Testosterone is a hell of a drug. Not only does Rory (say with British accent) set out to walk across Afghanistan (what?) he does it in January 2002 (double what?).
I’ll be honest. I wanted not to like him. A posh Scottish professor of anthropology on some odd, neo-imperial quest to use only his feet to traverse most of Asia? To what end? (I’m still wondering that.)
Having traveled through the Middle East in 2009, I can echo his cross-cultural frustrations, confusions and head-slamming-against-the-wall conversations. As a woman and a foreigner without language skills, however, I was not privy to the kind of interactions he witnessed. Rory relied completely on the hospitality of the communities he entered (which was sparse) and the perseverance to secure letters of introduction from one leader to another.
Although I found him most of the time to be overly prescriptive on what everyone was doing wrong in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help but agree with his assessment of current international post-conflict interventions: “Post conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices.”
We are so inundated on a daily basis with continual crises that our focus becomes scattered and while intentions may be good; well, you know the saying.
Yet the most influential part of this book was his raw reaction to the walk itself. Although it was of prime importance that he was in Afghanistan, it seems the effort itself of walking, step by step, changed him. He concludes:
“Almost every morning, regrets and anxieties had run through my mind like a cheap tune – often repeated, revealing nothing. But as I kept moving, no thoughts came…
Every element around me seemed sharper, the colors more intense. I stared, expecting the effect to fade, but the objects only continue to develop in reality and presence…This moment was new to me. I had not dreamed or imagined it before. Yet I recognized it. I felt that I was as I was in this place, and that I had known it before…
[It] seemed too neat…Now, writing, I am tempted to say that I felt the world had been given as a gift uniquely to me and also equally to each person alone. I had completed walking and could go home.”
Those moments of transcendence are rare. When the peace of contentment rolls over you, not because you are lazy, but because the herculean effort of a task has been completed. Even if that effort is just letting go of your expectations and being fully present.
Although he never found understanding with most of the people he encountered, small interactions seem to have helped him muddle through. In the end, I don’t think Rory knows exactly what his walk means, but in completing it he found some form of peace.
“And what can explain the steep path to you?
It is the freeing of a slave,
Or the giving of food in a day of starvation…”
And as I lay wondering who he was, he continued gently:
“Unbeliever, I do not worship what you worship,
Nor do you worship what I worship.
I shall never worship what you worship,
Nor will you ever worship what I worship.
You have your religion and I have mine.”
(Quran S. 109:1-6)