The South Asia Channel

Weaving Afghanistan’s story

Qais Akbar Omar, A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). Anna Badkhen, The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village New York: Riverhead Books, 2013). Since 9/11, a considerable amount of ink has been spilled on descriptions of forward operating bases, Humvees, IEDs, ...

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images
Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Qais Akbar Omar, A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

Anna Badkhen, The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village New York: Riverhead Books, 2013).

Since 9/11, a considerable amount of ink has been spilled on descriptions of forward operating bases, Humvees, IEDs, and the pursuit of high-value targets in Afghanistan. As the U.S.-led engagement drags into its twelfth year, bookshelves brim with treatises on the rise and fall and rise again of the Taliban, and the life and death of Osama bin Laden. There have been a couple of readable accounts of the quarrels in Washington between the White House and everyone else over the Af-Pak adventure. In most of these stories, Afghans have been cast as bit players in the American drama over a military strategy that has swung wildly from "All In" surge fever to the cold turkey malaise of a "zero-option" withdrawal in 2014. 

All the while Afghans have gone on living — some fighting, some angling for power, many dying, but many more just surviving — waiting for the country’s endless war to end. This summer, two writers — Qais Akbar Omar and Anna Badkhen — have published fresh versions of that part of the Afghan story, offering a welcome break from the monotonous handwringing over the failure of Washington’s policies. With the publication of her latest book, The World is a Carpet, Badkhen makes an important contribution to the Afghan travelogue genre. Qais, a Kabul-born Pashtun carpet maker, as it turns out, is one of the most compelling memoirists to emerge out of the country’s troubles in recent memory. Both draw on carpet weaving as a metaphor for the complex pattern of life that has emerged out of Afghanistan’s long war. 

In A Fort of Nine Towers, Qais, a student of Boston University’s creative writing program, offers a forceful account of coming of age at the height of Afghanistan’s civil war, becoming a man under the Taliban, and learning to rebuild amid the uncertainty of a post-9/11 world.  His simply-told narrative of his family’s suffering and resilience begins in a once well-to do part of Kabul "in the time before the fighting, before the rockets, before the warlords and their false promises." There are no photos of this time because, as Qais explains, the family’s photos and some of the people in them were destroyed in the fighting.

But, the memories of that time — some good, some bad, many horrifying — linger long past the end of the years of the factional fighting that destroyed the capital and the country. For a brief moment in 1992, before the civil war got fully underway, Qais and his family hold out hope that the new coalition government of anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters will return the country to normalcy. For months, Qais’s grandfather, a one-time prominent businessman, and his father, a renowned boxing champion and high school physics teacher, search for possible clues to their future in a constant stream of BBC radio bulletins. When it seems certain that the future will remain uncertain for some time, the family begins to plot a way out of the country and seeks refuge across town at the home of a family friend in Qala-e Noborja, or the fort of nine towers.

More recent travelers to Kabul will remember Qala-e Noborja as the home of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a philanthropic venture backed by Britain’s Prince Charles and Rory Stewart, a well-known British MP who used part of the proceeds from his published chronicle of his walk across Afghanistan in 2002 to fund the foundation. Longtime residents of the city — Afghan and foreign alike — will also remember the disputes that have long surrounded the early 19th century fort as it has shifted from royal outpost to civil war refuge to craftsmen’s workshop to bacchanal hippie headquarters and most recently to the home of a new Afghan think tank.

A masterpiece of Afghan craftsmanship, the fort of nine towers has served as refuge for all comers and is one of the few such examples of architecture from the pre-Soviet era to have survived Kabul’s many batterings. Qais, in his page-turner, adds another chapter to the fort’s rich history, recounting several of his harrowing forays out of the fort into the Afghan capital as street thugs, factional commanders and snipers take aim at him and everything that comes their way. The war chases Qais and his family northward, where he gets an education on his country while on the road with nomads, and on the loom from a beguiling deaf-mute female carpet weaver who gives him the tools he needs to survive. It is out there, away from the shelter of the fort, that Qais begins to understand how much his father and grandfather have sacrificed for the family’s survival. For those looking for a break from the abstractions of policy muddles in Doha and Kabul, Qais’s book should be first on the summer reading list.

