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Updated: August 31, 2013 18:13 IST

A rich tapestry

Amandeep Sandhu
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A Fort of Nine Towers; Qais Akbar Omar; Picador, Rs.599.
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A Fort of Nine Towers; Qais Akbar Omar; Picador, Rs.599.

A poignant tale of a family’s attempt to escape the horrors of war.

When you pick up A Fort of Nine Towers, say a silent prayer that you will not skip some pages because the horror is too much to digest. Remember, unlike how it seems from the headlines of newspapers, real people lived and suffered the atrocities of the Mujahideen and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Like Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Qais tells the story of his own family when civil war broke out in the 1990s and his country crumbled. Even as a non-personal story, the book is unforgettable but knowing that it is a real lived experience adds a greater degree of poignancy.

Qais’s family had to abandon their grandfather’s large house with McIntosh apple trees in Kabul and find sanctuary with Haji Noor Sher, a family friend and partner in the carpet business. From Sher’s house Qala-e-Noborja across the Sniper Mountain, they attempted to retrieve the gold from their house in Kabul and faced death at the hands of the Hazaras, the Panjshiris, Masood’s rockets, Zarzad’s human dog, Hekmatyar’s violence and finally the Taliban. They could not stay as guests forever so Qais’s father started looking for ways to contact smugglers who could help them escape from Afghanistan. They started their journey by car, on foot, and by flight to stay a few steps ahead of the relentless civil war that pursued them — from Kabul to Doshi to Bamyan to Kunduz to Mazar-e-Sharif and back. They escaped the floods, found a host in Tashkurghan, travelled with nomads, had many experiences, but kept hurtling from one obstacle to another.

The novel is relentless, yet there is warmth in the way the narrative unfolds. Qais is restrained. Before he wrote the book, Qais was a carpet weaver and he makes good use of those skills in telling this story. He mixes his grandfather’s wisdom, his mother’s patience, his father’s maturity, his cousin Wakeel’s sense of responsibility, the beauty, the lyricism, and the hard conditions of their lives to weave a rich tapestry of emotions, which enhances our understanding of Afghan society.

Since the book’s primary audience is western, Qais details his region’s anthropological aspects: the rituals of meals and behaviour, customs, the tradition of nomads, kite flying, childhood games and so on. While the atmosphere is full of the horrors and the attempts to escape, what holds the narrative together is the adolescent protagonist’s growth in the face of increasing fundamentalism and Talibanisation of his society.

Qais’s deadpan tone seems inspired by the harsh but enchanting geography of Afghanistan: “Our neighbourhood had become a fast food restaurant for dogs.” Or, “her hands smelt of onions, and that scent meant everything that is good in the world.” The family members are fiercely loyal to each other. It is endearing and heart-breaking to read about the character’s hunt to educate himself, his efforts to find a teacher, his explorations in the caves of Bamiyan and his understanding of Islam.

This book is also a cautionary tale. It shows what awaits a society that allows itself to be divided. The ending is a bit sudden and abrupt but may be Qais is saving up for a sequel. To use Qais’s own metaphor of kite flying, with a book like this at the beginning of his literary career, I hope he can lift his next stories from the literal to the glorious.

After all, like Conrad, Qais learnt the English language only after he turned 18. Qais is a writer to watch for in the days to come.

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