A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story

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Overview

One of the rare memoirs of Afghanistan to have been written by an Afghan, A Fort of Nine Towers reveals the richness and suffering of life in a country whose history has become deeply entwined with our own.

For the young Qais Akbar Omar, Kabul was a city of gardens where he flew kites from his grandfather?s roof with his cousin Wakeel while their parents, uncles, and aunts drank tea around a cloth spread in the grass. It was a time of telling stories, reciting poetry, selling ...

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Overview

One of the rare memoirs of Afghanistan to have been written by an Afghan, A Fort of Nine Towers reveals the richness and suffering of life in a country whose history has become deeply entwined with our own.

For the young Qais Akbar Omar, Kabul was a city of gardens where he flew kites from his grandfather’s roof with his cousin Wakeel while their parents, uncles, and aunts drank tea around a cloth spread in the grass. It was a time of telling stories, reciting poetry, selling carpets, and arranging marriages.Then civil war exploded. Their neighborhood found itself on the front line of a conflict that grew more savage by the day.

With rockets falling around them, Omar’s family fled, leaving behind everything they owned to take shelter in an old fort—only a few miles distant and yet a world away from the gunfire. As the violence escalated, Omar’s father decided he must take his children out of the country to safety. On their perilous journey, they camped in caves behind the colossal Buddha statues in Bamyan, and took refuge with nomad cousins, herding their camels and sheep. While his father desperately sought smugglers to take them over the border, Omar grew up on the road, and met a deaf-mute carpet weaver who would show him his life’s purpose.

Later, as the Mujahedin war devolved into Taliban madness, Omar learned about quiet resistance. He survived a brutal and arbitrary imprisonment, and, at eighteen, opened a secret carpet factory to provide work for neighborhood girls, who were forbidden to go to school or even to leave their homes. As they tied knots at their looms, Omar’s parents taught them literature and science.

In this stunning coming-of-age memoir, Omar recounts terrifyingly narrow escapes and absurdist adventures, as well as moments of intense joy and beauty. Inflected with folktales, steeped in poetry, A Fort of Nine Towers is a life-affirming triumph.

A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2013

A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Mythili Rao
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.
Publishers Weekly
In this painstaking memoir, Kabul carpet seller and Brandeis M.B.A. student Omar recreates an idyllic childhood gradually wrecked by years of civil war and Taliban oppression. One of some 25 cousins who had the run of the family compound constructed on the Kot-e-Sangi mountainside of Kabul by his grandfather, a Pashtun banker who was also a carpet seller, Omar enjoyed an insular early upbringing, surrounded by doting aunts and uncles, luxuriant gardens, kite flying, copious meals, and a stringent education at school and from his own father, a physics teacher and former boxer who ran a gym near the house. As the factious mujahideen (“holy warriors”) began to fight among each other, living in the compound became untenable, and the extended family took refuge on the other side of the mountain in the mansion owned by his father’s carpet-business partner, a former royal residence now semiruined, called the Qala-e-Noborja, or “Fort of the Nine Towers.” Over subsequent years of turmoil, Omar and his family managed to survive the violence and instability besieging Afghanistan, and whenever they ventured out—for example, when Omar accompanied his grandfather to survey the damage at the old house—the results were horrifying. On one of his fantastic nomadic treks north, he even managed to learn carpet-making from a deaf Turkmen girl with exquisite intuitive technique. Omar’s tale strains credulity, but his prose is deliciously forthright, extravagant, somewhat mischievous, and very Afghan in its sense of long-suffering endurance and also reconciliation. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
“Mind-boggling . . . a riveting story of war as seen through a child’s eyes and summoned from an adult’s memory.”

The New York Times Book Review

“If you read only one book this summer, make it this one. It’s an astonishing tale of religious barbarians and human hope, of what happened to Kabul before and after the Taliban came to power.”

—Jeanette Winterson, O Magazine

“Beautifully written, with the pacing and suspense of a novel ... his richly detailed account of growing up in Afghanistan under the warlords and then the Taliban is deeply fulfilling, remarkable not least because he lived to tell the tale.”

The Washington Post

“A poetic, funny and terrifying memoir.”

