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Qais Akbar Omar, Economist.com

“There used to be trees and flowers everywhere. Now there were dead bodies everywhere, human parts here and there.”

When the Taliban left Kabul in 2001, life restarted for Qais Akbar Omar. He helped rebuild the family carpet business, interpreted for the UN, worked on a Dari language version of Love’s Labour’s Lost and co-wrote an account of it, Shakespeare In Kabul.

Omar’s new book, A Fort Of Nine Towers, is a poetic, funny and terrifying account of his family’s life between the Soviet Army’s exit and the Taliban’s retreat. He describes his family’s attempts to escape Afghanistan, their time living among Kuchi nomads and in caves by the Bamyan Buddha statues (which the Taliban destroyed in 2001). They return to a Kabul of rockets, capricious snipers and civil war as armed factions fight for power. It is a book of hellish encounters – a fighter who grows roses in severed heads, predatory Talibs – and familial love.

Omar is  taking a degree in creative writing at Boston University and, from a distance, helping run his family’s carpet business in Kabul . He spoke to The Economist from Boston – his voice light and urgent – about faith, war and the carpet-maker’s art.

The book is so extraordinary I must ask: is it all true?

Yes it is, everything. After 9/11, foreigners in Afghanistan wanted to know what it was like during the civil war. When I talked about the past, I felt better because before that I had nightmares. My friends said it worked like a therapy so why not sit and write? Two, three years later I thought I’ll try it, because I still had those dreams. So I sat in my bedroom, started writing, and couldn’t stop for two months.

The book describes terrible events. Why didn’t they shake your faith in God?

Poetry plays a huge role in our culture. Of course there were times you felt despair, then you read a poem and it brought everything into perspective. There is a poem by Rumi: ‘A new challenge every day/ You keep away and delay/ When I have to close the gap/ Fate says there is a bigger play.’ No matter what I do, how hard I play, fate has a bigger play. You just submit to the will of God.

Why would the events be God’s will?

Yes, when there were rockets raining over the city, we talked about these big issues. Why are we deprived of peace? Should there be a lesson in that? We try to see good in everything, to find something to hang on to.

What effect did seeing your father and grandfather terrified have on you, as a child?

A really huge affect. You think ‘If these people cannot find a solution, how will I?’ Sometimes I would try to find the answers in books. I used to read Socrates, Plato, the Old Testament, the Koran, poetry. Sometimes I found a solution, sometimes not, but it kept my mind busy and away from what I was feeling.

You were also a child when your family tried escaping Afghanistan. Was that an adventure or did you realise the dangers?
Except when I had to deal with seeing my father or mother in despair, it was the greatest adventure of my life. Like in Bamyan, running from one cave to another, playing with kids. Running in the mountains, playing in the river.

You call the civil war The Time Of Shaitan [Satan]. Do you see that literally?

Yes, because Satan would do those things. Satan would try to destroy a peaceful country, that was a lush garden, that had nice people. We don’t lack in culture or family values, and you [Satan] come and destroy.

Did being boxers help you and your father endure the civil war?

It helped a huge amount. I went to the room where I had my punching bag and I would punch that thing for hours and get all this pain out of me.

How did your mothers and sisters endure?

They spent a lot of time reading, and writing letters, to cousins, aunts, uncles, in other parts of the city. As soon as we had a ceasefire, we exchanged letters with them. When you walked out [in a ceasefire] you remembered how there used to be trees and flowers everywhere. Now there were dead bodies everywhere, human parts here and there.

What are you studying?

Creative Writing. There was a gap between my visa and my next programme. The professor created an [extra] American Literature programme for me, so I don’t have to go to Afghanistan and get in trouble because of my book. Some of the people I have written about, the factions, are still there. I didn’t write about them much, just the effect of war on an Afghan family. Who was the cause? Who should be blamed? The readers will decide.

So you need to gauge reaction to your book in Afghanistan before returning?

Exactly. In Afghanistan, as soon as you raise your voice, they try to shut you down. I don’t want to be shut down.

Is writing your future, or carpets?

I did not intend to be a writer. Everyone is saying I should continue and I will try to, probably, but carpets are my passion. How you wash the wool, spin it. Dying is a whole mystery. Then the designing, weaving, the wash. Every level is fascinating.

Is creating carpets and books similar?

When you create a carpet you have a medallion, a border and small patterns that fill the gaps. I try to apply that to my story. The medallion is my family, the small patterns around the medallion is what happened to us.

Has the book chased away your demons?

A huge amount, like 55% but I am still dealing with 45%. A few nights ago I saw what was happening in Syria, there was a graphic scene, a rocket landed. Something like that brings a lot of memories back. Then I have to deal with it for a few days and get it out of me: I keep myself busy, exercising, gardening, designing carpets.

15 June 2013

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