Equal Parts Blisters And Enlightenment

Rory Stewart, who had backed the Iraq invasion, now calls it
Rory Stewart, who had backed the Iraq invasion, now calls it "a catastrophe." (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

There really is no good reason why Rory Stewart did it, except that, well, he wanted to do it: something about adventure and the lure of the land, the thrill of putting one foot in front of the other, leaving a trail of footprints behind him. Walking meditation a la the Sufis, etc., etc. Go forth and ruminate.

Humans are hard-wired to walk, and so Stewart, Scotsman/diplomat/author, reasoned that in the walking, perhaps he, a "gibbering ape," could manage to unlock a spiritual experience of mystical proportions. Perhaps not. But, for nearly two years, walk Stewart did, across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal, ending his sojourn with a long and painful trek through the rugged mountains of Afghanistan in early 2002.

In the dead of winter. In the middle of war.

Truth is, for all Stewart's great expectations, he didn't feel particularly enlightened as he trudged along in his Berghaus lace-up boots, $10,000 in cash strapped around his waist. (Gore-Tex is all very well and good, but when one is encountering nine-foot snowdrifts, technology can do only so much in the quest for dry feet.) No, he says, most days, he'd start out feeling one with the universe, memorizing snatches of Persian poetry, thinking through philosophical arguments or reading the Bhagavad-Gita, in one hand, walking stick in the other. Within the first hour or two, all would be well. And then the pain would set in, and he'd obsess about his aching knee, his blistering feet, the growling knot in his belly. And the walking meditation would become a walking whine.

Or so he says.

You take the allegations of whining with a hefty chunk of salt because to meet Stewart, the author of "The Places in Between" and "The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq," is to be exposed to a man well versed in the art of self-effacement. Yet somehow it doesn't seem like an act, more like a cross between the culture of British self-deprecation and the musings of a 33-year-old man whose confidence has yet to catch up to his accomplishments, a man with an exceedingly large hard drive for a brain.

"I'm just not very good about talking about myself," says Stewart, who spent a year in Iraq serving as coalition deputy governor of the southern provinces of Amara and Nasiriyah. "I don't trust myself when I'm talking about my motivations."

He's written the It book of the summer, and when he's introduced to an enthusiastic Monday afternoon crowd at Politics and Prose, he says, "Thank you for this very warm introduction, which I really don't deserve. . . . I really don't have much wisdom to impart."

He's written a book that haunts the bestseller lists, a book for which critics have heaped on the praises, lauding his "luminous" prose, his nerve and determination and even comparing him to Byron.

Mention this, and Stewart furrows his brow, rakes his hand through chocolate brown hair, murmurs distractedly that, yes, it's very nice of them to say that, isn't it?

In his books, he quotes Machiavelli, Cervantes's "Don Quixote" and from the diary of the Mogul emperor Babur. Ask him which he identifies with most, and he declares, "I am Don Quixote. I'm an absurd anachronistic figure . . . tilting at windmills."

About those windmills: Underneath the modest demeanor is a man of formidable will. In August 2003, Stewart, a former diplomat who served in Indonesia and Yugoslavia, took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad and offered to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority because "I thought I could make a difference." (He was, he said, quickly disabused of that notion by the Iraqis.) Before that, he'd determined that he would walk through Afghanistan, and that meant walk , never mind the war being waged against the Taliban, never mind the jeers of kids who threw rocks at him, never mind Kalashnikov-bearing soldiers who demanded that he stop walking and explain himself. Never mind the dysentery that plagued him, or the numbingly bitter cold and the time he lay down in the snow, briefly giving up as the snow piled on top of him and he drifted off to sleep.

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