The Economist

“Lucid, moving . . . a classic autobiography of universal resonance.”

Newsday

A Fort of Nine Towers captures a time and a place unknown to most Americans . . . graphic, certainly, but it’s also sweet and funny and inspiring.”

The Boston Globe

“As lyrical as it is haunting, this mesmerizing, not-to-be-missed debut memoir is also a loving evocation of a misunderstood land and people . . . A gorgeously rich tapestry of an amazing life and culture.”

Kirkus, starred review

“Omar’s prose is deliciously forthright, extravagant, and somewhere mischievous, and very Afghan in its sense of long-suffering endurance and also reconciliation.” 

Publishers Weekly

“An extraordinary memoir that portrays [Omar’s] coming of age during a time of madness. This story of his middle-class family’s struggle to survive during a decade of civil war and Taliban rule is even more haunting than The Kite Runner, because it’s not fiction.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Qais’s narrative cuts through hardened pro- or anti-war biases to record both the pain and pride that remain the hallmark of so many Afghans.”

The Daily Beast

“A beautifully written memoir about growing up in Afghanistan during the time of the civil wars, and the Taliban—one of the few books written about Afghanistan by an Afghan.”

The Denver Post

“Remarkable . . . a universal story of survival and the power of family.”

The Toronto Star

“Omar’s beautifully written book is an affecting account of survival in the midst of brutality and fear, and a testament to the importance of family and friendships in a place where neighbours turned on neighbours.”

Sunday Times (UK)

“Qais Akbar Omar’s memoir sets out . . . to show us the ordinary Afghanistan as well as the horror . . . Yet for all the horrors he has seen and the loved ones he has lost, there is no desire for vengeance in this account, only a profound stoicism.”

The Times (UK)

“Foreigners rarely penetrate the rich cultural depths of Afghanistan. Here at last is a powerful, haunting memoir that does justice to its tough, tenacious and astonishingly good-humoured people. The best thing about it . . . is that it is a book about Afghanistan written by an Afghan.”

Evening Standard (UK)

“Qais Akbar Omar, a young carpet merchant in Kabul, has written an autobiography that is among the best to emerge from Afghanistan . . . One of this memoir’s virtues is that it captures the chaos and depredations of the era.”

Globe and Mail (UK)

“The story of Qais’s family and their remarkable survival . . . As he shares this long journey, through terror, loss, heartbreak, and sudden moments of joy, Qais’s spirit still shines.”

Queensland Times (Australia)

“As Omar recounts in his new memoir, A Fort of Nine Towers, life in Afghanistan is full of rich culture, family tradition and storytelling . . . [it] is Omar’s attempt to heal the rift in understanding between our two cultures.”

Bookish

“[A Fort of Nine Towers] is important. It is vital. It is so simple, so honest, and so very, very real.”

LitStack

“Omar is a weaver not only of tales but also of fine rugs, and like all good tales it mixes enchantment with terror.”

Arts Journal

“This is an insider’s intimate view of a battered but beautiful country and of families that have the same cares and values as our own.”

Guelph Mercury (Canada)

“If you have an ungrateful teenager on your hands, get them a copy of A Fort of Nine Towers. I guarantee that their view of life will change for the better after reading this book.”

Afghan Culture Unveiled (blog)

“From squatting inside a cave in the head of a Bamyan Buddha to escaping torture at the teeth of a dog and his master, Qais Akbar Omar’s tale of one family’s journey during the Afghan civil war is inscriptional: its images carve themselves into the reader’s mind. Unlike most accounts of life in exile, A Fort of Nine Towers never leaves Afghanistan, as a boy and his family remain trapped within the nation’s borders by familial ties and by war. This book is essential reading for anyone eager to learn what more than three decades of war have cost the Afghan people.”

—Eliza Griswold, author of the New York Times bestseller The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam

“At a time when Afghanistan threatens to recede into a bloody and debased footnote, Qais Akbar Omar reminds us of the honor and courage of his people. A remarkable feat of memory and imagination.”

—Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, author of The Watch and The Storyteller of Marrakesh

“In this stark, unflinching memoir, Qais Akbar Omar illuminates the beauty and tragedy of a country pushed to the brink by war. A Fort of Nine Towers gives voice to the unbreakable spirit of the Afghan people.”

