Qais Akbar Omar's memoir, A Fort of Nine Towers, is a chronicle of the author's childhood and teen years in war-torn Afghanistan. He grew up during an especially turbulent time in the country's history witnessing the departure of the occupying USSR troops; the ensuing civil war that inflicted incredible hardship on the population as warlords from the Mujahideen sought to fill the power vacuum; the subsequent takeover by the Taliban; and finally the Taliban's ouster by the foreign coalition formed after 9/11. Age seven at the beginning of the narrative, Omar relays how these disparate forces affected his life and the lives of friends and family over the following two decades.
Omar's writing is somewhat choppy and simplistic, underscoring the fact that English isn't the author's native language: "Just as night fell, the electricity suddenly went out. I looked outside. It was not just our house. The whole city was completely dark. I had never seen that before. Kabul always had electricity." At first I found it distracting and difficult to read but once I adjusted I found the author's story beautiful, affecting and incredible. He relays both the good and the bad things he experienced with such clarity and depth, that his joy and pain are equally palpable. I was particularly impressed by the love he and his family bore for each other throughout all their trials, never letting each other down. I found it a very moving and unforgettable story.
Throughout much of the narrative, the author and his family (just as most residents of Kabul) are caught in the crossfire between Mujahideen warlords seeking to control parts of Afghanistan. Omar relays fleeing to his father's business partner's lavish home: Qala-e-Noborja - the Fort of Nine Towers:
What we saw, I will never forget. Thousands of people like us were taking advantage of the ceasefire to flee from our part of the city. Thousands and thousands of people, all walking in near silence. When they spoke, they whispered as if they had been forbidden to talk normally. They were strung along each side of the roadway, moving along like lines of ants. All of them had two or three bags in their hands Hundreds of dead bodies were scattered all over the pavement, on the sidewalks, and in the park in the middle of the road. Some looked like they had been there for a long time. Blood was matted all over their clothes. Most were on the main road. Maybe they had been hit by a rocket when they were trying to cross the road. But many of them had been shot with bullets to the head, chest or back I could not believe my eyes; 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.
As the fighting moved closer, Omar and his family became ever more at risk of being killed. At one point he and his grandfather only escape death because of a very fortunate coincidence, but shortly after that incident he and his father are taken prisoner and forced into slave labor under terrible circumstances. After their liberation, the family flees, spending a year trying to stay ahead of the encroaching war, only to eventually have no place left to go but back to the Fort of Nine Towers. There, they cope as best as they can until the warlords are driven out by a new faction, the Taliban, after which their lives change yet again.
The latter chapters of the book deal with Omar teaching himself the finer techniques of carpet-making (including figuring out how to build his own loom), and then becoming so successful that he needed help filling his orders. He first trained his sisters, and then their friends, eventually employing many of the women in his community a dangerous endeavor, since the Taliban prohibited women leaving their homes under most circumstances. He and his family also educated the weavers, holding classes every day, something that could easily have gotten all involved arrested and quite possibly killed. Although not as fast-paced as other parts of the work, I found this section fascinating and wished Omar had devoted more of the book to it.
Omar's account reads practically like an action-adventure novel in places, and while it's absorbing reading, at times it does strain one's credulity around the edges. The author experienced so much in such a short time that his tale almost defies belief, particularly his frequent role as the family hero when still a young child (he's always the one to hear the knock at the door that no one else does, he's always the one to alert the family to unseen dangers, etc.). Additionally, Omar describes much of his life, especially his early childhood, in overly idyllic terms. This is especially so in the middle section of the book where he and his family live a nomadic lifestyle squatting for a time in the caves behind the Buddha statues in Bamiyan (see 'Beyond the Book.'). It is quite possible that Omar doesn't remember too many details from his early childhood. Still, these sections describe a lifestyle that's too peaceful and perfect, with little attention given to the hardships that the family must have endured.
Although one might question the author's memory at times, A Fort of Nine Towers provides valuable insight into Afghani life and recent history from a native's perspective. I really felt I learned something from the author's account, and I think anyone with an interest in what has been going on in Afghanistan over the past 20 years would do well to pick up a copy.
The author shares some pictures that are a best capture of the places mentioned in the book. They are worth checking out.
This review was originally published in August 2013, and has been updated for the April 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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