Walking across Afghanistan

The world’s media is queuing up to write about Rory’s trek across Afghanistan. Here’s the opening few lines of the latest, from the Los Angeles Times (and they even have a photo!):

600-Mile Journey in Nowhere Land

Afghanistan: Scotsman sets off on foot through some of the Earth’s most forbidding terrain.

By DAVID ZUCCHINO, Times Staff Writer

HERAT, Afghanistan — For breakfast Sunday morning, Rory Stewart ate four fried eggs and a fistful of naan, the flat Afghan bread. Then he walked to the local bazaar and bought 20 tablets of the antibiotic Cipro, two dog-eared English-language books and a walking stick.

Now he was ready to walk across Afghanistan.

Stewart, an Oxford-educated Scotsman, set out Sunday afternoon on a 600-mile walk through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. He intends to hike from Herat, in western Afghanistan, to Kabul in the east, through snow and ice, past bandits and gunmen, wolves and guard dogs, famine and drought.

Stewart is fairly certain–and there are no known challengers–that he was the first tourist to enter Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime late last year. He is unquestionably the most unconventional foreigner in these parts, with his skeletal 126-pound frame and his dream of walking the path once taken by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane…

The LA Times does seem to have its finger on the pulse: they had the most detailed coverage of the American fad for Stoicism in 1999…

Thanks to Tim for drawing today’s article to the attention of the weblog.

Right-Wing Politicians Seek the Hobbit Vote

From Reuters (with thanks to Naunihal for passing this my way):

ROME (Reuters) – The rest of the world may see box office smash The Lord of the Rings as a mythical tale of hobbits and goblins but some young members of Italy’s far right hope to use the film to promote their political ideals.

“We want to use the event as an incredible volcano to help people understand our view of the world,” said Basilio Catanoso, youth wing leader of the far-right National Alliance party.

Right-wing thinkers and publishers, who introduced the Italian public to the fantasy classic in the 1970s, see the 1,000-page tome by Britain’s J.R.R. Tolkien as a celebration of their own values of physical strength, leadership and integrity.

The National Alliance youth wing is looking back to the 1970s when Italian rightists spun its own interpretation of Tolkien’s mythical world to bolster their image, already imbued with Celtic legends, knights and a cult of personal strength.

“There is a deep significance to this work. The Lord of the Rings is the battle between community and individuality,” Catanoso said.

But the tale can be seen supporting either end of the political spectrum. ”The destruction of the ring of power, the multiracial aspect — hobbits, elves, men and dwarfs united against evil are all leftist ideals,” said Francesco Alo’, editor of Italian film Web site www.caltanet.it.

Tolkien always denied any political intent in the book.

The story follows the struggle of a young hobbit named Frodo Baggins, played by Elijah Wood in the film, to destroy a ring of power which holds the key to the future of civilization.

The cult book evokes a fantasy world peopled by goblins, hobbits and elves.

“Only in Italy is The Lord of the Rings seen as right wing, no other country in the world has a similar reading of Tolkien,” said Valerio Evangelisti, an Italian fantasy writer.

In the 1970s, neo-fascist summer training centers nicknamed ”Hobbit Camps” were set up by the National Alliance’s predecessor, the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI).

The National Alliance split from the MSI in the mid-1990s. Its current leader, Gianfranco Fini, who is also deputy prime minister, has tried to give the party a new image.

The National Alliance has five ministers in the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But tradition still echoes in the party’s ranks.

National Alliance’s youth wing plans a campaign to boost membership, inviting students to “enter the fellowship,” an allusion to The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of the Tolkien trilogy.

The film opened on Friday in 700 cinemas in Italy. So far it has grossed more than $500 million worldwide.

I’ll stop posting tonight soon, I promise.


I was lucky enough earlier this evening to come across the email address of the last remaining Shaker community in the United States, so I sent them a polite note to express a modicum of admiration and find out how they were getting along. They replied within a couple of hours to report that there were now five Shakers, aged between 38 and 74, that they continue to be open to new members, that the most recent arrival became a Shaker in May of last year, and that they continue the traditional Shaker way of life, farming cattle, sheep and pigs, and growing various vegetables. It is excellent to hear from them.

The Shakers are, of course, the oldest communal association in the United States, with a history of over two hundred years of utopian socialism in action. You may have come across their furniture, of course, which is fine (if a little expensive these days); and the tune of the classic hymn “Lord of the Dance” is an old Shaker tune, which Aaron Copland appropriated for his Appalachian Spring, and for which Sydney Carter supplied a new set of words. There were once many thousands of Shakers across the North and East of the United States — and now, we learn, there are five; but from the evidence of this message, they still seem to be in good spirits, and we all wish them well.

