Tag Archives: books

Book review: A Fort of Nine Towers and a tale of two books

This is the first book review on this blog, and it is admittedly too late for a book that was published last year. But I have long wanted to write something about English-language books written by Afghan authors; this is my opportunity.

A Fort of Nine Towers

A Fort of Nine Towers is an autobiographical novel about Qais Akbar Omar’s life from age 11 until adulthood, or roughly the time when his aunt started finding matches for him.

The narrative arc spans the breadth of Afghanistan’s contemporary history, beginning with the jihad against the Soviet-backed regime and ending with the ouster of the Taliban. Within this vignette, the family’s fortunes change dramatically as they experience loss, dehumanizing cruelty and heartwarming acts of kindness from perfect strangers. The plot revolves around the family’s coming to terms with the necessity of fleeing the country they love and their ironclad resolve and disappointing setbacks towards this goal.

The prose initially is very simple and becomes increasingly sophisticated as the protagonist grows up. But even as a child, the prose is omniscient and the author demonstrates an understanding of events and their context beyond his age, partly perhaps due to the benefit of writing in hindsight.

The book is a rare and invaluable contribution in the English language from an Afghan who grew up in the country and experienced the history firsthand.  This is the book Khaled Hosseini may have written if he had grown up in Afghanistan.

But Omar’s book shares a lot more in common with Hosseini’s than is first apparent. For one, there seems to be a narrative theme in English-language Afghan literature that is a nostalgia for bygone privilege. If we take the analogy of Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, it is the privileged Amir who tells the story, even the parts about the lowly Hassan. In A Fort of Nine Towers, Omar’s narrative is also exactly this: a young child whose grandfather is a well-to-do banker and respected elder, whose father is a well-known boxer and respected teacher, and whose family friends are rich carpet sellers. Granted, Omar and his family go through a period of profound loss when the Taliban take over, just as Amir’s family does when the Soviets invade Afghanistan,  but privilege and nostalgia for the loss of this privilege are strong elements of the narratives.

Qais Akbar Omar

Qais Akbar Omar, author

Omar’s general narrative approach also overlaps Hosseini’s in other aspects. In Omar, almost every side of the Afghan war of the last three decades has its good and bad guys, even the Taliban. Many are redeemed to some degree before the novel ends, and it ends well if not exactly in a beautiful ever-after.

This humanizing approach to literature is important, but it is also politically correct. By the mere act of putting pen to paper, Omar and Hosseini are inevitably doing more than just telling stories — they’re penning a national narrative of the last three decades and helping make sense of a complex and controversial history that has been expunged from Afghan textbooks. Observing such history is not a neutral act, surviving to write about it less so. It is OK for some bad characters to remain bad without redemption, and for some of the survivors’ visceral emotions to remain raw and unsanitized instead of studiously journalistic.

Omar’s story is his recounting of a childhood that retains its capacity to be imaginative and magical even in the throes of war and destitution. For example, he makes the friendship of a Buddhist monk in the caves surrounding the Buddha statues of Bamiyan and absorbs his wisdom. He also meets a Turkman woman who is part master carpet weaver and part mystic revered for her personal sanctity — qualities rarely associated with women in popular literature about Afghanistan. Omar learns more than the art of carpet weaving from his teacher; he also learns the guiding principle of life.

Omar struggles to incorporate the Afghan lyrical aesthetic in the phraseology of the story, so his characters appear to be English-speaking. For example, he uses “north” and “south” to describe the dimensions of his house, terminology that Afghans rarely use. He also uses shalwar kamiz instead of peran tunban, Aaron and Solomon instead of Haroon and Sulaiman, and maulvi instead of mawlawi. This is perhaps why one is hard pressed to find in Omar the equivalent of Hosseini’s memorable “for you, a thousand times.”

Nonetheless, the strength and grace found in the characters of Omar’s book is simply amazing. Any shortcomings of the book are more than compensated by the euphoric crescendo of the last chapter describing music as the first act of defiance that brought life back to the streets of Kabul as the Taliban were going out. And like the last remaining tower of their fort that survived the jihad, the civil war and the Taliban, the Omar family remained standing, spirit unbroken.

