FortofNineTowersMonideepa Sahu reviews A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar (Picador UK;  14.99 Pounds; Rs 599, Pp 396)

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.

A Curse on Dostoevsky.jpgA story of crime and punishment in Kabul impresses Anthony Cummins (The Telegraph)

Violence in Afghanistan has provided material for dark fables (Jamil Ahmad), gory epics (Nadeem Aslam) and sentimental blockbusters (Khaled Hosseini). In this slim puzzle of a novel the French-Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi takes a more unusual approach, recasting Crime and Punishment in Kabul during the civil war that followed Soviet withdrawal and preceded the rise of the Taliban.