—G. Willow Wilson, author of Alif the Unseen

“I know of no other book in which the complex realities of life—and death—in contemporary Afghanistan are so starkly and intimately portrayed. This brave memoir, rich in tough humor and insight, recounts an insider’s view into both the suffering and the integrity of an uncompromisingly proud and courageous people. Above all, it is a powerful reminder of the extraordinary tenacity of a culture that foreigners have repeatedly and fatally misjudged.”

—Jason Elliot, author of An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan

“This is a book for those who love Afghanistan, for those who want to understand it, or simply for those who value deeply the best in the human spirit. It is a tale that deserves to rank with The Kite Runner.”

—Ronald E. Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and president of the American Academy of Diplomacy

A Fort of Nine Towers [is] a powerful coming-of-age tale set in Afghanistan . . . [B]eautifully written, with the pacing and suspense of a novel, his memoir contains moments when the grief becomes almost too difficult to bear. Nonetheless, his richly detailed account of growing up in Afghanistan . . . is deeply fulfilling, remarkable not least because he lived to tell the tale. The product of an immensely talented writer, A Fort of Nine Towers puts a human face on the violent history of Afghanistan.”

—Rachel Newcomb, author of Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Life in Urban Morocco and The Gift

“The first true life memoir of growing up in Kabul, this is both a magical and a chilling book which conveys the strength of family in truly terrible times. Definitely on my recommend list for 2013.”

Christina Lamb

Library Journal
Omar's family was forced to flee Kabul when the mujahedin took over Afghanistan, then fled again when the young Omar and his father were briefly kidnapped as the family ventured homeward. They hid out for a year behind the massive Bamiyan Buddha sculptures (since destroyed), learning carpet weaving from itinerant weavers before finally returning to Kabul. At age 18, Omar thwarted the Taliban, at that point in power, by opening a secret carpet shop where boys and girls could work and study. Perfect for readers of books like Gayle Tzemach Lemmon's The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran; with a reading group guide.
Kirkus Reviews
A carpet designer and businessman's profoundly moving account of a childhood and adolescence lived amid the Afghan civil war. When Omar was growing up in the early 1990s, his native city of Kabul was "like a huge garden." Life was full and happy, and his only concern was besting his cousin Wakeel at kite flying. But then rival Mujahedeen factions began fighting each other, transforming the once-Edenic city into a bloody wasteland that reminded Omar of "an American horror movie." The family sought refuge in Qala-e-Noborja, a fort on the outskirts of Kabul that a friend of Omar's father had transformed into a lush, green compound. As rockets and gunfire exploded around them, the family planned for their return home. Omar and his father attempted to go back to the family house, only to find it occupied by sadistic soldiers who imprisoned and tortured the pair before freeing them. As the ring of terror tightened around the fort, the family fled Kabul. Their dangerous journey took them through central and northern Afghanistan, where they camped in caves located inside a giant statue of the Buddha and joined nomad relatives on their overland treks. Along the way, Omar met, and fell in love with, an older deaf-mute Turkmen girl who taught him how to weave carpets. These skills would eventually help him support his starving, demoralized family and secretly provide work to young Kabuli women who suffered under the misogynist regime of the Taliban. As lyrical as it is haunting, this mesmerizing, not-to-be-missed debut memoir is also a loving evocation of a misunderstood land and people. A gorgeously rich tapestry of an amazing life and culture.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374157647
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/16/2013
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 458,075
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 1.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Qais Akbar Omar (whose first name is pronounced “Kice”) manages his family’s carpet business in Kabul and writes books. In 2007, he was a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado. He has studied business at Brandeis University and is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Boston University. Omar has lectured on Afghan carpets in Afghanistan, Europe, and the United States. He is the coauthor, with Stephen Landrigan, of Shakespeare in Kabul.