For more on the Shakers, try www.shakers.org or the Sabbathday Lake community.

Very rarely do men know how to be altogether wicked or altogether good

From Machiavelli’s Discourses, I.27:

When Pope Julius II went to Bologna in 1505 to expel from that state the house of Bentivogli, which had held the princiapte of the city for a hundred years, he also wished – as one who had taken an oath against all the tyrants who seized towns of the church – to remove Giovampagolo Baglioni, tyrant of Perugia. Having arrived near Perugia, with this intent and decision known to everyone, he did not wait to enter that city with his army, which was guarding him, but entered it unarmed, notwithstanding that Giovampagolo was inside with many troops that he had gathered for defense of himself. So, carried along by that fury with which he governed all things, he put hiimself with a single guard in the hands of his enemey, whom he then led away with him, leaving a governor in the city who would render justice for the church. The rashness of the pope and the cowardice of Giovampagolo were noted by the prudent men who were with the pope, and they were unable to guess whence it came that he did not to his perpetual fame, crush his enemy at a stroke and enrich himself with booty, since with the pope were all the cardinals with all their delights. Nor could one believe that he had abstained either through goodness or through conscience that held him back; for into the breast of a villainous man, who was taking his sister for himself, who had killed his cousins and nephews so as to reign, no pious respect could descend. But it was concluded that it arose from men’s not knowing how to be honorably wicked or perfectly good; and when malice has greatness in itself or is generous in some part, they do not know how to enter into it.

So Giovampagolo, who did not mind being incestuous and a public parricide, did not know how – or, to say it better, did not dare, when he had just the opportunity for it – to engage in an enterprise in which everyone would have admired his spirit and that would have left an eternal memory of himself as being the first who had demonstrated to the prelates how little is to be esteemed whoever lives and reigns as they do; and he would have done a thing whose greatness would have surpassed all infamy, every danger, that could have proceeded from it.

From the translation by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov.

Domus Aurea

I was lucky enough to be in Rome at the weekend, and visited the “Domus Aurea”, Nero’s “Golden House”, which is carved out underneath the Caelian Hill. Suetonius has this marvellous description of what it was once like, from his life of Nero in The Twelve Caesars:

“His wastefulness showed most of all in the architectural projects. He built a palace, stretching from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which he called ‘The Passageway’; and when it burned down soon afterwards, rebuilt it under the new name of ‘The Golden House’. The following details will give some notion of its size and magnificence. A huge statue of himself, 120 feet high, stood in the entrace hall; and the pillared arcade ran for a whole mile. An enormous pool, more like a sea than a pool, was surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities, and by a landscape garden consisting of ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodlands – where every variety of domestic and wild animals roamed about. Parts of the house were overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones and nacre. All the dining-rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers, or of perfume from hidden sprinklers, shower upon his guests. The main dining-room was circular, and its roof revolved slowly, day and night, in time with the sky. Sea water, or sulphur water, was always on tap in the baths. When the palace had been decorated throughout in this lavish style, Nero dedicated it, and condescended to remark: ‘Good, now I can at last begin to live like a human being!’.”

It would be lovely, if implausible, to think that this was what Nero’s tutor Seneca was thinking of, when he issued his famous injunction at the end of his treatise De Ira (On Anger) that we should learn to “cultivate our humanity” (colamus humanitatem).


The bobblog is flourishing again, after a lengthy gap, during which Bob went jobhunting, and a period of only intermittent posting in late December and the New Year. But he’s back on form now with a lot of good stuff — including yet more mockery of W. (this time for his failure to eat pretzels), and the text of an advert for a language course which asks “Wouldn’t you like to communicate with your Spanish speaking domestic help? … Learn specialized vocabulary, phrases expressions and the basics to give instructions in Spanish for house cleaning, food preparation, child care, yard and garden and errands”. And — better yet — he has a job to go to in the Sociology department of St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. Well done, Bob (since I know he visits these columns from time to time): this is very good news indeed.

Bob wrote [14.1.2002]: Thanks for the plug in the blog…and for the nice words. You sure do know how to make a guy blush… ; ) I’m honored. I enjoy your blog as well, and I have to admit, I laughed out loud at your newest entry on GWB re: the pretzels and beer. Keep on bloggin’!

