As the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan continues, Americans seem eager to forget our involvement in the country and turn our attention elsewhere. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Afghans go about a way of life that remains in many ways unchanged by what is to them just the latest round of foreign intervention. The journalist Anna Badkhen has been to Afghanistan numerous times since she traveled to the country in the weeks after September 11, 2001, before the arrival of NATO jets. In The World Is a Carpet: Four Season in an Afghan Village, Badkhen recounts her time in the village of Oqa, where women and children continue a local tradition as old as written history: the weaving of carpets. I asked Badkhen six questions about Oqa, Afghanistan, and her book.
1. You’d had a long career as a foreign reporter, including many years in Afghanistan, before arriving in Oqa. Can you tell me a little about how you came to this work, and to Afghanistan?
I was a freelancer based in Moscow in 2001, when terrorists rammed passenger planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The San Francisco Chronicle asked me to travel to Afghanistan to write for them about what was certain to become a war. I went. I have been going there ever since — though not every year, because I have also worked elsewhere, in the Middle East, in the Horn of Africa.
I don’t entirely consider myself a foreign correspondent, though. I was raised in the developing world — though my Global South lay quite far north, on the 57th parallel, just below the Polar Circle, in Leningrad, U.S.S.R. It was a place where food was scarce and healthcare abysmal; where parents taught children to talk sotto voce because walls had ears; where not everyone had a shower at home, or a television set, or a telephone. Outside was hostile, because of shoddy infrastructure, KGB spooks, indifferent officialdom. But then you walked through somebody’s doors, and there, inside, you shared their tea, their grief, their joys, their daily routines: the universe.
I grew up walking through such doors, and for the past seventeen years I have been entering them professionally, as a writer and a journalist. Some of the doors aren’t technically doors: they are burlap curtains, tent flaps, bundles of straw, or simply the absence of a wall. Most of humanity lives behind such doors, in a world of desperate poverty and indestructible communities, of unutterable violence and unprecedented migrations. The World Bank estimates that a quarter of the people in the developing world live on less than $1.25 a day. Today, the West frequently conditions such people’s lives, either directly or contingently: think of the global war on terror, anthropogenic climate change, our often-reckless pursuit of natural resources. Tomorrow, they may be shaping this country. Population experts predict that in thirty years the United States will be a majority–minority country because of immigration, mostly from the Global South.
I moved to the United States when I was twenty-eight. Because of my background, I am at home both in the West and the Global South; conversely, I am also the Other in both. As an intermediary, then, I see it as my responsibility not to allow the emotional wall between these two worlds to ossify. The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert wrote: “you were saved not in order to live/ you have little time you must give testimony.” I try to give testimony.
2. Given how much you’ve traveled in Afghanistan, what was it about this particular village that made you decide to return and tell the story of a year in its life?
My lodestar, my master narrative, is the friction between violence and beauty, between my hosts’ heartrending candor and crushing disenfranchisement, between the ancient and the modern, between our penchant for bloodshed on the one hand and our inherent defiance of depravity on the other. The intricacies of life are shaped within such precarious balancing.
I first visited Oqa in 2010, when I was in Afghanistan on assignment for Foreign Policy. I spent only a few hours in the village then. It was inexpressibly beautiful, this desert village of carpet weavers at the edge of the world, and it was also utterly forsaken. It was a distillation of everything that has gone wrong, is going wrong, with the West’s war, but it was more than that: it was a village of survivors of millennia of war, which has been ravaging Afghanistan almost incessantly since the beginning of recorded history. It pierced me. I wanted to tell this story of human perseverance in the face of privation and mass violence. I wanted to return and spend more time there. I wanted to spend as long as it takes to weave a carpet.
3. What made you decide to use the making a carpet as a device to tell the story?
It was a common denominator. My audience lives mostly in the United States, which happens to be the largest purchaser of carpets on the world market. If the purpose of my writing is to examine our connectedness through intimate stories, then what better way to connect my American audience to my Afghan hosts? I can hand my readers a thread that is familiar. I imagine that some may even be able to reach down and touch the pile of an Afghan carpet on the floor of their own living room or study. It’s good to be able to say: Here, here’s an object you know intimately, and here is the intimate story of whence it came. By writing and reading about it we tie the two together.
4. The past decade has obviously brought a lot of change to Afghanistan, but one of the things you emphasize is the continuity of the country’s history. How did you strike that balance in this book?
While researching, I thought a lot about timelessness. Change has affected some parts of Afghanistan, or, more precisely, some aspects of life in Afghanistan. But 80 percent of Afghans still persevere in pretty much the same landscape Alexander the Great must have beheld when he laid waste to Balkh in 327 B.C., or that Genghis Khan beheld 1,500 years later. They till their fields barefoot, with wooden plows. They barter kindling for food and pull water hand-over-hand out of desert wells.
But the conceit that Afghanistan exists outside time is only half true. The last iteration of the country’s never-ending war has thrust this ultra-ancient way of life into the ultra-modern. Roadside bombs and kidnappings rend the Northern Plains; night raids by NATO forces kill children; and often it seems that everything is careening toward some new and unprecedented level of havoc.
The notion that our resilience is eternal, but the ways in which we harm each other evolves constantly, is in a way timeless. (It is also a good prophylaxis against the romanticizing and exoticizing of Afghanistan.) To stretch out on a boiled wool rug in Oqa next to a camel herder who is chatting away on his cellphone as an American F/A-18 fighter passes overhead is to lean over the rim of a temporal chasm where millennia condense and unfurl. It gives you a bit of vertigo. I hope the book conveys this.
We are used to seeing Afghanistan through the gun sight of an American Marine, from behind the fortified glass of an armored truck, from within blast-proof walls of compounds in Kabul. In our minds, the peopled landscapes of Afghanistan — or Iraq, or Chechnya, or Mali, where I am working this year — have become theater backdrops for the West’s war on terrorism, flat, diagrammed. The millions of women, children, and men who populate these geographies have become in our minds two-dimensional stick figures. Nameless, cartoonish. I am trying to remedy that.
Many excellent and important recent books have peered into Afghanistan from outside. I am trying to peer from the inside out — from a village mud hut, from the back of a pack animal, from the window of a passenger bus. It’s an attempt — granted, by an outsider — to look at Afghanistan the way Afghans themselves see it.
6. Finally, do you have plans to return to Afghanistan, and particularly to Oqa, now that the book is out?
As my hosts would say: inshallah.