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Undaunted

First Rory Stewart walked the breadth of Afghanistan. Then he took up a real challenge: restoring traditional architecture in Kabul

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On this morning, Stewart exchanged pleasantries in near-fluent Dari (the Afghan dialect of Farsi, or Persian) with gardeners in the grassy terraces behind the qal'a, and soothed a receptionist distressed by the commandeering of her computer by a colleague. He led me into the ceramics workshop, a dark, musty room permeated with the odors of sweat and moist clay. There, the ustad, or master, Abdul Manan—a bearded ethnic Tajik that Stewart recruited from Istalif, a town in the foothills of the Hindu Kush famed for its artisans—was fashioning a delicate, long-necked vase on a pottery wheel.

In a classroom across the grounds, Stewart introduced me to Ustad Tamim, a renowned Afghan miniaturist and graduate of the Kabul School of Fine Arts who had been arrested by Taliban thugs in 1997 for violating Koranic injunctions against portrayals of the human form. "They saw me on the street with these pieces, and they knocked me off the bicycle and beat me with cables, on my legs and my back, and whipped me," he told me. Tamin fled to Pakistan, where he taught painting in a refugee camp in Peshawar, returning to Kabul shortly after the Taliban were defeated. "It's good to be working again," he says, "doing the things I am trained to do."

As he retraces his steps back toward his office to prepare for a meeting with NATO commanders, Stewart says that "the paradox of Afghanistan is that the war has caused the most unbelievable suffering and destruction, but at the same time, it's not a depressing place. Most of my staff have suffered great tragedy—the cook's father was killed in front of him; the ceramics teacher's wife and children shot dead in front of him—but they are not traumatized or passive, but resilient, clever, tricky, funny."

A taste for exotic adventure runs in Stewart's DNA. His father, Brian, grew up in a family based in Calcutta, fought in Normandy after D-Day, served in the British colonial service in Malaya throughout the Communist insurgency there, traveled across China before the revolution and joined the Foreign Office in 1957. In 1965, he met his future wife, Sally, in Kuala Lumpur. Rory was born in Hong Kong, where his father was posted, in 1973. "The family traveled all over Asia," Sally told me by phone from Fiji, where she and Brian reside for part of each year. At Oxford in the 1990s, Rory studied history, philosophy and politics.

After university, Stewart followed his father into the Foreign Office, which posted him to Indonesia. He arrived in Jakarta in 1997, just as the country's economy was imploding and riots eventually forced the dictator, Suharto, to step down. Stewart's analyses of the crisis helped to earn him an appointment, at 26, as chief British representative in tiny Montenegro, in the Balkans, where he arrived just after the outbreak of war in neighboring Kosovo. After a year in Montenegro, Stewart set out on an adventure he had been dreaming of for years: a solo walk across Central Asia. "I had already traveled a lot on foot—across [the Indonesian province of] Irian Jaya Barat, across Pakistan—and those journeys stayed in my memory," he says.

In Iran, Stewart was detained and expelled by Revolutionary Guards after they intercepted an e-mail describing political conversations he had with villagers. In Nepal, he came close to giving up after trekking for months across Maoist-occupied Himalayan valleys without encountering another foreigner or speaking English. Near the halfway point, agitated villagers in Nepal approached him, saying something about "a plane," "a bomb," "America." Only when he reached the market town of Pokhara four weeks later did he learn that terrorists had destroyed the World Trade Center—and that the United States was at war in Afghanistan.

Still trekking, Stewart arrived in that country in December 2001, just a month after the Northern Alliance, backed by U.S. Special Forces, had driven the Taliban from power. Accompanied by a huge mastiff he named Babur, Stewart walked from Herat, the ancient bazaar city in the northwest, across the snowy passes of the Hindu Kush, ending up in Kabul a month later. The Places in Between, Stewart's account of that often dangerous odyssey, and of the people he met along the way—villagers who had survived Taliban massacres; tribal chieftains; Afghan security forces; anti-Western Pashtuns—was published in the United Kingdom in 2004. Despite its success there, American publishers did not pick up the book until 2005. It got the lead review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, was on the Times' best-seller list for 26 weeks and was listed by the paper as one of the year's five best nonfiction books.

Stewart applauded the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq; in his travels across Iran and Afghanistan, Stewart says, he had seen the dangers posed by totalitarian regimes and believed ousting Saddam Hussein would, if managed properly, improve both the lives of Iraqis and relations between the West and the Islamic world. In 2003, he volunteered his services to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and, when his letters went unanswered, flew to Baghdad, where he took a taxi to the Republican Palace and knocked on the door of Andrew Bearpark, the senior British representative in the CPA, who promptly gave him an assignment. "I had a raft of people asking for jobs, but everybody was asking via e-mails," recalls Bearpark. "He was the only person who had the balls to actually make it to Baghdad."

Bearpark dispatched Stewart to Maysan Province, a predominantly Shia region that included the marshes Saddam had drained after the 1991 Shia uprising. Setting up an office in Al Amara, the capital, Stewart found himself caught between radical Shias who violently opposed the occupation, and hungry, jobless Iraqis who demanded immediate improvements in their lives. Stewart says that he and his team identified and empowered local leaders, put together a police force, successfully negotiated for the release of a British hostage seized by Moqtada Al Sadr's Mahdi Army and fended off attacks on the CPA compound. "I had ten million dollars a month to spend, delivered in vacuum-sealed packets," he recalls. "We refurbished 230 schools, built hospitals, launched job schemes for thousands of people." But their work was little appreciated and, all too often, quickly destroyed. "We'd put up a power line, they'd tear it down, melt the copper and sell it for $20,000 to Iran. It would cost us $12 million to replace it." He says only two projects in Al Amara engaged the Iraqis: a restoration of the souk, or market, and a carpentry school that trained hundreds of young Iraqis. Both, Stewart says, "were concrete—people could see the results."

As the Mahdi Army gathered strength and security deteriorated, the CPA turned over power to the Iraqis, and Stewart returned to Afghanistan. He arrived in Kabul in November 2005 determined to get involved in architectural preservation, a cause inspired in part by his walk four years earlier. "I saw so much destruction, so many traditional houses replaced by faceless boxes. I realized how powerful and intricate [Afghan tribal] communities can be and how many potential resources there are." A promise of financial support came from the Prince of Wales, whom Stewart had met at a dinner at Eton College during Stewart's senior year there. (At 18, Stewart tutored Princes William and Harry at the royal estates in Gloucestershire and Scotland.) Prince Charles arranged an introduction to Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Stewart also met Jolyon Leslie, who directs the Historic Cities program for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a foundation that promotes urban conservation in the Muslim world. The trust, which has restored major sites in the Old City of Kabul, is preparing to begin work in a residential gozar, or neighborhood, of 254 buildings. "We sat down with an aerial photograph of Kabul and batted around ideas," Leslie recalls.

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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