BARBARA JONES: When Rory Stewart cadged $300 in a war zone and told me ‘Mummy will pay you back’
- Dressed in traditional Afghan clothing Rory Stewart arrived in Kabul in 2002
- On the last day for a 6,000-mile trek through Afghanistan’s northern mountains
- He looked lost and homeless and probably about to beg for money or food
When I answered the front door to a pale, emaciated and strangely attired Rory Stewart in downtown Kabul back in 2002, he didn’t strike me as a possible future Prime Minister.
Dressed in traditional Afghan clothing, the loose-fitting shalwar kameez suit topped by a pakul felt hat, he looked lost and homeless and probably about to beg for money or food.
As it turned out, he did both. It was the last day of his 6,000-mile trek on foot through the hostile territory of Afghanistan’s northern mountains in the dead of winter. Unknown to me at the time, his battered backpack contained the journals which would later be published as his travelogue, The Places In Between.
Dressed in traditional Afghan clothing, the loose-fitting shalwar kameez suit topped by a pakul felt hat, he looked lost and homeless and probably about to beg for money or food
Within minutes he had tapped me up for $300, saying he had run out of cash, assuring me in his cut-glass accent that ‘Mummy’ would repay the loan if I gave him details of my UK bank account.
Stewart, 29 at the time, had suffered run-ins with warlords and their militias, stray Taliban members and Western occupying forces who had told him he was ‘a f****** nutter’.
Now he was sipping green tea in the house I shared with other journalists reporting from Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 and asking for money with his total self-confidence and unapologetic insistence.
‘It’s purely temporary, I assure you’, he said. ‘Mummy will reimburse you within days.’
No one wanted to stump up, especially as hard currency was hard to come by in Kabul at the time.
There were no banking facilities so every time I wanted cash I had to use a money-man who accepted me enough to give me cash under the hawala system, under which Muslims borrow funds on trust and pay them back as soon as possible.
I would have secret meetings with him, ask for a small bundle of cash and arrange for my newsdesk to courier the repayment, plus a small amount of interest, to his relative who ran a fish-and-chip shop in Walthamstow, North East London.
It was a difficult process. Why would I go through it again to lend cash to this scruffy stranger in native clothes?
I asked him why he wore them. Us journalists had seen our share of the real thing: thin, battle-worn mujahideen holed up in ruined villages or living rough in the mountains. They were not always friendly to Western reporters, so it seemed insane to us that a Westerner would provoke them by dressing like them and walking through their jealously-guarded territory while American forces were raiding their home villages.
But Stewart, then as now, had an irresistible self-belief. There was no explanation, no apology.
He did with me what he did on Wednesday in the House of Commons corridor. As Tory MPs filed in to vote, ‘I looked into people’s eyes, saying “if you believe in me and my message, vote for me” ’, he said.
In Kabul all those years ago, he looked into my eyes and made me believe in him.
Needless to say, his Mummy repaid me within days. By that time Stewart had regained his strength, thanks to our cook’s robust chicken and rice dishes, and cadged a lift to Pakistan.
It used to take us weeks to acquire visas for Pakistan. Stewart had one within 24 hours. The king of networking had sweet-talked his way through the diplomatic corps and the UN delegation in Kabul and used his Afghan language skills to charm the warlords and renegades now vying to rule the country.
Needless to say, his Mummy repaid me within days. By that time Stewart had regained his strength, thanks to our cook’s robust chicken and rice dishes, and cadged a lift to Pakistan
Stewart made it home to the family estate in Scotland but became restless. In August 2003, aged 30, he flew to Jordan and took a taxi to Baghdad. He fetched up at the head office of the transitional government and asked director of operations Andy Bearpark for a job.
Bearpark, formerly Margaret Thatcher’s chief of staff, says: ‘He just turned up under his own steam asking for a job. He was certainly very good at local negotiations.’
He made Stewart deputy governor of a southern province.
But within a year, Stewart was back in Kabul, where he set up the Turquoise Mountain charity with the support of Prince Charles.
There, of all places, the geeky Old Etonian found true love. Unfortunately it was with the wife of another man. Shoshana Coburn had arrived as a volunteer from America with her husband Noah, both respected academics wanting to help with the restoration of Afghanistan’s traditional arts and crafts.
The atmosphere at the compound was fraught. ‘There was a lot of tension, a lot of arguments and we were sad for Noah when Shoshana made it clear she was in love with Rory,’ one contact of mine said.
‘Noah was brave to go on working there for a while. But Rory was brave too. He had to call security several times to control some of the rough guys. There was a US contractor who got drunk and beat him up.’
Stewart and Shoshana are now married. In 2014 he delivered their baby son himself on their bathroom floor after Shoshana went into early labour.
And during the Tory leadership contest, her ex-husband’s only comment has been to wish them both well. Another diplomatic triumph for Stewart.
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