Six Questions — May 24, 2013, 8:00 am

The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village

Anna Badkhen on life in rural Afghanistan and the friction between violence and beauty

Anna Badkhen. Photograph © Mari Bastashevski

Anna Badkhen. Photograph © Mari Bastashevski

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.

The World Is a Carpet (cover)5. Is there anything in particular you’d like Americans to know about Afghanistan that may not fit with the vision they have of the country?

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Christopher Beha:

From the October 2018 issue

Ove and Out

Knausgaard’s struggle comes to an end

From the May 2017 issue

Head-Scratcher

Can neuroscience finally explain consciousness?

From the March 2017 issue

New Books

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2019

Without a Trace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What China Threat?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going to Extremes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Tell Me How This Ends”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What China Threat?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
Article
Without a Trace·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
Article
Going to Extremes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

Illustration by Leigh Wells (detail)
Article
“Tell Me How This Ends”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 2, 2015

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in eastern Ghouta, March 24, 2018 (detail) © Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Value of loose change left at TSA checkpoints in 2010:

$409,085.56

Eighty percent of those displaced by climate change have been women, whose voices have been getting deeper.

In Wichita Falls, Texas, a woman was banned from Walmart after drinking wine from a Pringles can while riding an electric shopping cart; she had been riding the cart for two and a half hours.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today