At a time when American troops are leaving Afghanistan and U.S. officials are trying to talk to the Taliban, I recommend that you read a book called “A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story.”
The book, by a young Afghan, Qais Akbar Omar, is an extraordinary memoir that portrays his coming of age during a time of madness. This story of his middle-class family’s struggle to survive during a decade of civil war and Taliban rule is even more haunting than “The Kite Runner,” because it’s not fiction. It also conveys realities of Afghan history, culture and close family life to which most Americans are never exposed.
A better grasp of those realities is urgent as we shrink our presence in that tormented country. Without it, the tragedies that befell Omar’s family, along with millions of other Afghans, could occur again.
Omar’s ancestors were herders of sheep and camels for centuries, before his grandfather became a carpet merchant who bought and sold in bazaars all over the country. The family settled in Kabul, where his father became a teacher of physics and gymnastics, and rode a motorcycle, wearing bell-bottom trousers. His mother worked in a bank (wearing short skirts) and his aunts and uncles studied at university.
He refers to that period “as the time before the fighting, before the rockets, before the sudden disappearance of so many people we knew to graves or foreign lands, before the Taliban and their madness.”
His family’s photos of that period are long gone, destroyed during the time of the Taliban.
Omar (whom I first met in Kabul) says he wrote his book in part to exorcise the demons that still haunt him, in part to hold on to people he’s lost, and in part to tell foreigners “some things about Afghanistan they do not know.”
“They have never had the chance to stand in my grandfather’s large courtyard filled with his apple trees ... as he recited poems by Rumi, Hafiz, Omar Khayyam ... while his volumes of poetry, Afghan history and complete works of Sigmund Freud made a wall behind him.”
This certainly is not the imagery that comes to mind when Americans think of Afghanistan. More familiar is the violent civil war that erupted after Afghan mujahedeen militias drove out Soviet troops in the early 1990s. Soon, U.S.-backed “muj” were fighting among themselves and destroying Kabul in the process.
Omar’s family fled, first to an abandoned fort on the outskirts of the city (hence the title) that was the residence of a friend. The young boy’s attempts to return home to check on the family’s residence — and the horrors that awaited him — are the most harrowing scenes in the book.
Amazingly, some of the same warlords that terrorized Omar’s childhood are still active — some in the government, some in the opposition, and some in alliance with the Taliban. Read these scenes, and you understand why Omar and his countrymen are so fearful that civil war may restart if the United States fully abandons Afghanistan.
Omar’s family finally had to flee the fort and embarked on a desperate trek around the country, at times traveling with Kuchi nomads. They even camped in a cave above the giant statues of the Buddha that the Taliban later destroyed.
While staying with relatives in the north, Omar learned how to design and weave carpets from a deaf-mute Turkmen girl who was a master weaver. This skill helped him support his now-impoverished family when they were finally able to return to Kabul after the Taliban took over.
The author’s stories of life under Taliban “justice” are especially disturbing, given that the talibs could return to power after the American exit, at least in large parts of the country.
Even if you think you know the details of Taliban madness, you will still be shocked by Omar’s experiences. I’ll mention only one episode: his brush with disaster when a Talib stopped him to check whether the length of the hair on his crotch and under his armpits complied with Taliban rules.
The book ends with the Taliban’s fall after the U.S. invasion. Omar went on to earn a college degree in Kabul and to restart the family carpet business. He is now pursuing a graduate degree at Boston University, but hopes he can go home again.
I had lunch with Omar last week as he passed through Philadelphia. He told me that, in the old days, Afghan factions would get together in a jirga and reach a consensus over political disputes. (This could probably happen today were Pakistan not giving the Taliban sanctuary on its soil, across the border from his country.)
Omar’s biggest fear is that, if peace talks collapse, and all U.S. troops leave, the civil war will reignite, pitting the Taliban against former mujahedeen warlords. The people of Afghanistan, he says, want neither as their rulers.
“They want someone to bring peace,” he told me wistfully.
His moving memoir offers a glimpse of how those Afghans would be living if the outside world would only permit them to do so. And it’s a sad reminder of his country’s likely future if diplomacy fails.