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Occupational Hazards: Rory Stewart in the Middle East

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10 July 2007 by Amy Sohanpaul

“I think he’s one to watch – although I suspect it might be in politics as much as prose one day”

This article was originally published in Volume 37, No 3 of Traveller, the UK's longest-running travel magazine.

Rory Stewart has lived a life less ordinary. He has governed two provinces in post-war Iraq, walked six thousand miles across Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, and set up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul to preserve the city’s historical quarter. It’s hard to believe that he’s not yet 35.

And he looks a decade younger than that when we meet. Slightly built, he remains intensely serious as we speak, so serious that when he does smile, it’s like the sun coming out. This intent demeanour is not to suggest that he takes himself seriously – quite the opposite, he wears his extraordinary experiences lightly.

He’s just concerned that every word is the right one, that every emphasis is exact, and this shows in his books. Both – The Places In Between, which chronicles the Afghan leg of his epic walk – and Occupational Hazards, based on his time in post-war Iraq – have won high praise for the detail and incredible insight they offer on two complex countries.

Yet the man himself is hard to find on the pages, in terms of his innermost emotions. He comments in The Places In Between, on the diaries of Babur, who also travelled through Afghanistan:

‘He tells this adventure story with impressive modesty. What he did was very dangerous, but he never draws attention to this… At times it seems that the only thing missing from his story is himself… He does not describe his emotions… Confronted by people trying to kill him, his prose becomes increasingly dispassionate… But this restraint only emphasises the extraordinary nature of his experiences.’

Stewart, who walked across Afghanistan through minefields and high snow-filled passes just after the war on the Taliban, and endured a mortar attack on his compound in Iraq, could be talking about himself here, except of course, he wouldn’t.

“I don’t think I know very much about myself,” he tells me. “The paradox is that I enjoy very much being alone but I don’t tend to think very much about myself when I’m alone. In fact I discovered I don’t think very much at all.” Despite this disclaimer, it’s perfectly obvious that Stewart thinks hard about people, politics and policies. Here are some of those thoughts:

ON THE WALK: As a diplomat you’re often based in capital cities and therefore your view of the country is shaped by government, by educated upper middle-class English-speaking communities. I found as I visited rural areas something more unusual, which questioned a lot of the assumptions we approached our work from. So on my walk, during which I stayed in nearly 500 village houses, I was able to question the assumptions I had about places, which were largely derived from capital cities, and realised how unusual the experience of the 70-80 per cent of people of Asia who live in rural areas is, compared to those in cities.

ON BEING UNDER SIEGE IN IRAQ: The first thing which struck me was how noisy it was. There were mortars and rocket-propelled grenades landing in the compound, and almost continuous fire from Kalashnikovs outside, and then the noise from trying to defend yourself… that noise, night after night. The gap waiting for the next mortar round to come in is more disturbing than when they land, because by the time you’ve heard them land you know you’re still alive. But when you’re waiting for the next one you’re not quite sure where it’s going to go. But I didn’t feel particularly frightened, party because I was very lucky to be in a position of control and able to play quite an active role, whereas I think for the people who were restricted to the compound’s concrete room, unable to see what was going on, it was much more scary.

And, I was very struck also by the courage of the attackers who were taking incredible risks with their lives to try and kill us, and also by the calmness and courage of the coalition troops on the roof defending us while exposed to the mortar fire coming in – I came out with enormous respect for both.

ON THE INVASION OF IRAQ: I was completely wrong about Iraq. I supported the invasion when it happened, which was why I then went with the Foreign Office to Iraq. I went willingly and, having worked in Indonesia, having worked in East Timor, having served in Bosnia and Kosovo, having been in Afghanistan, I believed that we were unlikely to turn Iraq into Sweden, but we should be able to create a country that was more democratic, prosperous and humane, which would be better for Iraqis, that it shouldn’t be too difficult for us to out-perform Saddam and there of course I was wrong.

ON WHAT WENT WRONG: We’re not particularly competent – that is in the nature of our structures, the military people are rotated very quickly, our information is limited, we’re working with bureaucratic structures set up, like our home civil service, to deal with a very stable slow-moving peaceful situation. British government is like a huge old-fashioned company, when what you need in Iraq is something designed like a rapid response flexible dotcom start-up, because the chaos and the problems coming at you from every angle are so extraordinary that you need to be able to make decisions almost every hour, allocate resources, fire-fight your way around.

The second problem of course is Iraq itself, because although we’re equally incompetent in other places, like Afghanistan or the Balkans, it sort of works out. People complain that there’s no electricity in Baghdad but I know there’s still no electricity in parts of Kabul, or in parts of Kosovo seven years after the intervention and millions of dollars. Except the people in Kabul and Kosovo recognise that our inability to provide electricity is a sign of our incompetence. In Iraq they assume it’s a deliberate plot to humiliate the Iraqi nation.

In the end, what scuppered the operation in Iraq more than anything else was the intense suspicion and nationalism that existed, which meant that almost whatever we did, even when we got things right, we were not going to be given the benefit of the doubt. Even if only a minority of people wanted to attack and kill us, the majority were not prepared to stand up and defend us. I suppose in the end we didn’t really have any friends on the ground.

ON FINDING A RESOLUTION IN IRAQ: We need to get out, because the one thing I’ve learnt in Iraq is that Iraqis are considerably more competent and canny than we acknowledge, and that if anybody is going to be able to work their way out of this mess, it’s going to be Iraqis. They are the only people who have the local knowledge and cultural infrastructures to actually be able to envisage a new Iraq. They are the only people who are going to be able to do what really matters, and what really matters is not really a question of bureaucratic reforms, training or resources, it’s a question of politics – politics on a very basic level. 

It means local leaders being able to create a narrative of national identity, to act as founding fathers, to say: “What is this nation? Are we going to have the Kurds involved? Are we, as Arabs, as Arab nationalists, able to overcome the differences between Sunni and Shi’a? What are we comfortable with as a country? And it’s all about sacrifice, it’s all about nasty compromise, because we’re fighting now, to recreate something out of ashes and we can’t ignore how traumatised we are, how wounded we are, how damaged we are. We can’t go back.”

This is like a redemptive tragedy. It’s what happens at the end of King Lear. Nothing is ever going to stitch it back together again as it used to be. And yet some resolution can be obtained and that has to be obtained by Iraqis.

ON THE TURQUOISE MOUNTAIN FOUNDATION: I returned to Kabul frustrated by the lack of progress we made in Iraq, and found that there were plans to demolish the historic centre of the city, a very beautiful area of mud buildings, of elaborately carved cedar wood, houses which had been inhabited for 200 years, with a very proud, resilient and diverse community, with some fascinating shrines but also some vibrant businesses. And it struck me that Afghanistan desperately needed these symbols of historical identity after 25 years of war, and that by investing in it, through setting up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, we could adopt a development model which would serve as a reminder that there was a period when Afghanistan was not a charity case, but in fact a source of civilisation. And it has an economic impact, it’s about jobs and incomes too. 

ON RETURNING TO BRITAIN: I think Britain is a very exciting country. I think it’s a country in crisis, we’re facing profound problems. We have a population that doesn’t know where it’s going, it’s struggling to articulate a vision of what Britain’s meant to be in 50 or 100 years’ time. 

So I suppose for me ultimately Britain would be the most exciting and difficult place to operate, not Afghanistan or Iraq.

‘Occupational Hazards’ and ‘The Places In Between’ by Rory Stewart are published by Picador. All images are courtesy of Rory Stewart.

This article was originally published in Volume 37, No 3 (2007) of Traveller, the UK's oldest running travel magazine.

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