If you want to be an armchair traveller to a foreign country and glimpse another way of life, I would suggest picking up the entrancing book – The World Is A Carpet. This must-read book gave me a microscopic view of life in Oqa, a remote Afghan village that cannot even be tracked on Google Earth. No roads lead to this village and it consists of forty doorless huts that are surrounded by seemingly limitless plains and sand dunes beneath unending sky. It is this village that a female reporter chose as the center for her story. Why? There is clearly something fascinating about a people who live with extreme uncertainty, facing war, addiction, hunger, a contaminated water supply, and drought on a daily basis.
Anna Badkhen grew up in Soviet Leningrad, where her parents had been disenfranchised, quasi-dissident intelligentsia. Her adult life was spent travelling as a war reporter. Since she lived and worked in the developing world for most of her life, it is not surprising that Anna writes that she has no real home (although her primary residence is Philadelphia). She has fallen ill with malaria in Afghanistan, hiked and driven where Taliban scouts prowl, experienced an earthquake, and slept on a tick mattress in a room with no electricity. Her gift is to be able to recognize the beauty of the night sky, the comforting rhythms of an ancient form of weaving, and the wit and energy of village life. Determined to stay a year in Afghanistan, and to witness the completion of a carpet throughout four seasons (yes, there is a winter season in Afghanistan complete with cold temperatures), Anna encounters increasing danger on her trips to Oqa. In 2011, the Taliban were kidnapping foreigners for ransoms, as were bandits. Anna was aware of her own vulnerability, but measuring her danger in comparison with the life-threatening conditions the villagers faced daily, she was prepared to take risks.
I fell in love with this book instantly, as Anna is an artist who paints with words. Her images are lush, the book reads like poetry, and Anna uses her gift for detail to create a rich and balanced portrait of her surroundings. Anna muses, “It was possible to romanticize this land, this temporal Grand Canyon where millennia condensed in valleys between the crescents of dunes and unfurled again out of carpet knots, this seemingly organic realm where every movement was meaningful with endurance, and every step was an immense journey toward survival.” Yet, the reader ultimately resists this urge to “exoticize” as the author offers us the deadly reality of children overdosing on opium (which in Afghanistan is cheaper than food), bodies mangled by land mines, and a land plagued by drought and war. The sheer monotony of everyday life is interrupted by “events” like a bull impregnating a she-camel, an American bomber refueling, a wedding, and cranes carving through the sky. I was shocked by the abject poverty of the villagers. Thawra, who weaves magnificent carpets, is paid less than a dollar a day for her labour! One carpet requires seven months of labour, and one million one hundred and sixteen thousand knots in all.
I am not sure if I could have resisted the impulse to try to “fix” the villager’s money problems, perhaps by building a permanent roof of the loom hut, or by providing extra food for the children or electricity for the village. There is a really interesting transcript of an interview with the author, that appears on the TTBook website. When asked about this ethical quandry of solving the financial problems of a family who welcomed her, Badkhen responded:
Okay so let’s say I agreed to help this one family in a village of two hundred of forty people, all of whom know me. How do I explain not helping everybody else? How do I then leave and never come back or don’t come back for a few years and what happens to this family? How are they viewed in their community? … I feel extremely inadequate to the pain of the people, to the pain that I witness and I console myself by bring little treats you know, a couple hundred kilos of rice, some onions. I console myself by saying that by telling stories that I witness, I am contributing somehow to the larger base of knowledge of the people who actually can help, can come and build something, can bring a mobile team of healthcare workers to the village once every three months for example. To do things like that, that’s sort of where my job can find an outlet and can find a solution, but it’s extremely hard and it’s hard to watch devastation and know that any kind of help you can offer is a band-aid.
Black and white line drawings are scattered throughout the book, adding interest. The history of Afghanistan is also revealed in bits and pieces, allowing us glimpses of traversing armies throughout the centuries, the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the current unrest. Through Anna, the reader is able to experience the holy month of Ramadan and fasting. Anna appears to well-liked by Mazari-e-Sharif and her Oqa hosts, and they treat her like family and feel free to make sex jokes, and ribald comments. Most of the people Anna encounters are illiterate, and are imprisoned by their own poverty. Their only outlets from the pain and drudgery of everyday life are through sex and opium (drinking alcohol carries the punishment of imprisonment or lashing). Apparently, opium can be chewed, smoked or you can drink it in tea. Her hosts Thawra, Amanullah and Baba Nazur do not consume opium, although they understand why so many seek relief through the drug, mentally and physically.
I also learned a great deal about the act and art of weaving a carpet, and how you determine its beauty. Its beauty is determined by the density of the knots (two hundred and forty knots per square inch) and the mistakes which make the carpet unique. The design of the carpet itself is a matter of subjective preference. One in thirty Afghans are believed to be involved in the carpet industry – whether it be raising sheep, or weaving, buying or selling. This ancient art was the same twenty-five hundred years ago: “Thawra in her homemade shift dress could have been squatting over the warps and wefts in any century, preserving her heritage knot by knot.” The Turkoman carpets are the most valued of all Afghan carpets, unrivalled for beauty and durability. The Turkomans are called the Rembrandts of weaving, and Thawra’s carpet is the most beautiful that Anna Badkhen has even seen.
If you like The World Is A Carpet, you may be interested in the following fictional account of life in Afghanistan:
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Chronicles the lives of two Afghan women who struggle to survive, raise a family, and find happiness in war-torn Afghanistan. Propelled by the same storytelling instinct that made The Kite Runner a beloved classic, A Thousand Splendid Suns is at once a remarkable chronicle of three decades of Afghan history and a deeply moving account of family and friendship.