Two-way traffic: Rory Stewart on writing about place

Rory Stewart

Filed under: Non-fiction

Rory Stewart on the challenge new places present to a writer, from a speech given at the 2006 RSL Ondaatje Prize dinner.

Winning the 2005 RSL Ondaatje Prize for The Places in Between gave me the money, the time and the opportunity to write my second book. But what pleased me most was the nature of the prize, because the one thing I wanted to do – and was pretty sure I had failed to do – was evoke the spirit of a place. This is, I believe, one of the most difficult tasks for a writer.

Landscapes, like sunsets, evoke our most uniform responses: writers on places repeat each other endlessly. This is, of course, particularly true of the areas in which I have worked in Central Asia – where we are always tempted to find in a diesel-choked multi-lane highway the last traces of the Silk Road or the footsteps of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. We often do this as though we were exploring relevant recent history: a writer and friend of mine described a Pakistani in Taxila as ‘exactly the kind of man who met Alexander the Great’. (I wonder if he would feel as comfortable saying a living British butcher was ‘exactly the kind of man who met Julius Caesar’.) But we face the same problem even when we try to engage not with the historical but with incongruous and the contemporary.

When I was first in Herat, for example, I remember being struck by the traffic policemen at the cross-roads – their comic-opera uniforms, the absence of traffic, their truncheons and whistles. I thought I would write about this trace of the Western city as a way of getting away from ancient oriental history. But something troubled me about the image. A little later I read Peter Levi’s The Light Garden of the Angel King (1970) and found him writing: ‘Herat…a small lonely policeman in the centre of a vast deserted square, directing two donkeys and a bicycle with a majesty more appropriate for the Champs Elysées.’

Then I went back to Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1952) and found: ‘Herat…the police directing a thin trickle of automobiles with whistles and ill-tempered gestures like referees.’

Then I read Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, written in 1933: ‘Herat…the policeman at the crossroads with a whistling fit to scare the Chicago underworld.’

These identical responses were, I found, quite different from those of the Afghans with whom I was living or travelling.

In late 2001, shortly after I saw the policemen, I was standing with Abdul Haq, a young Afghan militiaman, beside an ancient building and a piece of Russian armour. Abdul Haq had joined the jihad as a cook boy at the age of twelve, then moved to Iran (where he sold cigarettes from a stall outside a truck-stop) before rejoining his warlord.

‘What’s that?’ I asked loudly pointing at the building. I spoke loudly because, although only 24, Abdul Haq was deaf from having fired too many weapons without ear-defenders.

‘P66,’ he replied, looking at the armoured personnel carrier.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I meant the building. Isn’t it a caravanserai?’ It was clearly one of a string of fortified buildings, built every twenty miles or one day’s walk, to accommodate Silk Road caravans.

‘That is nothing,’ he said. ‘There is the grave of a Taliban. Our group killed five of them here.’

Abdul Haq’s landscape, like that of many Afghans, was defined by acts of recent violence – when I asked for landmarks in the Aimaq regions in Central Afghanistan, people would reply, ‘This is where Aziz starved to death on his way to the refugee camp; that is where the ambush party waited for Mullah Rahim Dad; this is the spot from which he fell from his horse.’

When, on the same walk, I reached the Indian Himalayas, I found the spirit of place became the Place of Spirits: ‘This is the hill on which Shiva danced;’ ‘This is the field where Arjuna lost his arrow.’ I found it very difficult to discover, to interpret and convey how different communities perceived their own landscapes – a perception charged with religion, with politics, with history or even humour.

It is no easier at home.  In my part of Scotland I am surrounded by Gaelic place names which record death – Place of Mourning or Field of Weeping – though the events are less recent than those in Central Afghanistan. But what can one make of this as a writer? I spoke last week to the contemporary artist Richard Long, one of whose recent works consisted of a walk past my house in Scotland. I was very excited and said, ‘Goodness, so you were on General Wade’s military road, that first great symbol of colonial occupation, in the footsteps of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army on their last retreat, crossing the front and final line of the Roman armies.’ And he said ‘Really, all I remember of Crieff is that it was raining and I stopped to buy a Mars bar.’

Thank you, therefore, to the Royal Society of Literature and Sir Christopher Ondaatje for providing a unique opportunity for me to continue writing; but thank you also for the very existence of a prize which acknowledges our struggle to describe what a landscape might mean not only to a writer, but to those who live within it.

Related RSL Fellows

Rory Stewart 2005