are pleased to present the following
excerpt from the book
The Places in
Harcourt - May
New Civil Service
I watched two men enter the lobby of
the Hotel Mowafaq.
Most Afghans seemed to glide up the
center of the lobby staircase with their
shawls trailing behind them like Venetian
cloaks. But these men wore Western
jackets, walked quietly, and stayed close
to the banister. I felt a hand on my
shoulder. It was the hotel manager.
"Follow them." He had never spoken to
"I'm sorry, no," I said. "I am
"Now. They are from the
I followed him to a room on a floor I
didn't know existed and he told me to take
off my shoes and enter alone in my socks.
The two men were seated on a heavy
blackwood sofa, beside an aluminum
spittoon. They were still wearing their
shoes. I smiled. They did not. The lace
curtains were drawn and there was no
electricity in the city; the room was
"Chi kar mikonid?" (What are you
doing?) asked the man in the black suit
and collarless Iranian shirt. I expected
him to stand and, in the normal way, shake
hands and wish me peace. He remained
"Salaam aleikum" (Peace be with
you), I said, and sat down.
"Waleikum asalaam. Chi kar
mikonid?" he repeated quietly, leaning
back and running his fat manicured hand
along the purple velveteen arm of the
sofa. His bouffant hair and goatee were
neatly trimmed. I was conscious of not
having shaved in eight weeks.
"I have explained what I am doing many
times to His Excellency, Yuzufi, in the
Foreign Ministry," I said. "I was told to
meet him again now. I am late."
A pulse was beating strongly in my
neck. I tried to breathe slowly. Neither
of us spoke. After a little while, I
The thinner man drew out a small new
radio, said something into it, and
straightened his stiff jacket over his
traditional shirt. I didn't need to see
the shoulder holster. I had already
guessed they were members of the Security
Service. They did not care what I said or
what I thought of them. They had watched
people through hidden cameras in bedrooms,
in torture cells, and on execution
grounds. They knew that, however I
presented myself, I could be reduced. But
why had they decided to question me? In
the silence, I heard a car reversing in
the courtyard and then the first notes of
the call to prayer.
"Let's go," said the man in the black
suit. He told me to walk in front. On the
stairs, I passed a waiter to whom I had
spoken. He turned away. I was led to a
small Japanese car parked on the dirt
forecourt. The car's paint job was new and
it had been washed recently. They told me
to sit in the back. There was nothing in
the pockets or on the floorboards. It
looked as though the car had just come
from the factory. Without saying anything,
they turned onto the main boulevard.
It was January 2002. The American led
coalition was ending its bombardment of
the Tora Bora complex; Usama Bin Laden and
Mullah Mohammed Omar had escaped;
operations in Gardez were beginning. The
new government taking over from the
Taliban had been in place for two weeks.
The laws banning television and female
education had been dropped; political
prisoners had been released; refugees were
returning home; some women were coming out
without veils. The UN and the U.S.
military were running the basic
infrastructure and food supplies. There
was no frontier guard and I had entered
the country without a visa. The Afghan
government seemed to me hardly to exist.
Yet these men were apparently well
The car turned into the Foreign
Ministry, and the gate guards saluted and
stood back. As I climbed the stairs, I
felt that I was moving unnaturally quickly
and that the men had noticed this. A
secretary showed us into Mr. Yuzufi's
office without knocking. For a moment
Yuzufi stared at us from behind his desk.
Then he stood, straightened his baggy
pinstriped jacket, and showed the men to
the most senior position in the room. They
walked slowly on the linoleum flooring,
looking at the furniture Yuzufi had
managed to assemble since he had inherited
an empty office: the splintered desk, the
four mismatched filing cabinets in
different shades of olive green, and the
stove, which made the room smell strongly
The week I had known Yuzufi comprised
half his career in the Foreign Ministry. A
fortnight earlier he had been in Pakistan.
The day before he had given me tea and a
boiled sweet, told me he admired my
journey, laughed at a photograph of my
father in a kilt, and discussed Persian
poetry. This time he did not greet me but
instead sat in a chair facing me and
asked, "What has happened?"
Before I could reply, the man with the
goatee cut in. "What is this foreigner
"These men are from the Security
Service," said Yuzufi.
