Rory Stewart: Days of hope and hubris

Diplomat and traveller Rory Stewart, was, aged 30, put in charge of a chunk of Iraq. Robert Hanks talks to him about making literary drama out of political crisis
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The Independent Culture

It takes a mild effort, on meeting Rory Stewart, not to do a double-take. I knew he was young, but surely not this young? He is slight, with blue eyes and a wide, guileless smile, and my first thought, seeing him at his publishers' offices, was that this must be some gap-year student here to do the photocopying and fetch the tea. I suppose I'd expected somebody more travel-worn, marked by experience - of which, after all, he has already had more than most of us will in our lifetimes.

After a career in the Foreign Office that took him to Indonesia and former Yugoslavia, in 2000 Stewart set out to walk 6,000 miles from Turkey across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal to Bangladesh; he recorded the Afghan section of the trek in The Places in Between, his first book, which won comparisons to travel writers such as Colin Thubron, Wilfred Thesiger and Robert Byron. And then, in the summer of 2003, he flew to Baghdad to look for work.

At 30, he was helping to run a post-invasion province the size of Northern Ireland, in the face of local hostility, bureaucratic idiocies and increasing levels of violence. Occupational Hazards: My time governing in Iraq (Picador, £17.99) is an account of the nine months he spent in the southern provinces of Maysan - home of Thesiger's Marsh Arabs - and Dhi Qar, attempting to rebuild infrastructure and supervise the transition from rule by the Coalition Provisional Authority to self-determination and democracy.

It is hard to imagine any book getting across more vividly the sheer complexity of politics in Iraq. Stewart had to navigate a bewildering tangle of rivalries and allegiances, relying on information from local sheikhs, imams and politicians who each had their own agenda; at times, he even caught his own interpreters putting their own spin on his words. On top of this, he had to deal with the competing agendas of different parts of the CPA and the Coalition security forces.

In Dhi Qar, early in 2004, the CPA compound was under siege for days from Islamist guerrillas armed with mortars while Stewart tried in vain to get protection from the local Italian army contingent. Complaints to the authorities in Baghdad resulted in him being ordered to apologise to the Italians. The multiple frustrations result in a narrative that is both acutely comic and at times appallingly dense, so that the reader has to stop and riffle back through the pages n an attempt to make sense of things. That it remains readable is a tribute to Stewart's elegant, spare prose.

Given that at least some of these difficulties must have been foreseeable, and that Stewart's career as a writer was just beginning to take off, it seems a mystery he applied for the job at all. Was he looking for an adventure - even a subject? "I certainly wasn't intending to, or consciously wasn't intending to write when I went," he replies. He mentions an interest in "countries emerging from war and changes of regimes and trying to understand what the international community's able to do in terms of humanitarian reconstruction, what the limits of international involvement are".

This is understandable, given his experiences working in Indonesia before East Timor's independence, in former Yugoslavia after interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and in Afghanistan. But also, "I think I was very relieved to find when I went to Baghdad... that I suddenly felt much more alive and engaged than I had sitting planting trees at home in Scotland." He felt stimulated in Iraq, "linguistically, culturally, in terms of the range of responsibilities. And also something probably more basic... Just being in a different country with a different kind of sunlight and a different kind of smell, different manners in the streets."

But his experience proved a harsh lesson about the limits of international involvement. Stewart's learning curve is neatly illustrated by the epigrams that head each chapter. He starts with quotations from Machiavelli; later, this hard-headed advice on principles of governance gives way to Don Quixote, and an ancient Sumerian line about a fox that urinates in the sea and then brags that the whole sea is his urine.

"I think these projects are hubristic," Stewart says. "They rest on assumptions about the capacity of the international community to transform failing societies which are misplaced. I am at the moment in the mood to say that societies are very unlikely to be channelled or guided or transformed in any very constructive way simply by an external influence."

That was not how he felt when he arrived in Iraq. In former Yugoslavia, having been suspicious of intervention, "I had been shamed by people in Sarajevo saying 'What the hell were you doing hanging around for three years, why didn't you come sooner?'" He had expected Western armies in Afghanistan to meet hostility and resentment, "so I was actually quite embarrassed to arrive there and find that from a humanitarian point of view, the majority of the people I met were extremely grateful the Taliban had gone."

Walking across Hazarajat in central Afghanistan, he saw villages where 400 people had been executed against a wall. He began to think that his objections to intervention were "in retrospect a little kind of prissy... My concerns about national sovereignty were really misguided because these countries were run by aggressive elites, and I began to think that intervening in Bosnia or Kosovo or Afghanistan wasn't flouting the Afghan or Bosnian nation, so much as taking on a corrupt or unpleasant ruling class."

He had expected to find a similar situation in Iraq. But, in Baghdad, he was spat on and jostled and after nine months he could see few signs that the invasion was bringing real benefits to the Iraqi people. "I suppose it's those kind of pragmatic, realpolitik problems I have with it rather than concerns about weapons of mass destruction or UN resolutions."

Before I met Stewart, a couple of people mentioned to me an impression that he is rather pleased with himself. Any suspicion of smugness evaporates on meeting him: his manner is quiet and intensely serious. The impression of egotism comes in part from the fact that he avoids saying much about his CPA colleagues; in most cases, because he liked them and was wary of offending them, in one or two cases, because he loathed them and felt it unfair to air grievances.

In the main, though, one of the book's most attractive features is its modesty. He talks of his shame at having oversimplified the story of what went on in Maysan: "I've written papers on the Shia political parties or the tribes of Iraq which run to 80 or 90 pages, and we had nearly 50 parties in Maysan within about four months. And I've only sketched out, to try to make the story clear, three of them."

In Dhi, he documented 42 tribes. It's this complexity he sees as the main argument against intervention. "I don't think that anyone really was in a position to predict what the consequences were going to be... People did say it would be a disaster, but when I look at the sort of disaster they predicted it was quite different from the kind of disaster we had." Political science is, he thinks, not up the job: "I reckon the basic text on these interventions is Don Quixote or Catch-22 or something of that sort."

It's interesting that he sees literature as more capable of capturing life's intractability than travel writing. He does not like most travel books, which "strike me at some fundamental level romanticising, oversimplifying, and slightly mendacious. They appeal to a taste for a highly coloured, glamorous narrative." Where travel writers look for harmonies between past and present, for the exotic, Stewart's interest lies with "everything that's elusive and confusing and troubling about trying to explain somebody else's country. I'm much more interested in politics and violence and poverty. And comedy."

Nevertheless, Occupational Hazards is a highly literary book, with flights of quasi-biblical rhetoric and, in his descriptions of the Marshes, drained by Saddam and now a bleak, arid landscape, echoes of TS Eliot. When I mention this, Stewart immediately quotes an apposite passage from Four Quartets. But again, he comes back to the frustration of having to simplify. "I don't know how you do it... how you can convey how boring, frustrating and complex the real world is without making your text boring, frustrating and complex." Perhaps, as he has done, you just give up and make your text frustrating, complex and a joy to read.

Biography

Rory Stewart was born in Hong Kong in 1973, and grew up in Scotland and Malaysia. He was educated at Eton and then, after a year in the Black Watch, at Oxford. He joined the Foreign Office and was second secretary in Jakarta from 1997 to 1999; and from 1999-2000 the UK representative in Montenegro. In 2000 he left the FO and set out to walk from Turkey to Bangladesh. His book on Afghanistan, The Places in Between (2004), won the Royal Literary Society Ondaatje Prize. From 2003-4 he worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, the subject of Occupational Hazards (Picador), and was then a fellow of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Rory Stewart, who was awarded the OBE in 2004, now lives in Kabul.

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