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Read an Excerpt

A Fort of Nine Towers

An Afghan Family Story
By Qais Akbar Omar

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2013 Qais Akbar Omar
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374157647

1
 

In the Time Before
In the time before the fighting, before the rockets, before the warlords and their false promises, before the sudden disappearance 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.
*   *   *
We have no photos. It was too dangerous to keep them during the time of the Taliban, so we destroyed them. But the images of our lives before all hope fled Afghanistan remain sharp and clear.
My mother is wearing her short skirt, sitting in her office in a bank, tending to a long line of customers. She is respected for her knowledge of banking, and her ability to solve people’s problems.
My father looks like a movie star in his bell-bottom trousers, speeding through the Kabul streets on his motorcycle. Sometimes he ties me to his back with a tight belt. His long hair catches the wind as we ride off. When he turns the corners sharply, the metal guards he wears on his knees shoot sparks into the air as they scrape the pavement. The next day I tell my classmates about that, and make them envious.
One of my uncles goes on business trips to other countries. The other uncles and aunts study at universities in Kabul. All of them wear the latest styles. Grandfather, his thick white hair neatly combed, is elegantly dressed in finely tailored suits from Italy that emphasize his affluence. When he enters a room, he dominates it.
Grandfather is an impressive man, tall, with broad shoulders. Unlike many other Afghans, he keeps his well-tanned face freshly shaved. It is his wide, black eyes that you notice most. So deep. So commanding. So gentle.
*   *   *
The images come in a rush. Sometimes they play out in little scenes.
*   *   *
My father is calling me to get ready for school. I open my eyes and look at the clock above my bed. It is too early, but what can I say to him? He is my father. I am his son. Pashtun sons must obey their fathers.
But I am not ready to wake up. I rub my eyes. My father keeps calling, “Get up! Put on your gloves. I’m waiting for you in the ring.” He wants me to exercise with him before breakfast. He has started training me to become a famous boxer like himself, and fight as he has in international competitions.
I hate waking up early, but I love exercising with my father. He always lets me beat him, even though I am seven years old.
*   *   *
I love school, too. I have perfect attendance. I am smart and popular. Sometimes the boys complain to the headmaster about me when I punch them in their faces. The headmaster covers for me, because he is Grandfather’s best friend. But he never smiles at me.
My sister and I are in the same school. She is a year and a half older than I, and even smarter and more popular, but she never punches any girls, even though she is the daughter of a well-known boxer.
*   *   *
The heart of our world is my grandfather’s house.
Grandfather had built it in the late 1960s, when he was the senior accounting officer in the Bank-e-Millie, the National Bank of Afghanistan. The country was prosperous, and he could see that Kabul would outgrow its twisted thousand-year-old streets along the Kabul River.
He bought about five acres on the far side of the small, steep mountain with the two peaks that for centuries had protected Kabul on its south and west sides. The land beyond them was then all farms with mud-brick villages, but not for long.
Grandfather had studied the land, talked to the farmers who knew it, and carefully chose the piece that had the best well. We had always had water even in the driest months, even when our neighbors had shortages. He enclosed most of his land with a sturdy cement wall, but set part of it aside for a school for all the kids whose families he knew would transform the farmlands into a neighborhood.
My father and six of his seven brothers, along with their wives and kids, all lived comfortably within Grandfather’s wall. I had more than twenty-five cousins to play with, most of them around my age. Every family had two large rooms of its own. The rooms were clustered in a single-story building on one side of the garden. Grandfather’s rooms were on the other side. Between us were sixty McIntosh apple trees. Grandfather’s cousin had brought them from America as little branches that he had grafted onto Afghan apple tree roots. They were very rare in Afghanistan, and Grandfather was proud of having them.
At one end of the property was a block-long building with two floors of apartments above the shops on the street level. Grandfather rented out the apartments to people who were not relatives. All the windows in the apartments faced the street. No Afghan allows strangers to look into his family’s garden.
My father set up a gym in one of the shops. Every day after school, dozens of young men would come there to train as boxers. My cousin Wakeel and I would watch them from the sidewalk pounding the punching bag, or doing push-ups, or skipping rope, while my father sparred with one or sometimes two at a time inside the ring he had built.
Wakeel was seven years older than I was. He was the older brother I never had. I was the younger brother he always wanted. He let me use him as a punching bag when I imitated the boxers. Every time I hit him, he laughed.
Grandfather, by then retired from the bank, used one of the larger shops as a warehouse for his carpets. It had a thick door with a strong lock and was filled with the sweet, lanolin-rich smell of wool. He had thousands of carpets in there. My boy cousins and I liked to jump from one high pile of folded carpets to another.
*   *   *