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Bonus: select quotes from A Fort of Nine Towers:

“Now we began the time of pretending. The signs of war were all around us, but we pretended that we did not see them.”

“We finished the rituals and and put the body in the grave…we left him with strangers in a small, old cemetery called Nawabad that was protected from the snipers by the spur of a low, steep hill.”

“For whole days and weeks we sat at the corner of the room, murmuring our prayers and waiting for a rocket to kill us all together. One night when the noise of the exploding rockets was too loud to let me sleep, I climbed up on the roof of the old fort and sat near the one remaining tower. I watched one rocket after another fall on the flat-land neighborhoods in front of me. Each time when a rocket whistled overhead, I was momentarily surprised that it had not killed me. But a part of me no longer cared.”

“We entered a time of waiting. The fighting would end, we said, if we waited. Our lives would come back to us, if we waited. Or we would find a way out, if we waited.”

“The bombing had been going on for more than a month by then. As we sat down near the one last remaining tower, we started hearing music. Real music, not the Taliban’s tuneless singing. It was coming from the house of our neighbor…we looked at one another with puzzled smiles. [Our neighbor] had been brutalized by the Taliban several times because he was rich. Now his sons had placed very large speakers in their windows and music was pouring into the street. ‘Have the Taliban finally gone?’ my uncle asked, his voice and eyes full of expectation. We could not answer.”

“I was nineteen years old and had never danced; I had always wanted to, even thought I worried that I would look like a sheep if I tried. Another part of me, though, was like my father: I could not celebrate until I knew more about these people dropping bombs on my country.”

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Everything you need to know about Afghanistan in one anecdote

For those who’ve followed my Twitter feed (@AhmadShuja), I tend to decry pundits or parachute humanitarians/journalists who write about Afghanistan in broad, general strokes. I’m particularly wary of the pervasive tactic of using one interaction or episode in their time here to explain “Afghanistan.”

Today I’ll break my own taboo and relate this short but illustrative anecdote.

The story revolves around two little girls in a Kabul neighborhood. I found them involved in a heated exchange one cold morning about a subject I couldn’t figure out. But their dialogue was fascinating and particularly telling of who they were and what they valued. I walked past them just in time to catch the following bit of exchange:

Little Girl #1: Your mom’s never been to school, she doesn’t even know her ABC’s.

Little Girl #2: YOU have been to school and know school things, but not the Qur’an.

These kids were not making Yo Mama jokes. They were in quite a serious argument, hurling insults at each other right and left. In their own little way, their quarrel is indicative of Afghan society today — the value of education alongside the value of religion, the progressive and the religious, the sources of shame and pride.

At the risk of turning this post into a don’t-abandon-Afghanistan polemic, let me also say that this is indicative of what has been gained in the last decade at the cost of billions of foreign dollars and tens of thousands of Afghan and foreign lives. Barely 5 or 6, these girls are products of the post-Taliban generation of Afghans. Education is available to them, but that they find the illiteracy of their mothers a source of shame (and therefore an insult) is telling about what they, as the next generation of Afghan women, value.

One might argue that I may have read too much into what might have just been an innocent fight between two little girls. That’s a genuine possibility, in which case I give you this:

Books on a Kabul bookstore shelf. Pictured are Mein Kampf, Khayyam, Hafiz.

The picture is from an open-air Kabul bookstore in the center of the city. Thousands of people walk past these books everyday in illiterate oblivion, others might cast a glance and carry on, a few might even purchase them. It is these purchasers who form the messy nuances and contradictions of Afghanistan.

In the bottom-center of the picture sits the Mein Kampf. To its right is a book by Afghan sufi saint Khwaja Abdullah Ansari and a copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; to its left is Hafiz; on top is a book on Nelson Mandela (and Fidel Castro).

So, next time someone makes a sweeping statement like “Afghanistan is…,” don’t believe them. It’s far more nuanced, messy and full of contradictions, like any nation of 30 million people should be. But pay attention to the little girls, their little chatters, their arguments and values. They are the future and their collective chatters are the public opinion.