this before/after (the wars went bad) transformation of Rory’s thought. Mr. Stewart now claims that all attempts for mediation between ‘east’ and ‘west’ will inevitably fail because of intractible cultural differences (a popular position these days…also notice how the blame seems to fall on Islam and belligerent local populations who, even during the mythic classical past, could never be tamed).

    “the growth of nationalism, of Islam, the potential for resistance, the voices of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, their capacity to disrupt these kinds of projects, are now such that even were you to transplant some Macedonian general of Alexander the Great and try to put him in charge with sway over Afghanistan — with all the charm, dynamism, charisma and savagery that that would entail– he would still fail.”

    Mr. Stewart seemed to believe that if one only knew the rules of conduct governing another culture, it would be possible to inhabit the same territory peacefully, and has since realized that the knowledge of rules do not actually equate to peaceful rule. However, I think that the cultural rules Mr. Stewart sought to apply and has come to distance himself from, change rather than move along a pre/post or good/bad binary. What kind of rules were Mr. Stewart working with? Where did they come from (Kim, T.L. Lawrence, State Department, or The Economist)? And could it be that these rules did not fit the reality of cultural boundaries because of the context in which they were created as a westerner during wars defined by the apogee (and possible disintegration) of hegemonic relations between the West and the Middle East?

    All this seems to be missing from Mr. Stewart’s re-evaluations of Afghanistan in light of the present failures of the west’s idealistic wars. Longer accounts of the creation of intentions and perspectives and the disintegration of these plans might lead us away from pre/post and good/bad binaries towards more telling genealogies about how our interpretations and interactions of other cultures formed, and also how we might go forward rather than giving up and forgetting all the “Places in Between” that are still worth encountering or that have yet to be critically explored.

  • eenusch

    For an encore, he should take a walking tour of Detroit.

  • potter

    To the last blockquote especially which neatly sums things up :

    Perhaps we will begin to re-consider our operations in Afghanistan the way we have come to think of our violent entry and occupation of Iraq, ultimately an impossible endeavor. I know many who were against the Iraq invasion justified Afghanistan. And even I did as I felt this was a failed state whose people, so divided, allowed these elements to take it over.

    I originally became aware of the Taliban along with many others (with all the media attention) to the destruction of the huge Buddha statues in Bamyan in 2001. That same year we were attacked. Then I saw ( and saved) the CNN documentary “Beneath the Veil”. We began to see into the country.

    I fell for Ahmad Massoud and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and then Karzei in his colorful cape and hat. And the women- some quite modern and accomplished and beautiful. When we went to Paris in 2003 we spent a lot of time at the Musee Guimet, interested now too in the arts of Afghanistan- the sculptures which brought us to the history. At the time all this Silk Road music was beginning, interest in the route.,8599,1701306,00.html

    So this was an opening for me- an awakening. Nor did it escape me that wewent there and killed so many innocents, many many more than we lost that fateful day here in New York City. (My son lost a colleague who was on the top floor of one of the towers).

    What an introduction to Afghanistan!- or re-introduction since I am old enough to remember the Mujahadeen we merrily supported against the Soviets.

    But as to what is said in the last blockquote above I could only think of what Sarah Chayes has done there in recent years. I believe this is a real accomplishment- on a small personal scale, done with love and caring.

  • anclarsair

    Our American assumption that because Mr. Stewart shows authority and gravitas in the face of danger he’s internally a British imperialist shows our ignorance much more than our historical sensitivity… I’m a student who, along with every other member of my class, read “The Places In Between,” and many of those with whom I discussed the book interpreted Stewart’s attitude as arrogant, insensitive, brash, and imperialist. Apparently Stewart knew what he was doing, far better than an American student reader would. We should accept that and let go of our assumptions about British citizens abroad.

    Question: what, Mr. Stewart, can we do to gain the respect and legitimacy to make a positive difference in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is this possible? We clearly can’t overhaul entire countries; what ARE we capable of? What or who should we send to Afghanistan instead the brigades Obama suggests? NGOs? Anthropologists?