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

October 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Article
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Article
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Article
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Amount a 2006 defense bill authorized for a daylong “celebration‚” of “success‚” in Iraq and Afghanistan:

$20,000,000

Male orangutans announce their travel plans in advance.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

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