Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Tourism Boom In Afghanistan

"You are the first tourist in Afghanistan," an Afghan Secret Service agent warned Rory Stewart, an avidly naive Scotsman, before he set out to walk across the country in 2002. "It is mid-winter - there are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee."

So there's a promotional slogan from an erstwhile Ministry of Tourism for you: Don't come here. You will die. I had the good sense not to go to there as a tourist or otherwise, but, oh, to be in Kandahar, now that the sub-zero winter winds have come and buzkashi matches have begun. Buzkashi is the national pastime, kind of like basketball, except there are no teams and the players fight on horseback for the right to carry a dead goat. The objective is to carry a dead animal, preferably a 30-lb. goat but anything dead of similar size will do, through a distant goal, with anywhere from 10 to a few hundred other riders trying to stop you. There are no rules, the only weapons are fists, and killing your opponents through any means other than the trampling hooves of mischance is considered poor form. I suspect the game originated with the Mongols, passed into the region by Tamerlane, and the Afghan tribes loved it. In a nod to modernity, however, buzkashi is no longer played with a severed human head.

Rory Stewart calls his book "The Places in Between." I must have it, and was surprised to see it's at the #51 sales position on Amazon. Since the Silk Road trade routes and long before, Afghanistan has been known as The Place Which Must Be Crossed, a fact of which Stewart, a former journalist and Foreign Office staffer, is well aware. It was probably one of the first places on earth to be home to caravanserai (caravan palaces) and is one of the last still ruled by tribes. Stewart had already walked through Turkey and Iran, and before crossing he promised his mother it would be his last journey, that he would come home if he didn't get killed. He describes the people of Afghanistan as "greedy, idle, stupid, hypocritical, insensitive, mendacious, ignorant and cruel," yet praises them for never attempting "to kidnap or kill me" despite representing "a culture that many of them hated." He made it out alive, still wired for adventure, and later went on to write another book, "The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq." The New York Times Book Review says of his his first work:

'The book is replete with fascinating, if fearfully context-dependent, travel tips. If you are forced to lie about being a Muslim, claim you're from Indonesia, a Muslim nation few non-Indonesian Muslims know much about. Open land undefiled by sheep droppings has most likely been mined. If you're taking your donkey to high altitudes, slice open its nostrils to allow greater oxygen flow. Don't carry detailed maps, since they tend to suggest 007 affinities. If, finally, you're determined to do something as recklessly stupid as walk across a war zone, your surest bet to quash all the inevitable criticism is to write a flat-out masterpiece. Stewart did. Stewart has. "The Places in Between" is, in very nearly every sense, too good to be true.'

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