LitStack Review: A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar

A Fort of Nine TowersA Fort of Nine Towers
Qais Akbar Omar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
First Edition: April 16, 2013
ISBN 978-0374157647

When my daughter was seven years old, she was in 2nd grade in the Minneapolis public school system.  She was a good student, struggled in math some, occasionally had to deal with another girl who liked to bully her.  But for the most part, she was a happy, healthy kid from a modest, loving family, living in a bustling, beautiful city.

When Qais Akbar Omar was seven years old, he also was a good student, loved flying kites, and had to deal with the occasional “jerk” of a cousin.  He also was part of a modest, loving family, living in a bustling, beautiful city – Kabul, Afghanistan.  But his life changed as the fortunes of Afghanistan got pulled from occupation, to Mujahedin (warlord) infighting, to the iron grip of Taliban fundamentalists.

In the time before the fighting, before the rockets, before the warlords and their false promises, before the sudden disappearances of so many people we knew to graves or foreign lands, before the Taliban and their madness, before the smell of death hung daily in the air and the ground was soaked in blood, we lived well.

The Kabul that Qais remembers before the fighting sounds beautiful, a gem of a city that was prosperous, awash in history, and well cared for.  A city that doesn’t sound that much different than the one I live in, than others I have lived in.

Kabul was like a huge garden then.  Trees lined the wide streets and touched each other overhead in tall, leafy arches.  The city was full of well-tended parks, in which tall pink hollyhocks competed for attention with bright orange marigolds and hundreds of shades of roses.  Every house had a garden with pomegranate, almond, or apricot trees.

This, unfortunately, is not a Kabul that many of us picture when we think of that war torn city.  This is not the Kabul of today.

From a young boy’s memories comes a remarkable story of the changes in Afghanistan in the last few decades, a story that is full of strength as well as fear, and one that overwhelmingly testifies of a love of family, and strong ties to the land.  While it does not flinch from atrocities, terror and a simmering sense of outrage, it also does not hesitate to show that even in desperate times there can be beauty, joy, and life well lived.

The book begins with Qais as a young boy in Russian occupied Kabul, shortly after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and right before the arrival of the Mujahedin, or Holy Warriors, in 1991.  While life in an occupied country was not ideal, especially with the lack of recourse against hostile troops and the repression of religious traditions, there was at least an aspect of stability; business proceeded as normal, the economy functioned, trade flowed between Afghanistan and its neighbors.  Qais’ father was part of the family carpet selling business, providing them with a solid income and a well known presence in the city.  His mother had a good job at a bank, and the children – Qais, his older and two younger sisters, and his baby brother (whom he fondly calls “the crying machine”) were well schooled and lovingly tended.  Still, they, like many Afghans, they were hopeful that a shift in power from foreign occupation to the groups of Mujahedin who had banded together not only throughout Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan and Iran, would bring about a resurgence in Afghan self-governance, justice, and independence.

And things were good for a few months.  Markets were full and prices were cheap, people could travel wherever and whenever they wanted, without being afraid of being caught in the crossfire between Russian troops and Afghan rebels.  The mood of the country was one of great optimism.  But before long, small squabbles between different Mujahedin factions turned into fights that literally exploded in Kabul and across Afghanistan.  Qais and his family were caught in the middle.

What would you do if your family’s livelihood was stolen, and you were afraid to leave your home because there were snipers in the hills and on the rooftops around your house that would shoot anyone for target practice, regardless of who they were?  If bombs and mortar shells fell constantly, leveling trees, buildings, everything that once was green and beautiful?  What if you had no way of communicating with friends and relatives, of knowing if they had fled or been killed or were holed up as you were in their homes?  If the city of your birth and where you have lived your entire life is now the center of chaos and lawlessness engulfing an entire nation?

If you are like Qais Akbar Omar, you learn to endure.  You take advantage of what you can, you learn how to cope, you lean on your family and the contacts you have made over the years, and you listen to your father, your uncles, your grandfather.  Sometimes you fight.  Sometimes, you can’t.  Sometimes you flee.  But you never give up hope.  You never let go of those around you.  You hold on to your faith, you learn where you can, and you live your life as best you can.

A Fort of Nine Towers is a remarkable book in that it is simply written about a time and a life that is certainly not simple.  Author Omar’s voice is courteous, clear, and personal.  This is not a book that spends a lot of time speaking of histories and ideologies, of relating philosophies or religious dogma, other than what is needed to understand what is happening in his country and in his head.  He is not trying to convince us, the readers, of anything, but simply to share his story with us, and in doing that, to give us an understanding of his life and country.  And he succeeds, without hyperbole, without mystery, without florid language – but because of his honesty.  In that honesty, we learn so much more than we would from newspaper articles or history books.

What happens to Qais and his family is disheartening  at best, and even horrific at times.  What this young man had to endure at the age of 9, 10, 11, makes my heart break for him.  How he and his father survived some of their experiences is amazing, and to do so without being broken or without succumbing to anger and a need for vengeance is a testament to the human spirit.  The lengths that his parents will go in order to chase after some semblance of security for their family is breathtaking.  And yet the experiences that they have, even under duress – their stay within caves at the statues of the Buddhas of Bamyan with many other refugees, the time they spend with relatives in Mazar where Qais learned  about carpet weaving and design from a mystical young girl evermore known as “his Teacher”, traveling with the nomadic Kuchis and their camel caravans, which almost felt like paradise after the hostilities of the cities – these things all held marvels despite the circumstances.

I could hear the songs of a donkey driver from the bazaar and the flute of a herd boy from the hillsides.  The whole land seemed ready to burst into song.  I saw the girls from the town going down to a stream to fill their pitchers with water.  They wore their best clothes.  Young men stole glances at the girls as they walked past with their pitchers on their heads.

Then in 1996, suddenly the bombs stop falling in Kabul.  The Taliban has come to Afghanistan, and everything changes again.  The factions no longer fight in the street, but they have been replaced by an ever greater threat – one of ignorance and rigidity, bloodily backed by heavy handed and strangling ideologies that are based more on power than they are on religious principle, strictly enforced through edict, indiscriminate seizure, torture and fear with no recourse, no tolerance.  Bombs no longer fall, but the fear of the people is even more razor sharp.  This is the backdrop of Qais’ adolescence.  But rather than be broken, Qais and his family endure.  They hold on to each other, they scrap for everything they can.  They hope – and they teach those of us who will stop to listen to their story.

For many of us, knowledge of Afghanistan is limited to the actions of September 11, 2001, military actions against the Taliban, hostilities spilling in from Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan, and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  But this land and this people have had an advanced culture for thousands of years before the birth of Christ.  They are a people who deserve the understanding of world.

At the end of the Acknowledgements in A Fort of Nine Towers, Qais Akbar Omar writes:

I hope this book will lead others to become curious about the many layers of Afghan culture that so unexpectedly and for many of the wrong reasons have become the focus of the world’s attention.

I hope so, too.  For this is knowledge that can help change our world, that can help us better understand the forces that blow across not just across one small country, but across our world.  Reading A Fort of Nine Towers has definitely changed my life and broadened my own focus on what is happening a half a world away, today and in the days to come.  It is important.  It is vital.  It is real.  I sincerely hope that you, too, will read and learn.

It is important.  It is vital.  It is so simple, so honest, and so very, very real.

~ Sharon Browning

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