All of my uncles had their own businesses, except Wakeel’s father. He was a major in the National Army of Afghanistan. He always said, “Business is too risky. Most of these businessmen have heart attacks, or die at an early age.” He was my grandfather’s oldest son, and thus had a special place in the family. He and his wife enjoyed a relaxed life on his army salary with Wakeel, my favorite cousin, and their two daughters.
One day he went to his office and never came back. We still do not know whether he is alive or dead. It was in the time when I first heard the word “Communists,” but I did not know what it meant then. For more than twenty-five years, his wife has been waiting for him to come home. Even now, she runs to the door whenever someone knocks.
*   *   *
My father was the third son. Like all my uncles, he had only one wife. It was not our family’s custom to have more than one.
Our neighbors respected my father like a holy man. They came to see him and talked with him about their businesses and their problems. They called him Lala, “older brother,” even though some of them were older than he was. They told him, “Your thoughts are older than your age.” He was a man willing to try everything. He had no use for the word “no.”
He was also the only one of his father’s sons who was involved in carpets. His five younger brothers saw carpets as something from the past. They were looking to the future, making money in new ways.
One was importing goods from Russia. Two others were still in university but looking into importing medicine to sell to pharmacies all over Afghanistan.
*   *   *
Often, we all ate dinner together, more than fifty of us sitting on cushions around one cloth spread on the well-trimmed lawn that Grandfather had sown at one corner of our courtyard. Colorful little lightbulbs hung above us. After dinner, my grandfather and his sons sat in a circle talking about their businesses, or to which universities in Europe or America they should send my boy cousins and me.
The women made a separate circle to talk about their own things. It was the responsibility of the older women to find good husbands for the younger ones, such as my father’s two unmarried sisters, who lived with us. His two older sisters were already married, and had moved away to the homes of their husbands’ families in other parts of Kabul. Discussions on suitors could go on for months and involve the whole family until a choice was made.
My cousins and I sat in another circle, boys and girls together, telling one another scary tales, and staring at Kabul’s clear night sky with the moon and stars scattered across it. When we got tired of stories, we shaped animals from the stars and laughed.
Sometimes after we had finished eating, my father or one of my uncles would take the kids around the mountain to buy us ice cream at Shahr-e-Naw Park, or to one of the Kabul movie theaters for an Indian or American film.
*   *   *
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. Even the mountain with the two peaks was covered in low-growing weeds and grasses that came to life with the spring rains. In both spring and fall, the sky filled with the brightly colored water birds that rested in the wetlands around the city as they flew between the Russian steppes and India. Ancient underground channels brought water from the mountains, and kept our gardens green.
*   *   *
Every Friday, the Muslim holy day when schools and businesses closed, we carried a large lunch to one of the gardens of our neighbors, or to picnic spots nearby at Qargha Lake or in the Paghman Valley, or sometimes even as far as the Salang Pass, high in the mountains of the Hindu Kush an hour’s drive north of Kabul. This was a day for extended families to spend together, visiting and joking and gossiping.
My cousins and I climbed hills, while the elders reclined against huge pillows in the shade of willow trees or under the broad leafy branches of a panj chinar tree. My unmarried aunts were kept busy boiling water for the others who drank one cup of tea after another. In these long afternoons they took turns spinning some small event into a big story that made everybody laugh. They all tried to outdo one another, of course. They are Afghans. Of them all, my mother was the best.
My uncles were tabla drummers, and my father played the wooden flute, though he had never had lessons. We stayed until late into the evenings, singing, dancing, and cooking over an open fire.
Sometimes on these outings, the cousins held a school lessons competition. Whoever got the highest score could demand that the other cousins buy whatever he or she liked, no matter the cost. We, too, were very competitive. Our parents were the judges, and cheered loudly every time one of us got a correct answer. Sometimes the competition ended in a tie. We hated that.
Occasionally, some of the cousins fought and did not talk to each other for a day or two. But we could not maintain that for very long. Our games were more important, and never ended, whether we were playing hide-and-seek in the garden, or shooting marbles, or racing our bicycles in the park near our house, or especially when we were flying kites from the roof.
Every afternoon in the spring and autumn, when the weather brought a gentle breeze, hundreds of kites would fill the sky above Kabul and stay there until dark. Kite flying was more than a game; it was a matter of the greatest personal pride to cut the string of your rival’s kite. The trick was to draw your kite string against your opponent’s with speed and force, and slice through his string.
Wakeel was the kite master, the kite-flying teacher to us all. The kids on the street had given him the title of “Wakeel, the Cruel Cutter,” because he had cut so many of their kites.
