A patriot's strife

A patriot's strife

In this memoir, an Afghan family's attempts to escape the horrors of war show them new ways of seeing their world, writes Mythili Rao

A patriot's strife

In 1992, when the mujahedeen arrived in Kabul, young Qais Akbar Omar “expected to see heroes in uniforms and shiny boots.” Instead, the Holy Warriors had “beards, moustaches and smelly shoes that wrapped up stinky feet.” Omar’s father and grandfather were hopeful, but the liberation was short-lived. Soon, fighting broke out across the city.

“It was like when a forest catches fire,” Omar writes; “both the dry and the wet burn.” The family retreated to their basement before the onslaught of rockets and snipers forced them to abandon their home altogether. Piling into their Volga, Omar and his mother, father, three sisters, baby brother, two aunts and seven cousins set out for safer ground.

Mind-boggling yet matter-of-fact, A Fort of Nine Towers is the memoir of a childhood in ‘90s Afghanistan — a riveting story of war as seen through a child’s eyes and summoned from an adult’s memory. The book takes its title from the house on the outskirts of Kabul, where the family finds refuge, a 100-year-old fort called Qala-e-Noborja. Although the name refers to nine towers, only one remains. “The other towers,” the home’s owner (Omar’s father’s business partner) says with a wink, “are invisible” — but there are plenty of enchantments in plain view: flowers, grapevines, parrots, deer, even a leopard.

Outside this haven, the city is engulfed in fighting, and each venture beyond the walls of Qala-e-Noborja brings a taste of new horrors. On one attempt to visit their old home, Omar and his grandfather are detained by a man wearing a garland of grenades. “Why don’t you choose which kind of rose you would like to have growing in your own skull?” he asks, pointing to the severed heads in their neighbour’s courtyard. The next time Omar and his father try to check on their old home, they are kidnapped, dragged underground and put to work digging a tunnel. When they return to Qala-e-Noborja two weeks later, they interrupt their own funerals.

The collective memory of pre-war life repeatedly saves Omar and his family. The bloodthirsty horticulturist drops his threats when he realises he is menacing the father and son of his beloved boxing instructor. The leader of the tunnel diggers is none other than their old gardener’s assistant, a hardworking teenager and Omar’s partner in kite-fighting; upon finding his old employer’s son and grandson in captivity, he orders their immediate release. Omar’s retelling startlingly transforms each horror into a reminder of what lies beneath the rubble: an openhearted, hospitable community of generous, gregarious people, “one minute laughing and the next minute shouting” and always fiercely loyal to their kind.

When the violence intensifies, Omar’s life becomes a blur of side trips as the clan zigzags across Afghanistan to outrun the spreading conflict. Yet their journey at times seems less a flight of terror than a grand tour of the country’s heritage. In Bamyan, Omar and his family sleep in a cave beneath towering ancient Buddhist statues. After Omar steals pomegranates from a garden in Tashkurghan, its owner befriends his family and invites them to stay in his home. The disjointed road trip also provides Omar with a real education. In Kabul, his pre- and post-Soviet “formal schooling seemed to have had two subjects only: Communism and Islam,” but in the countryside, he discovers other ways of looking at the world. The nomadic Kuchi herders, who adopt his family in Samangan, teach him the value of literacy, and the Turkmen carpet weavers he meets in Mazar instill a love for working at a loom.

Omar and his family spend most of the book desperately searching for a way out of Afghanistan; they have finally raised the money for a smuggler when the twin towers fall. With the start of American airstrikes on the Taliban’s strongholds, Omar’s father digs his heels in. “I’m not leaving until I find out who these people” — the latest interlopers in his country’s affairs, that is — “are,” he declares. Resilience, of course, is itself a kind of stubbornness. Overcome with love for his homeland, Omar too ultimately pledges to stay so he can help rebuild the country. “I know it will take a long time,” he says. “I am a carpet weaver. I know how, slowly, one knot follows another until a pattern appears.”