In a brief afterword to “A Fort of Nine Towers,” a powerful coming-of-age tale set in Afghanistan, Qais Akbar Omar offers a warning: “I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart. Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.” Beautifully written, with the pacing and suspense of a novel, his memoircontains moments when the grief becomes almost too difficult to bear. Nonetheless, his richly detailed account of growing up in Afghanistan under the warlords and then the Taliban is deeply fulfilling, remarkable not least because he lived to tell the tale.
The eldest son of upper-middle-class parents, Omar spent his early years living in his grandfather’s spacious house, along with his parents and siblings, six uncles and their families. His childhood is full of family picnics and kite-flying rivalries, against a backdrop of Kabul as you’ve never seen it in the news, a paradise of roses, pomegranates, and almond and apricot trees. The author’s love for his grandfather, a carpet dealer and bibliophile, prevails throughout the book. Describing the daily ritual of early-morning prayer, Omar writes: “Before I started my prayers, I looked up at him. A smile appeared on his face and soon transferred to mine; but he continued his prayers without looking at me, and I started mine feeling his smile all around me.”
Omar’s idyllic childhood ended in 1991 with the arrival of the mujahideen, the American-backed holy warriors who drove out the Russian-supported puppet government. Initially, the 8-year-old Omar “had expected to see heroes in uniforms and shiny boots.” Instead, the mujahideen dressed “like villagers,” in baggy pants and tunics, “their waistcoats filled with grenades and bullets . . . and smelly shoes that wrapped up stinky feet.”
Food prices skyrocketed, and female singers were banned from the airwaves. Kabul became a lawless place, with snipers on rooftops and warlords exchanging constant rocket fire and plundering private homes. The mujahideen robbed Omar’s grandfather of his 6,000 carpets, but this was only the beginning. As the dangerous conditions in their neighborhood reached the breaking point, Omar’s family fled, burying their gold in the garden in the middle of the night, hoping that they would be able to return for it later.
The family began its exile in the fort mentioned in the book’s title, the home of Omar’s father’s business partner, in a neighborhood temporarily free from the fighting. For a short while they resumed the semblance of a normal existence, but life had irrevocably changed. Attempting to return to the family house during a cease-fire, Omar and his grandfather were detained by warlords headquartered in a neighbor’s house. Only a few years earlier, Omar attended an engagement party in a courtyard of that house, where roses were flanked by rooms that “had beautiful lamps in them that sent a glow over their fine furniture.” Now, where a platform for musicians once stood, “there was . . . a ditch filled with the heads of men and women.”
How Omar managed to escape this situation, and others far worse, constitutes much of the suspense and the miracle of his story. His quiet optimism, despite the unspeakable horrors he experienced, is astounding. Yet despite such grim subject matter, the book illuminates the author’s fierce love for Afghanistan. Attempts to flee Kabul for a safer place led to fascinating detours, including a stint living high up in caves behind the 6th-century Bamyan statues of the Buddha (later dynamited by the Taliban) in a town “filled with the smell of wood fires and horse manure mixed with saffron, pepper, cardamom and dust.” In Mazar, 11-year-old Omar learned to weave carpets from a Turkmen family living next door. His main teacher was the beautiful deaf sister in the family, a woman with “transparent eyes” who wove mystical carpets from more than 50 colors of thread, adorned with flowers that “almost looked three dimensional, like a wood carving.” This experience was perhaps the most profound for Omar: Those weaving lessons nearly saved his family later, during the time of the Taliban.
When the Taliban arrived in 1996, Omar was a young adult, living in Kabul in the fort with his family. The Taliban’s enforcement of a severe version of Islamic law is by now notorious, and Omar’s brushes with their restrictions will seem familiar to the reader. Surprisingly, life before the Taliban, under the warlords, was even worse. The Taliban, though capable of great acts of brutality, at least brought a “strange peace” to a land torn by war. “A woman might be beaten for leaving her home alone,” he writes, yet “many things worked. The banks. The mail delivery. Offices. Safe transportation all over the country.”
The product of an immensely talented writer, “A Fort of Nine Towers” puts a human face on the violent history of Afghanistan, a place that sadly figures in most American imaginations solely as the early post-Sept. 11, 2001, hideout of Osama bin Laden. The daily struggles of Omar’s family to survive endless war, hunger and poverty demonstrate the remarkable ability of human beings to love and support one another despite the dire conditions in which they live.
A FORT OF NINE TOWERS
An Afghan Family Story
By Qais Akbar Omar
Farrar Straus Giroux. 396 pp. $27