Bookmark: The World Is a Carpet

It is easy to become inured to a country like Afghanistan, to dismiss it as a place endlessly wracked by war, hopeless.

It is easy to forget that it is full of human beings who do not fight on one side or the other but simply live their destinies, giving birth and harvesting whatever crops they are lucky to grow, building and rebuilding their homes, teaching their children, burying their elders, dreaming, scheming, worrying if there will be enough food the next season, or month, or day.

In her new memoir, The World Is a Carpet, award-winning journalist Anna Badkhen focuses on this Afghanistan, whose everyday rites and rhythms abide behind the newspaper headlines and nightly news reports.

An intrepid reporter who has written three previous books on Afghanistan, Badkhen chooses to set her new work mostly in Oqa, a hardscrabble village of 240 souls located on the edge of the Dasht-e-Leili Desert in far northern Afghanistan, a hamlet so negligible it doesn’t appear on any maps and government officials claim it doesn’t exist; even Google Maps doesn’t show it.

Yet Oqa is also in the heart of a region of renowned weavers, whose Turkoman carpets have been praised for their surpassing beauty, density and durability for centuries.

Explaining her attraction to Oqa, Badkhen writes:

“Perhaps I had come back for this: the unobstructed sky, the resilient candor of my hosts who wove joy out of sorrow, the seductive contrast between the ancient and the modern, between the unspeakable violence and the inexpressible beauty…. This was the friction that pierced me the first time I saw Oqa, in 2010, when I met Baba Nezar and his family, and watched for the first time his daughter-in-law squat upon the loom. That visit had lasted an afternoon. I had to return. I had to return and spend more time here—the time it took to weave a carpet.”

The book begins with Baba Nezar journeying to the market town of Dawlatabad to buy the yarn that his daughter-in-law, Thawra, will use to make this year’s carpet.

“For the next seven months,” Badkhen writes, “Thawra would squat on top of a horizontal loom built with two rusty lengths of iron pipe, cinder blocks, and sticks in one of Oqa’s forty cob huts. Day after day, she would knot coarse weft threads over warps of thin, undyed wool, weaving the most beautiful carpet I have ever seen.”

As the months unfold and the carpet grows, knot by knot, we learn how every carpet is a personal diary of the weaver’s, and her village’s, life:

“Fine clay dust will filter into Thawra’s mud-and-dung loom room as she weaves. Through the scrub-brush lath ceiling there will seep into the room particles of manure, infinitesimal flecks of gold from nearby barchans, the terrible black cough of her neighbors’ famished children, echoes of the war that jolts the plains and contorts the Cretaceous massifs of her land.”

We also learn about the village outside Thawra’s loom room: how the passage of time is measured in Oqa by the coming of the cranes in March, the return of the mynah birds in May, the ripening of melons (“gourdfuls of condensed sunshine”) in August; how time is passed in the village — drinking tea, talking, weaving, smoking opium.

We learn how villagers scrabble to eke a precarious existence out of their parched surroundings, raising goats, hunting for increasingly rare fowl, combing the desert for brush and minerals. We inhale the “smells of Afghanistan—manure, juniper fires, raw lamb fat.” We take part in an elaborate wedding that attracts some 700 celebrants to the roadless village – though the hired musicians refuse to show up because of fear of the Taliban.

Season by season, rite by rite, encounter by encounter, thread by illuminating thread, Badkhen weaves a glorious prose carpet that poignantly captures the surface and the soul of life in Oqa, and in all the Oqas that grace the loom of Afghanistan.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler magazine and has edited several travel-writing anthologies, including his latest, Better Than Fiction. Follow him on Twitter @don_george.

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