Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Fort of Nine Towers - Qais Akbar Omar

After many years of Russian rule, when the Mujahedeen came into the heart of the Capital in the year 1992, the people of Kabul rejoiced. There were widespread celebrations around the city. The house hold of young Omar was no different. His father and uncles were visibly happy and were sharing their happiness with the rest of the crowd.  However happiness did not last long. That was just the beginning of the war that damaged the country of Afghanistan for the next few decades. 10 year old Omar, who expected to see the Mujahedeen soldiers "in Uniforms and Shiny Boots", was disappointed to see the warriors with "beards, mustaches and smelly shoes that wrapped up stinky feet". 

The liberation wasn't there to stay long. Soon infighting began among different war lords. The common enemy that united them ( the USSR) is no returned to their homeland. The various war lords, started to fight amongst themselves for the control of the province.  Living in the mansion, built by his grand father, called as'the President' by the neighbors, for he was the second in command of the government financial institution, the extended family of Omar and his cousins and their parents have to seek refuge. The rockets started falling in the gardens, the carpets traded by his father, has been confiscated by the 'warriors' and their life itself was under threat. The team, decided to move out of the central part of the city to the outskirts around the hill, where Omar's fathers business colleague is living in a fort mansion. The story of "A Fort with Nine Towers' thus begin. Next few years, Omar and his family live in this fort, largely protected from the war and the missiles.

Omar, narrates the next few years of his life in the recently published book, which is already creating a rave with the world readers. Unlike, the typical coming of age memoirs, the voice here is not of the young boy, but of the grown up man, who recounts the days with his own interpretation of the grown-up man. There are family stories, the first hand experience of the young boy with the torturers , loss of family members both to the war lords and to the nature, huge sense of support and camaraderie that the people show during the difficult times and his own personal learning during the time of turbulence. There are horrifying details of torture, murder, rape and humiliation either witnessed or suffered by the young boy. The version of the warring factions and tribes and the shear destruction of the civilization by the war.

The most engaging and touching narrative is their journey as nomads from Kabul towards Mazar-e-Sharif. The beauty of the nature on one side, the plight of the family separated from their own people, various difficulties en-route ( the landslide and flood from which they had a narrow escape) , the thieving of Pomegranate ( the guilt the boy carried for a long time), the blind carpet weaver in Mazar, under whom he learnt the trick of carpet making ( which helps him in the days of Taliban later), the time and travel with the nomadic tribes ( to whom his ancestors belong), their stay in the Bamian hills in the caves behind the damaged head of the Buddha and the eventual return to Kabul after a few years, settling back in the Fort were written beautifully.

During all these times, the family was planning to escape the country as many of their countrymen to other parts of the world. There are traffickers who for a large sum of money willing to take them across to Turkey, through one of the central Asian republics. The money to take them out is hidden under the garden in the form of Gold. Every attempt to reach the place and recover, was failed, as they fall into the hands of the occupiers. They planned to escape to Pakistan, which was again failed and they ware caught by another warlord, in whose captivity, the father and son was bitten by one with sharp teeth , called "The Dog".

When everything was ready and they were preparing for their final departure, came a new force in the form of Taliban. Capturing the city of Kabul, the new regime was quick to establish themselves as the rulers and forced their decree on the people. The new dictate of living under Islamic Values, the hard and cruel way of enforcing their discipline on the people, the general fear they created on the people made the life even more difficult to the young Omar. However, he now recollects, that despite all these rules, there was a calm in the country and war was not in sight (“strange peace" says Omar) . The business, which he now set up did flourish, the state machinery was effective.  But yet again, the peace was short lived, as the Allied forces entered Afghanistan in 2001 end post the World Trade Center bombing by suspected Al Queda militants. The world for them has gone back to what it was.

A very matter of fact narration, may not be an eye opener as the snippets of these scenes have come out at in different ways. He has presented the facts from the point of his own experiences and as a story of his family, which is not different from many others. Born in a high-middle class family, he had better provisions, compared to many other who suffered. however, what each Afghan citizen had to endure is the same as the the others irrespective of their social status. The book is non judgmental and he left that part to the readers. In the concluding pages, he warns the readers "“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.”

Since it is presented as his memoirs, there is less scope for analysis and for insight to the issues of Afghanistan. I am sure that is the intend of this book as this is not a political study. The strong family ties, the closeness towards ones own at the times of difficulties, the separation and the impact of which in young ones, the slow and definite destruction of the cultural fabric of the country and many similar parallel reading is possible within the narrative. Some of the events are too brutal or good to be true. The reality borders around the exaggeration. They are harsh at times, and so moving at other places. He is able to get the readers along with him in the journey and that is the success of the book.

A Fort of Nine Towers ( 2013 )

Qais Akbar Omar


396 Pages
Washington Post, New York Times

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