One afternoon, Wakeel looked at me as we were heading to the roof with our kites and said, “Let’s have a fight!” As usual, his long, dark hair fell over his forehead, brushing his thick eyebrows. And below them were his deep-set, dark eyes that sparkled, always.
I said okay, though I knew he would cut me right away. But from the earliest age we are taught never to run away from a fight, even if we think we cannot win.
The roof of Grandfather’s apartment block was ideal for kite flying. Rising high above the trees that grew along the street, it was like a stage. People below—adults as well as kids—would see the kites going into the air, and stop everything that they were doing to watch the outcome. A good fight would be talked about for days after.
After we had had our kites in the air for half an hour, taunting and feinting, Wakeel called from the far end of the roof in amazement, “You have learned a lot! It used to take me only five minutes to cut you. Now it has been more than half an hour, and you are still in the sky.”
Suddenly, he used a trick that he had not yet shown me. He let his kite loop around mine as if he were trying to choke it. I felt the string in my hand go slack, and there was my kite, flat on its back, wafting back and forth like a leaf in autumn, drifting off across the sky away from me.
Wakeel laughed and made a big show of letting his kite fly higher so everybody in the street could see he had yet again been the victor. I ran downstairs to get another kite.
Berar, a Hazara teenager who worked with our gardener, loved kite fighting. All the time I had been battling Wakeel, he had been carefully following every dive, envious.
Berar was a few years older than Wakeel, tall, handsome, and hardworking. His family lived in Bamyan, where the big statues of Buddha were carved into the mountains. Berar was not his real name. Berar in Hazaragi dialect means “brother.” We did not know what his real name was, and he did not mind us calling him Berar.
As the suspense had built between Wakeel and me, Berar could not stop watching us. The old gardener spoke to him impatiently several times: “The weeds are in the ground, not in the sky. Look down.” The gardener was always harsh to Berar.
“Give the boy a break,” Grandfather told the gardener. They were working together on Grandfather’s beloved rosebushes. I had just sent a second kite into the air. Grandfather nodded at Berar. “Go on,” he said.
Berar ran up to the rooftop, where I was struggling to gain altitude while avoiding Wakeel’s torpedoing attacks. Berar took the string from me and told me to hold the reel.
I had never seen Berar fly a kite before. I kept shouting at him, “Kashko! Kashko! Pull it in!” But Berar did not need my instructions; he knew exactly what to do. Wakeel shouted at me that I could have a hundred helpers and he would still cut me. Though he was tall and skinny, he was very strong and he was furiously pulling in his kite to circle it around mine.
Berar was getting our kite very high very fast, until in no time at all it was higher than Wakeel’s. Then he made it dive so quickly that it dropped like a stone through the air. Suddenly, there was Wakeel’s kite, drifting back and forth from left to right, floating off to Kandahar, separated from the now limp string in Wakeel’s hand.
I climbed on Berar’s shoulders, screaming for joy. I had the string of my kite in my hands. My kite was so high in the sky, it looked like a tiny bird. The neighbor kids on the street were shouting, too. They had not seen Berar doing it, only me on Berar’s strong shoulders, cheering and shouting: “Wakeel, the Cruel Cutter, has been cut!” I kissed Berar many times. He was my hero. He gave me the title of “Cutter of the Cruel Cutter,” even though it was he who had made it happen.
Wakeel sulked, and did not talk to me for two days.
*   *   *
We had another cousin who was a few months younger than I. He never really got along with any of the others. Wakeel used to call him a jerk. All the other cousins, everyone, started to call him “Jerk” as well.
If he bought new clothes, he would walk in front of us to show them off and say something stupid. “We went to a shop in Shahr-e-Naw that opened a few weeks ago. They bring everything they sell from London and Paris. The owner told my parents that I have a good taste for clothes. I don’t think you guys can afford a suit like this.” When I asked how much he paid, he would triple the price.
Wakeel would ask, “Hey, Jerk, do your clothes do any magic for such a price?”
Jerk could never see a joke coming, and would ask something witless like, “What kind of magic?”
“Can they make you look less ugly?” Wakeel replied, his voice cracking into shrieking guffaws.
We’d all laugh, and Jerk would run toward his house and complain to his parents. We would run to the roof, or outside the courtyard, or hide in the garage inside my father’s car to escape punishment.
Once when Jerk had on his good clothes and was showing off, Wakeel filled his mouth with water, and I punched him in his stomach. That forced Wakeel to spit it all on Jerk. Poor Jerk looked at us in disbelief and asked with outrage in his voice why we had done that.
Wakeel told him, “We are practicing to be tough. We punch each other unexpectedly, so we will be prepared if we get into a fight with someone. You should be tough, too.” Then we punched him in his stomach, but avoided his face so we would not leave any bruises, because we knew that would get us spanked by his parents.
Jerk had one unexpected strength: he was always a reader. For his age, he had more information than he needed. He had a good mind for memorizing, too. That turned us even more against him.
*   *   *
Wakeel teased Jerk all the time when we were at home playing with our cousins. Outside, though, Wakeel would not let anybody bother him. Wakeel was like an older brother to all of us. When Jerk got into fights with the neighbor boys, which happened a lot, Wakeel defended him. When we were playing football in the park, Wakeel always made sure that Jerk and I were on his team, so he could protect us.
