Afghan author Qais Akbar Omar talks about life in the midst of conflict, Bollywood, and learning English.
Qais Akbar Omar’s family memoir A Fort of Nine Towers details the journey of one family to escape the horror of the unending civil war in Afghanistan.
At the end of his book, carpet weaver and seller Qais, who is currently pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts at Boston, says: “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.” Excerpts from an interview:
At the end of the Prologue you say, ‘Perhaps this book will help.’ Has it helped?
It is a little too early to say. A Fort of Nine Towers was published only recently. I’m hoping that it helps people around the world understand Afghanistan and our people, as well as the many layers of our culture and customs better, not to mention what we went through over the past three decades of war.
Many books about Afghanistan have been written over the past 13 years, but most of them focus on the negative things such as war, bloodshed, dirty politics, destruction, and the gruesome deeds of the Mujahideen, Taliban, and other such groups. I have tried to keep the balance between the positives and the negatives.
The book depicts the journey of a family over the past 25 years. It was our determination to remain as positive as possible so that we and other Afghans survive the three decades of war. This explains the secret to our survival.
I’m hoping that it catches the attention of those politicians around the world who are involved in Afghanistan. I want them to read it, to understand our country and society, and to make better decisions.
After all, peace in Afghanistan is peace in the region and peace in the world. At the moment, uncertainty about the future of Afghanistan hangs thick like the dust of Kabul in the air. Nobody knows where Afghanistan is headed. I hope the book helps.
Did learning to weave carpets help you to write?
Yes it did but it was not until I started writing that I noticed how similar they are. When I tie knots, one knot at the time, it takes a while until a pattern appears. In writing, I put words together to tell my story.
When I finished writing, others could see the pattern of our life and other beauties of our country, culture and customs. If A Fort of Nine Towers is a carpet, then my family is the medallion, the borders are the borders of the country, and the small patterns around the medallion are the things going on around us.
Which texts were your models while you wrote your book?
I did not use any text model to write this book. I was not intending to write a book. After 9/11, a large number of foreigners from all over the world poured into Afghanistan. Some of them that I worked with often asked me questions about what it was like during the years of civil war and the Taliban.
The more I talked about the past, the better I felt. It was like therapy. Talking about these things eased the nightmares that haunted me in my sleep and left me shattered for days. But I could not find enough people to talk about what we had gone through. We don’t have therapy in Afghanistan. Everybody there needs some.
Several foreign friends suggested that I should write down what happened. In 2004 I tried to write them in Dari, I couldn’t do it. It was too painful. I have a lot of sentimental attachment to Dari. Those nightmares continued to haunt me.
In 2006, I tried to write them in English. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I wrote the whole book in two months during which I hardly left our house. Sometimes crying, sometimes laughing, sometimes tears of sorrow or happiness rolling out of my eyes uncontrollably as I revisited the past and wrote. And I couldn’t tell whether it was day or night. But I kept writing and writing and writing.
How did you learn English?
After 9/11, the foreigners who poured into Afghanistan needed interpreters. My friends, who knew a little English, made $100 per day as an interpreter. I used to make $300 per month with my carpet factory.
I decided to learn this ‘money-making’ language. I taught myself English in six months, enough to communicate basic daily stuff, so I could get a job as interpreter. I did. The rest I learned by talking, reading in English as much as I could, and watching English and Hollywood movies.
What would have happened if you had written in Dari?
I tried to write in Dari, but I could not. When I write in English, I instantly translate what we went though in my head from Dari into English. In the process, the pain decreases. And I can write. It is still painful, but I can manage.
Do you feel more Asian writers should write in English to focus attention on the issues in their lands or societies in turmoil?
I would say write in any language that you are comfortable with. I wish I could have written this book in Dari. I may try to write in Dari some day, but it will be a different story. The one good thing about English is that many people across the world can read it. But it has its limitations. Some of the things I want to write poetically, I can’t do that in English. While in Dari, it is very simple and easy for me to do that.
How did you balance what you went through with how you tell the story?
Storytelling in Afghanistan is an art that is greatly respected. To keep the listeners hooked to the very end, a storyteller must keep the balance between sorrow and joy in telling a story. I learned all that from my mother, and applied it to my writing and story.
India occurs a lot in the book…
Because of Bollywood and Indian TV shows, almost every Afghan speaks or understands Hindi very well. Also, India has always been very generous to Afghanistan. We think of India as a very warm and welcoming country with a rich culture. I have been to India couple of times, and visited the carpet weaving locations such as Bhadoi and Jaipur. I love the country. Someday I may do business with them.
You are an established writer now, why an MFA?
You may say I’m an established writer now, but I don’t know enough about fiction writing. I’m hoping that the programme will teach me a few things. I want to tell other untold stories through the several novels I’m planning to write.