Badkhen’s book, The World is a Carpet, might make an interesting companion read for those looking for a follow-on to A Fort of Nine Towers. Badkhen’s main success in writing her book on the life of a hard scrabble village in northern Afghanistan lies in the fact that she is one of the few recent travelers to the country to actually write about Afghans. In her second book of warzone reportage, Badkhen, a seasoned freelance journalist, journeys to the heart of the country’s contradictions — a place where "unspeakable violence" meets "inexpressible beauty."

Part memoir, part travelogue, part elegiac exegesis on the Afghan conflict, Badkhen’s story begins and ends in the tiny village of Oqa — a place so insignificant in the annals of the country’s forever war that it doesn’t even rate a marker on Google Maps. Badkhen, who has reported on Afghanistan since the Taliban was toppled, discovered Oqa in 2010 during a quixotic reporting trip across the northern reaches of the country. Tucked away in the forlorn desert scrub that stretches from the northern metropolis of Mazar-e Sharif to the border of Uzbekistan, Oqa is not known for much of anything, except for the elegant carpets woven by the long suffering women of the village. It is a dead zone of drought and rural decay long ignored by powerbrokers in the capital of Kabul.

But Badkhen brings the tiny hamlet of 240 people to life on the page in her tale of survival at the margins of America’s longest war.  There, over the course of a year, Badkhen observes the harsh toll years of privation and war take on the family of her host, Baba Nazar, a patrician elder of Oqa, who tries but often fails to overcome the odds stacked against this neglected corner of the world. Nazar’s survival and that of the village turns on the carpets woven by his wife Boston and daughter-in-law Thawra, who earn about 40 cents a day weaving carpets that will fetch hundreds of dollars on the open market in most Western capitals. Knot by knot, season by season, the women of Oqa weave, trade bawdy jokes, give birth, and down opium to fight the fatigue of daily doldrums. The village men, young and old, play their roles too, hunting, smoking, trading and dreaming of escape from the indescribable poverty they live in.

Students of Afghanistan and Central Asia will recognize in Badkhen’s impressionistic descriptions of this desert netherland a sort of textbookish homage to Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana. An emphatic nod is also given to other more recent travelers of the Silk Road, with each page echoing heavily of Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, though never quite approaching the coherence of Stewart’s Afghan travelogue. There is something admirable in Badkhen’s attempt to fuse the lyrical with the historic and journalistic. To date, few observers of the war have spent much time mapping the isolation of life outside Afghanistan’s urban centers — for that Badkhen must be commended. Her narration of the struggles of a drug addicted infant who barely clings to life during a particularly harsh winter offers a window into an important undercurrent of the conflict, which is as much about the control of opium trade routes as it is about anything else. At times, she manages to break free of her tendency toward overwrought poetics to make a sharp observation about the devastating impact of the conflict on rural Afghans.

But, it is hard not to come away from reading The World is a Carpet feeling like the victim of adjectival assault. There are men with "strabismic" eyes and a fog that rises from "sepia fields" in the "trout-colored desert." The stich-by-stich narrative of carpet weaving often gets bogged down in Badkhen’s overly floral language. The overall effect is a sort of herky-jerky rendering of Afghan life that undercuts her attempt to capture an underreported part of the war. Badkhen, instead, is at her most lucid in the book when she allows herself to be part of the story, such as when she contemplates the possibility that one of her hosts might sell her to the Taliban. When she is there, wrestling with the contradictions of being an insider-outsider with a passport that lets her come and go as she pleases, she is at her best and, perhaps, most candid. Indeed, those are the scenes that redeem the book, reserving a unique place for it on the shelves of books about the war. Afghanistan’s story is hard to tell.

It is difficult to write exceptionally about such an exceptional place, but both Badkhen and Qais are more than admirable for trying. 

Candace Rondeaux is a non-resident research fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School. She lived in Kabul from 2008 to 2013, working first as South Asia bureau chief for The Washington Post, and most recently as senior analyst in Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group. She is writing a political history of the Afghan security forces and is currently undertaking a mid-career masters at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Candace Rondeaux is a Senior Program Officer with the United States Institute of Peace and Director of the RESOLVE Network, a global consortium of research and training institutes focused on leveraging analysis to address violent extremism. She recently led a study on lessons learned from U.S. strategy in Afghanistan for the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, and she spent five years living and working in South Asia, as bureau chief for The Washington Post and Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group.

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