Our neighbors were like us, quiet and educated people. When there was a wedding or engagement party in one of their houses, everyone in the neighborhood was invited, along with their kids and servants.
Every week my grandfather talked for ten minutes in the mosque after Friday prayers about how to keep our neighborhood clean, or how to solve water and electricity problems, or how to take care of the public park and create more facilities where the kids could play together. He had never been elected to any position, but people listened to him.
When a family was having financial problems, one of its older men would quietly speak to Grandfather and ask for the community’s help. Then, after Friday prayers, Grandfather would explain to the other men in the mosque that some money was needed without ever saying by whom. It was important to protect the dignity of the family in need.
One Friday after the others had left the mosque, I saw my grandfather giving the money he had collected to a neighbor whose wife had been sick for many months. The man kissed Grandfather’s hands, and said, “You always live up to our expectations. May God grant you long life, health, and strength.” When Grandfather noticed that I was watching him, he scowled at me, and I quickly turned away. This was something I was not meant to see.
*   *   *
Grandfather’s house was his great pride, and the McIntosh apple trees were his great joy. He was in his late sixties when I was born, and soon after became a widower. By then he had retired from the bank, and busied himself in the courtyard, planting roses, geraniums, and hollyhocks or watering his McIntosh apple trees, always singing in a whispery voice under his teeth, or quietly reciting the ninety-nine names of God.
And for hours he would sit reading, surrounded by his books. His favorite, in two beautiful leather-bound volumes, was Afghanistan in the Path of History by Mir Ghulam Mohammad Ghobar. The title was embossed on the cover in gold. Sometimes he read to me from it.
He also had the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, which had beautiful covers as well; but he did not read those to me. When I asked about them, he said he would give them to me when I was old enough.
In winter, he studied the poets Rumi, Shams Tabrizi, Hafiz, Sa’adi, and Omar-e-Khayyam. Sometimes he invited his friends to discuss the political affairs of Afghanistan and the world. But before long, the talk would turn to poetry. He always wanted me and my boy cousins to listen to what was being said, and to ask questions.
My sisters and girl cousins were never part of those discussions. Their lives moved on a different path from those of the boys, but they were always allowed to read Grandfather’s books. Indeed, Grandfather always encouraged them to do so. “Education,” he would say, stressing the word, “is the key to the future.” They read lots of poetry, as well as novels by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, and some Afghan and Iranian novelists whose names no one knows in the rest of the world. All these books were in Dari.
Some of the older girls, including Wakeel’s sisters, read Grandfather’s books by Sigmund Freud long before I did. We could hear them whispering about something called “the Oedipus complex,” and then laughing. As soon as any of the younger cousins got too close to them, though, they stopped talking and looked at us in a way to make us understand that we were not welcome.
One day during one of Grandfather’s discussions, Wakeel raised his hand and asked what politics was all about.
One of Grandfather’s friends answered, “In fact, politics is really just a bunch of lies, and politicians are very gifted liars who use their skill to control power and money and land.”
“They must be devious people, then,” Wakeel said.
“That’s true.”
“Which country has the most devious politicians?” Wakeel asked.
“Let me tell you a story, my son,” Grandfather’s friend said, clearing his throat. “Someone asked Shaitan, the devil, ‘Since there is such a large number of countries in the world, how do you manage to keep so many of them in turmoil all the time, like Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Palestine? You must be very busy.’”
“Shaitan laughed and said, ‘That is no problem. Not for me.’ He leaned back on his cushion and raised the mouthpiece of his chillum to his scaly lips. He drew in a sour-smelling smoke that made the water in the pipe turn black with oily bubbles, then let the smoke drain out of the corners of his mouth. ‘There is one country on the earth that does a better job than me in creating problems everywhere.’”
“Really?” Wakeel asked. “Which country is more devious than Shaitan?”
“‘It is called England,’ Shaitan said.”
My grandfather and his friends all laughed, and then they talked about poetry again.
It would be years before I understood the bad feelings that many Afghans have for England, which three times invaded Afghanistan and three times was driven out. For nearly three centuries, the English used Afghanistan like a playing field to challenge the Russians in a very ugly game. Neither side won, and neither side cared how many Afghans they killed or how much suffering they inflicted on Afghan people.
*   *   *
Those days were long in the past, like the battles between the ancient kings who had fought to rule our country. Life was smooth, and easy, and full of joy, except maybe for Jerk when we played tricks on him. Time moved graciously with the pace of the seasons, and nudged us gently through the stages of life. But then one night the air was filled with the unexpected cries of “Allah-hu-Akbar,” and nothing has ever been the same since.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Qais Akbar Omar


