Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Rory Stewart's The Places in Between and Annemarie Schwarzenbach's The Steppe

Oh yes it's spring, but there was frost on the grass early this morning, and a thin film of ice on the bird bath.

The latest issue of
The Coffee House is out now. I have a piece in it called The Mountains Behind Ljubljana. The pictures are of Ljubljana,

the Sava river,

and Piran, on Slovenia's coastline.

The political situation is exciting and even the radio announcers sound a little taken aback as if they could hardly believe their good fortune at having such relishing news to report. I haven't yet turned on the radio today so who knows what next startling announcement will be made. I notice however that the news of people being unable to vote because of long queues outside polling stations or, worse still, because of a lack of ballot papers, has not been mentioned again. Surely that's a first in British elections, but that news has been swept aside in the tumbling waters of the fast-shifting current – of change! Vote for change I think they all said, and change indeed we have.

I was one of the polling people in a very small rural community so there were never any queues – though a good turnout – and some people brought their dogs, and some their babies and children, and I saw people I hadn't seen since last year's European election or even longer. One person came in wearing paint-covered overalls and when someone else asked him if he was doing some painting he said no, why do you ask that? Others talked about their plants, which had succumbed to frost, one about their cattery and their feline visitors' extended stay during the ash cloud disruption when their owners were stuck somewhere and could not pick them up. Many asked about the presence of a candidate from the Jacobite Party and what their policies might be and I had to confess ignorance, only having heard of it that day, but a piece in the local paper said that the candidate was 93 years old, well good for her I thought, and wondered how many votes she'd pull. Wondered too if she was connected to our very own Stuart Prince Michael, who would like to be King of Scotland, but has not yet rallied enough support to storm the Scottish Parliament.

In the gaps between voters, when the hall was empty, I read Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, an account of his journey across Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul, on foot. I can't recommend it enough. It gives such insight into that country and its people, from someone who can speak the language and so can converse and interact. The journey is sometimes frighteningly dangerous, hard to believe his courage and determination. It's also very moving. I cried at the end, but you'll need to read the book to find out why.

Of course it reminded me of my own journey through that country, so long ago it seems like another lifetime, though one of many that I seem to have lived, within the span of the huge number of decades I've managed to chalk up.

But I don't have too many clear memories of that time, as all my notes about the journey got munched by a holy cow in India.
But I do remember the vivid blue bowl of the Afghan sky. And the jingling of the horses in Herat, with little bells attached to their bridles. The clarity and emptiness of the air, and such silence, so that any sound carried a long way. The intense darkness of the night sky, the chaikhans with their glasses of sweet tea. I don't remember what the sweets were that I bought, but I do remember that it was there I learned that 100 grams [not used at that time in the UK] was the equivalent of 4 ozs. I remember going on horseback, in Kandahar. There was one aggressive act, but only one. For the most part people were very accepting, welcoming, friendly, curious. There were few burkas. In Kandahar in particular, I remember the women wearing brightly-coloured
skirts, walking through the market with complete and colourful self-assurance. The men wore large turbans wound around their heads, and they held themselves very upright. And if they looked at me at all, it was the merest glance. I felt safer in Afghanistan by far, than in Iran, which I'd just come from. And that's my most lasting memory – walking in the market at Kandahar, in this fresh mountain air, with a deep blue sky containing us all, among these tall, proud people who took no notice of my presence, as if I had as much entitlement to be there as they did.
Afghanistan also figures in an excerpt I've translated which will be published soon. It's from Annemarie Schwarzenbach's Ou est la Terre des Promesses, her journey, with Ella Maillart, from Switzerland to Kabul, in 1939.

She writes:
travel, which can seem to many like a light dream, a seductive game, a way of freeing oneself from the mundane, or like the epitome of freedom, in reality is merciless. It is a school only too likely to teach us of life's inevitability, of meetings and separations arranged haphazardly. ‘The Journey to Kabul’, which can be traced somewhat roughly on the map and which can be calculated in kilometres, however approximately, is already a finely textured carpet in my memory, one woven hour by hour from breath, sweat and blood, and irretrievably lost, for time has worn seven league boots since we heard about the war. [outbreak of World War II] That one event, so remote from our path, reached out and grabbed hold of us, of me, and no doubt of most of those like me, equally blind and deaf.
Little Afghan rug

1 comment:

three sea horses said...

you've covered a few different things in this one, lovely pics as well..
meanwhile in response to your comment on mine (thank you!) yes it is Elgar!! thats a good one of your father's!
still at brother's, will let you know when back again.quite soon.xx