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Book Review – The World is a Carpet by Anna Badkhen – 5 stars

Book cover of The World is a Carpet by Anna Badkhen

Book cover of The World is a Carpet by Anna Badkhen

My husband borrowed The World is a Carpet by Anna Badkhen from the library for me to read knowing my love of:

  • Carpets (in the last 18 months I’ve bought 1 Afghan carpet in shades of red from Bahrain, 1 Pakistani carpet from Dubai, and 3 Tibetan carpets from Nepal);
  • Reading about carpet making (A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road by Christopher Aslan Alexander is another 5 star book and The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif by Najaf Mazari is a heart-rending/warming account of a Hazara refugee/rugmaker);
  • Learning about the silk route and Afghan culture (e.g. my post here on an exhibition of Afghan treasures).

From the beginning of the book Badkhen captured me with her prose that is peppered with 5 star words, e.g.:

A memory that was the very essence of peregrination, a flawless distillation of our ancestral restlessness.

and the amazing experience that she was privileged to spend 4 seasons in a tiny desert village of Oqa – 40 cob huts of Turkomans near Mazar-e-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan. Badkhen has spent her adult life as a journalist in the war-wrecked hinterlands of Central Asia, Arabia, and Africa. As a result she does not mention, unless pertinent to the story, the privations of her time in an impoverished desert village or the difficulties of travelling daily through a region constantly at war, with multiple check-points and armed Taliban on motorbikes. Badkhen is sensitive and unjudging in the observations that she shares even of facets of life that we find difficult to empathise with. Badkhen only occasionally interferes in the lives of the families of Oqa (sometimes bringing food to her hosts, binoculars to the village Commander, and taking a sick baby to hospital) and exhibits deep affection for her male and female hosts. She talks about falling asleep holding hands with a 10 year old girl and her female relatives, the immense kindness of a host for covering her with a 2nd blanket, and the intense beauty of a warlord. She lives in the special world of the foreigner in Afghan society, rarely in purdah but instead normally dining with the men even occasionally sleeping (alone) in the men’s quarters. I loved her gentle depiction of the people that she encountered who despite the severe privations of daily life loved and cared for her. She has been going to Afghanistan since before ‘American warplanes dropped their first payload on Kabul in 2001’:

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.

In the home of Badkhen’s hosts, the daughter-in-law Thawra spends 7 months weaving a carpet (with morning sickness, a meagre diet, withdrawal from her normal daily dose of opium, an ever growing foetus, and a broken roof) by squatting on top of a horizontal loom built with two rusty lengths of iron pipe, cinder blocks and sticks. The yarn Thawra uses cost $70 USD and the dealer will buy the carpet for $200 USD. The profit will be used to buy the yarn for next year’s carpet and to keep the family of two grandparents (Baba Nazar and Boston), two parents (Amanullah and Thawra) and 3 children from freezing in the harsh winter and starving due to perpetual food shortages.

When standing atop the crumbled crenellations of Kafir Qaleh (built more than 2000 years ago by the Kushans):

“What do you think about this place?” I asked Baba Nazar. “Do you like it?” I may as well have asked if he had loved his mother. For a few beats he studied me, to make sure he had heard me correctly, or else wondering what kind of creature I was, displaced, tribeless, uncouth. But Baba Nazar was a gracious man, and with me he was patient. He said: “This is my country. It is beautiful”.

Baba Nazar was seventy years old. I had met him a year earlier. He had been seventy years old already then. Nine months later I would ask again and he still would be seventy. Few Afghans knew how old they were: Who wanted to count the seasons of privation?

Alexander the Great is said to have sent his mother a Turkoman carpet when he defeated Balkh (25 miles from Oqa), Marco Polo praised the Turkoman carpets as the ‘best and handsomest carpets in the world’.

Of all the Afghan carpets, those woven by the Turkomans are the most valued… For their rich palette of reds – mahogany, terracotta, liver, and the atrorubent of the fratricidal blood that soaks their land – the Turkomans are called the Rembrandts of weaving.

When trying to explain where America is compared to Oqa, Afghanistan, Badkhen suggests that the world is round and if you go east or west and across the ocean you will eventually reach America. The village men laugh at this and say that America cannot be in two places at once:

“The world is not round. It is rectangular. There is Pakistan on one end. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan on the other end. Iran over there. The world has four corners.” The world is a carpet.

According to a New York Times article:

Long the global leader in opium production, Afghanistan has now also become one of the world’s most addicted societies. The number of drug users in Afghanistan is estimated to be as high as 1.6 million…among the highest rates in the world. Nationwide, one in 10 urban households has at least one drug user… In rural areas, the problem is expected to be worse. In some villages, the rate of drug use is as high as 30 percent of the population…There are just under 28,000 formal treatment slots available nationwide.

Opium is very cheap and use and abuse is ubiquitous and in Oqa children are allowed to begin taking it when they are 15 years old although most are given opium during infancy. it is believed that Alexander the Great brought opium to Afghanistan as a palliative for his troops. During Badkhen’s stay in Oqa one mother (who is addicted to opium) stops lactating and her malnourished and 40 day old baby is in poor health so Badkhen takes the baby to the nearest hospital. While there a 15 day old baby is brought to the hospital unconscious and dying of an opium overdose. His mother had been born addicted to opium and had given the baby opium that morning to hush his crying but must have miscalculated the dose. After he stopped breathing she took him to the hospital. When Badkhen relates this story to the villagers in Oqa the men laughed that this could not have happened in Oqa because:

No-ho-ho…Here, we know the trick, how much opium to give a baby.

Really the only judgement that Badkhen expresses through this lovely book is to mention the damage that has been done by NATO forces since they (in her words) ‘invaded’ Afghanistan in 2001. This is a viewpoint shared by the Afghan President Hamid Karzai:

The war on terror was not conducted where it should have been, which was in the sanctuaries and the training grounds beyond Afghanistan, rather than that the US and NATO forces were conducting operations in Afghan villages, causing harm to Afghan people. The years of combat caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering and a lot of loss of life and no gains because the country is not secure. 

Last week the new Prime Minister of Australia announced the withdrawal of Australian troops from Afghanistan. The cost of the Australian presence in Afghanistan since 2001 has been more than $7.5billion AUD and in the aftermath, Tony Abbott in Afghanistan stated that Australia’s longest war had failed to secure victory:

Afghanistan remains a dangerous place despite all that has been done

A sign on the memorial to the fallen troops inside the Australian military Tarin Kot base reads, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” and how true this seems and pertinent to the sentiments of Badkhen in this excellent book.

I will end on a more uplifting note; the book is peppered by delightful interchanges, such as, when standing at the border to Turkmenistan with a young Mazari man and no visas to enter the country:

“I want to go across,” he whispered; “What would you do there?”; “Nightclubs. I miss nightclubs”; “Have you even been to a nightclub?”; “No” There are no nightclubs in Mazar-e-Sharif.; “Then how can you miss them?” “I saw it in film”


2 comments on “Book Review – The World is a Carpet by Anna Badkhen – 5 stars

  1. Pingback: Book Review – The Lost Heart of Asia | strivetoengage

  2. Pingback: Book Reflections – A Ride to Khiva by Frederick Burnaby | strivetoengage

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This entry was posted on November 4, 2013 by in travel writing and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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