Continues...

Excerpted from A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar Copyright © 2013 by Qais Akbar Omar. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 4, 2014

    Highly recommended

    Wonderfully written book about a family's struggle to survive the hardships of war and things beyond their control. A good look inside Afghanastan through a young man's memories ,

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  • Posted May 23, 2014

    highly recommended

    This is a wonderful book. The kind you don't want to put down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2013

    Recommend, an enjoyable and captivating read

    Enjoyed the book so very much and would recommend it. So nice to read about that part of the world from a native son who lived through many tough times but experienced so much with many different countrymen and had many enjoyable experiences as well.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2013

    Living in war and terror

    It is an important story. Follow a young boy and his family's journey through Taliban Afghanistan. Most civilized people have an inkling of the horrors that went on but now we are told firsthand. The story is in large about survival, living in fear snd terror. There is explict horror. We find some relief in encounters with various people, tribes and their customs. Living inside the large Buddhas that were later destroyed proves interesting. Parts of the story doesn't quite settle. Given these facts it is a bit puzzeling why one would want to stay in Afghanistan? The story serves as a reminder of what could be.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2013

    Great book

    Truly a great read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2013

    This book will take you on an emotional roller coaster.

    This book will take you on an emotional roller coaster.

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  • Posted May 26, 2013

    This is the book to read if you want to know what is going on in

    This is the book to read if you want to know what is going on in Afghanistan and especially what happened during the civil wars there and what life was like living under the Taliban.

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  • Posted May 1, 2013

    An absolutely fascinating read.  Gripping from the very first pa

    An absolutely fascinating read.  Gripping from the very first page.  Purchase this book and read it; you will not be disappointed!!

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    Posted July 21, 2013

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    Posted July 18, 2013

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    Posted February 27, 2014

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    Posted September 4, 2013

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    Posted May 24, 2013

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