Thinking of Etonians…

Where are our old tutorial partners now? One of them was on this morning’s Today programme, on Radio Four. (For American readers of the weblog, think NPR’s Morning Edition):

James Naughtie: Twenty five minutes past eight. Well, Afghanistan is still in a strange state but it hasn’t deterred someone called Rory Stewart from turning up in Kabul as a tourist. Now, he’s a former British diplomat, he’s 29, he’s walking across Asia, he’s going to be writing a book, almost needless to say. He was in Peshawar in Pakistan and decided on a diversion into Afghanistan. He’s going to visit some of the historic sites, presumably those where the Taliban didn’t blow up the statues, and he’s going to go trekking. Now shortly after he arrived in Kabul, Mike Wooldridge, our correspondent, asked him whether he’d ever thought twice about coming where few tourists might fear, might dare to tread.Rory Stewart: Yes, many second thoughts. The road I came in on has had four journalists killed there five weeks ago. And so obviously I was very worried. On the other hand I have been walking on foot across Asia through relatively dangerous areas over the last year and a half. I’ve been walking through Nepal during the Maoist insurgency, through Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran. And I think if you’re relatively careful and do your planning correctly — I tend to travel in as low key a fashion as possible — you should be all right. I wear Pakistani-stroke-Afghani clothes. I talked at the border with the authorities there. I hired a car which I knew was tied in to the local commander…

Mike Wooldridge: Did they actually at the border take some convincing that you should be allowed through?

Rory: I think their basic interest is financial.

Mike: So you mean you had to pay your way in?

Rory: Well, I certainly had to pay quite a lot for the taxi, and how much of that goes to the commander I don’t know.

Mike: I suppose I have to ask you: do you feel it’s right to be a tourist here at the moment? I mean you could obviously run into difficulties, and then there might be security risks for others trying to rescue you if that were to happen.

Rory: I think that’s absolutely right. The British Embassy’s got a very clear travel advisory against people coming here, so people shouldn’t be encouraged to come here.

Mike: Which you would know very well as a former diplomat.

Rory: Which I know very well as a former diplomat. And I realise very well the amount of trouble you cause for people if you do get kidnapped. Other people have to risk their lives and it causes a lot of problems. On the other hand I do belive that for countries like Afghanistan, tourism is good, and I think this is a very important time for Afghanistan. I think the country’s turning round. There is the possibility of a renaissance and future security. It would be very nice if the world began to realise what hospitable and warm people Afghanis are, to overcome the impression that the place is a desperate war zone…

What a loony. Thanks to Olly, the perennial Radio Four listener, for drawing this to my attention. (I was asleep at the time). If you never saw Bachman Reza’s letter to the London Review of Books, responding to Rory’s essay on walking through Iran (LRB Diary, 6 September 2001), do have a look. It is also very funny.Dave wrote [14.1.2002]: Thanks for sending me that. I haven’t knowingly spoken to Rory since 1990, which is an enormous shame, because he certainly seems to live an interesting life. And a double shame, since he was my very best friend in the world at two times – 4 and 16!

James Joyce

From “The Dead”, in Dubliners:

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

In memoriam James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, died this day, 1941.

Harry’s Drug Shame

“Etonian smokes dope” is about as much of a non-story as the “students get drunk” stories we were served up towards the end of last year after various goings-on at St. Catherine’s College in Cambridge. The real pleasure of today’s Harry’s Drug Shame stories, of course, is that we will be treated to more of the ruminations and calming words of Lord St. John of Fawsley. The story was of “no public interest whatsoever”, he solemnly told the BBC. Please report further sightings of the nation’s favourite “constitutional expert”.

Chris adds [14.1.2002]: Perhaps there have not been as many sightings as I had anticipated. Here are a couple: “Lord St John of Fawsley told the BBC the News of the World’s revelations were serious, but should not be blown up out of proportion. ‘Prince Harry was the member of the Royal Family who suffered most from the death of his mother,’ he said. ‘The News of the World should have some concern for this boy and not expose him to this kind of publicity because there’s no public interest in that whatsoever.’ [Not everyone agreed with the noble lord: Guy Black, director of the Press Complaints Commission on the other hand said to the BBC that “It is important to underline that this was an exceptional matter of public interest”.] And according to Reuters, Lord St.J. of F. told BBC radio that “the person who has come totally well out of this is the Prince of Wales, who has acted as a responsible parent who hasn’t thought about the public issues but has taken his son along to get expert help”.