Qais Akbar Omar was born in an Afghanistan where “our neighbours were like us, quiet and educated people. When there was a wedding or engagement party in one of their houses, everyone in the neighbourhood was invited, along with their kids and servants.”
This remarkable memoir brings to life a complex and at times strikingly beautiful Afghanistan beyond the news clips of war and violence the rest of the world has seen since decades. The author remembers the society of his early childhood as warm and benign. As a respected citizen without any elected position, young Omar’s grandfather talked after prayers at the mosque on how to keep the neighbourhood clean, solve civic problems, and create better facilities for the children to play together. People listened to him, and he discreetly helped neighbours in financial straits.
Omar’s extended family of around fifty members lived together in happy harmony in his grandfather’s house. Kabul in those days was “like a huge garden. Trees lined the wide streets and touched each other overhead in tall, leafy arches… Every house had a garden with pomegranate, almond, or apricot trees.” Yet even in those times of relative peace, when the Russians were the only intruders the Afghans had to worry about, danger already lurked around the corner. Omar’s uncle, a military officer and father of Omar’s favourite cousin Wakeel, suddenly vanished forever.
That was “before all hope fled Afghanistan.” Such mater-of-fact observations drive home the painful predicament of this perennially strife-torn land. “In the time before the fighting, before the rockets, before the warlords and their false promises, before the sudden disappearance of so many people we knew to graves or foreign lands, before the Taliban and their madness, before the smell of death hung daily in the air and the ground was soaked in blood, we lived well.” In page after page of finely crafted and restrained prose, the author evokes vivid images of a benign and gracious society being ravaged by a senseless war. His strong love for his homeland, his people and his family shines through without being weighed down with excessive sentimentality.
This memoir is structured around contrasts. As the author, now a young man living in post-war Afghanistan, begins telling his story, a phone call reminds him of his aunt who emigrated to Canada during the war. The aunt is searching for a bride for him, among expatriate Afghan girls who have become young women in a free and peaceful country. She has “seen them taking full advantage of opportunities they would never have had in Kabul had their families stayed there over the past three decades.” The author is now twenty-nine years old, has a university degree and runs his own carpet business. He also has both arms and legs, all of which is normal in most parts of the world, but “which is an issue in mine-ridden Afghanistan.”
As young Omar grows up, he sees his idyllic world crumble around him with a child’s innocent bewilderment. When the Mujahedin arrive in Kabul, people all over town come out to chant ‘Allah-hu-Akbar” to welcome the ‘holy warriors’. As Omar’s father explains, people “want the Mujahedin to come to Kabul and make the Russians leave Afghanistan.” Meanwhile, Omar’s sister tries to scare him by saying this chanting is the beginning of Doomsday. Little Omar is not sure whom to believe. Like the children, the adults too are innocent and full of hope. Ironically, it is the children’s innocently voiced fear which proves true. Soon, war spreads to Omar’ own neighbourhood. Mujahedin break into their home and loot their valuable carpets. Omar’ observations, rife with a child’s innocence and clarity, drive home difficult truths. “Suddenly, I understood that these guys were ordinary thieves who had joined one of the factions. They were not true Mujahedin who defend their country and faith against the invaders and heretics.” The new intruders lose no time in ravaging a lovely and peaceful neighbourhood into a war zone.
Omar and his family, and their neighbours flee, some in such a hurry, that they take nothing with them. As his father rushes everyone into his car to escape, Omar is bewildered to be leaving his home to thieves and looters. His innocence in the face of danger is touching, as he tries to help his mother tidy up their rooms before leaving, and then stops to fill his pockets with his best marbles. Horror now becomes a part of Omar’ daily life. “Hundreds of dead bodies were scattered all over the pavement, on the sidewalks, and in the park in the middle of the road… I thought I was seeing an American horror movie, especially when I saw parts of bodies, like arms or legs or even heads, lying by themselves.” This is contrasted with people on the other side of the hill, who carry on with normal lives. They are as yet unaware of the war, of the line of refugees that were beginning to reach their area, and of the many thousands more who would soon be arriving.
Omar’ family takes shelter in the home of his father’s business associate, in a part of Kabul not yet affected by the fighting. This wonderful place, with fountains and gardens with peacocks, deer and a leopard, is called Qala-e-Noborja or ‘fort of nine towers.’ Life here seems beautiful and normal again, as Omar and his cousins “ate good food cooked by their host’s servants, enjoyed fresh fruits from the garden, and played with the dogs”. But their lives have changed forever. Omar and his grandfather attempt to visit their home during a cease-fire, hoping to recover the gold they had buried in their garden before escaping. They are captured and taken to the warlords who have taken over a neighbour’s house. Omar remembers an engagement party there, when roses bloomed in the garden, and beautiful lamps sent a glow over their fine furniture. In place of a platform where musicians once played, “there was… a ditch filled with the heads of men and women.”
Omar’s world, and even his family, changes irrevocably. “At Noborja, my grandfather’s family was still living together, but we had been shattered into small parts as we tried to survive.” Omar’s father leaves Kabul with his wife and children, hoping to find a safe haven either in Mazar-e-Sharif, or in a foreign country. They hope to then return to bring the rest of the family to safety. They continue their journey escaping more unspeakable horrors and dangers. This is contrasted with moments of breathtaking beauty and illumination, as their journey takes them through fascinating twists and turns. Escaping nature’s fury in a deadly mountain landslide, Omar and his family find warm traditional Afghan hospitality in the garden of Hamza’s father. The spreading war drives them to take shelter in beautifully embellished caves behind the ancient statues of Lord Buddha in Bamiyan, which were later destroyed by the Taliban. There young Omar finds solace in the words of peace and wisdom from a monk.
In Mazar-e-Sharif, Omar learns to weave carpets from their Turkmen neighbours. He is trained by a beautiful young mute daughter of the family, who weaves mystical carpets from myriad colours of wool, patterns of flowers that “almost looked three dimensional, like a wood carving.” These lessons and the teacher touch Omar’s soul deeply. Carpets embody the beauty and richness of Afghan culture, and carpets help save Omar’s family and many others in the times of the Taliban, when Omar begins weaving himself.
This is a moving account of love, determination and survival against terrible odds. The author portrays the richness and beauty of Afghan life and culture with love and respect. He voices with clarity and dignity, deep pain at that has happened to his family and to his country. While demonstrating the strength, generosity and deep seated values of his people, he successfully transcends barriers with the universal hope for peace and amity.
Monideepa Sahu is a former banker, who had a whale of a time writing her fantasy adventure novel, Riddle of the Seventh Stone. She has since authored a biography ofTagore for young people, and hopes readers and publishers will indulge her if she writes more. Her short fiction for both adults and children have been widely anthologized. She’s shot off her opinions on deathly serious subjects, and sometimes raised chuckles. She lives in Bangalore with a vintage PC, countless arthropods and people. She blogs at http://www.monideepa.blogspot.com/.