I nodded. I noticed that Yuzufi had
clasped his hands together and that his
hands, like mine, were trembling
"I will translate to make sure you
understand what they are asking,"
continued Yuzufi. "Tell them your
intentions. Exactly as you told me."
I looked into the eyes of the man on my
left. "I am planning to walk across
Afghanistan. From Herat to Kabul. On
foot." I was not breathing deeply enough
to complete my phrases. I was surprised
they didn't interrupt. "I am following in
the footsteps of Babur, the first emperor
of Mughal India. I want to get away from
the roads. Journalists, aid workers, and
tourists mostly travel by car, but I
"There are no tourists," said the man
in the stiff jacket, who had not yet
spoken. "You are the first tourist in
Afghanistan. It is midwinter -- there are
three meters of snow on the high passes,
there are wolves, and this is a war. You
will die, I can guarantee. Do you want to
"Thank you very much for your advice. I
note those three points." I guessed from
his tone that such advice was intended as
an order. "But I have spoken to the
Cabinet," I said, misrepresenting a brief
meeting with the young secretary to the
Minister of Social Welfare. "I must do
"Do it in a year's time," said the man
in the black suit.
He had taken from Yuzufi the tattered
evidence of my walk across South Asia and
was examining it: the clipping from the
newspaper in western Nepal, "Mr. Stewart
is a pilgrim for peace"; the letter from
the Conservator, Second Circle, Forestry
Department, Himachal Pradesh, India, "Mr.
Stewart, a Scot, is interested in the
environment"; from a District Officer in
the Punjab and a Secretary of the Interior
in a Himalayan state and a Chief Engineer
of the Pakistan Department of Irrigation
requesting "All Executive Engineers (XENs)
on the Lower Bari Doab to assist Mr.
Stewart, who will be undertaking a journey
on foot to research the history of the
"I have explained this," I added, "to
His Excellency the Emir's son, the
Minister of Social Welfare, when he also
gave me a letter of introduction."
"From His Excellency Mir Wais?"
"Here." I handed over the sheet of
letterhead paper I had received from the
Minister's secretary. "Mr. Stewart is a
medieval antiquary interested in the
anthropology of Herat."
"But it is not signed."
"Mr. Yuzufi lost the signed copy."
Yuzufi, who was staring at the ground,
The two men talked together for a few
minutes. I did not try to follow what they
were saying. I noticed, however, that they
were using Iranian -- not Afghan --
Persian. This and their clothes and their
manner made me think they had spent a
great deal of time with the Iranian
intelligence services. I had been
questioned by the Iranians, who seemed to
suspect me of being a spy. I did not want
to be questioned by them again.
The man in the stiff jacket said, "We
will allow him to walk to Chaghcharan. But
our gunmen will accompany him all the
way." Chaghcharan was halfway between
Herat and Kabul and about a fortnight into
The villagers with whom I was hoping to
stay would be terrified by a secret police
escort. This was presumably the point. But
why were they letting me do the journey at
all when they could expel me? I wondered
if they were looking for money. "Thank you
so much for your concern for my security,"
I said, "but I am quite happy to take the
risk. I have walked alone across the other
Asian countries without any problems."
"You will take the escort," said
Yuzufi, interrupting for the first time.
"That is nonnegotiable."
"But I have introductions to the local
commanders. I will be much safer with them
than with Heratis."
"You will go with our men," he
"I cannot afford to pay for an escort.
I have no money."
"We were not expecting any money," said
the man in the stiff jacket.
"This is nonnegotiable," repeated
Yuzufi. His broad knee was now jigging up
and down. "If you refuse this you will be
expelled from the country. They want to
know how many of their gunmen you are
"If it is compulsory, one."
"Two . . . with weapons," said the man
in the dark suit, "and you will leave
The two men stood up and left the room.
They said goodbye to Yuzufi but not to
2006, by Rory Stewart. All Rights
Reserved. Published here by permission.
For more information, please visit
Stewart has written for the New York
Times Magazine, Granta, and the
London Review of Books, and is the
author of The Places in Between. A
2004 fellow of the Carr Center for the
Human rights Policy at Harvard's John E.
Kennedy School of Government, he was
awarded the Order of the British Empire
for his foreign services. He now lives in
Kabul, where he has established the
Turquoise Mountain Foundation.