Read an Excerpt
At four in the morning a phalanx of black silhouettes set
out across the desert: three people and a donkey headed
west on a sinuous dustbowl trail. The yogurt bow of the
moon had slipped behind the Earth an hour earlier, and the trail
wound invisibly through thick predawn dark that arced toward the
horizon. All was still. To the south, the Big Dipper scooped out the
mountains I could just skylight against the spongy, star-bejeweled
Amanullah led the way. He skirted the spines of cousinia and
the diaphanous spheres of calligonum only he could pick out,
hopped the cape hare burrows he alone knew about, sidestepped the
boulders he alone remembered. He never changed pace. He never
bent down to check for sheep spoor. He never looked up: he didn’t
navigate by stars, didn’t know their names, didn’t recognize the constellations.
What for? Stars were unreliable beacons, nomads that
moved about the heavens at will, like the Turkoman forefathers.
Have you never seen one suddenly tear off from its roost and streak
across the black, looking for a new home? Amanullah walked the
trail by heart, steering from a memory that wasn’t even his own but
had double-helixed down the bloodstream of generations of men
who had traveled this footpath perhaps for millennia. A memory
that was the very essence of peregrination, a flawless distillation of
our ancestral restlessness.
We walked single file. Amanullah first, then the donkey, then
Fahim, who taught English at an evening school in Mazar-e-Sharif
and was helping me with translation, then I. At a brisk clip, in dry
weather, the eighteen-mile walk across the hummocked loess usually
took about five hours. Amanullah had made this journey every
two weeks since he was six or seven. Now he was thirty.
“If other people in the world walked as much as we do, and
worked as hard as we do, they’d go crazy,” he announced. He paused
for effect. Amanullah bragged about the unimaginable hardships of
life in the desert fondly and often. In the dark, I pictured him smile
in sly satisfaction at the gravity of his own pronouncement. But
when he spoke again, he sounded surprised.
“But we don’t.”
It was Thursday, bazaar day in Northern Afghanistan. We were
walking to Dawlatabad, the market town nearest Oqa, Amanullah’s
village. We were going to Dawlatabad to buy carpet yarn for
Amanullah’s wife, Thawra.
For the next seven months, Thawra would squat on top of a
horizontal loom built with two rusty lengths of iron pipe, cinder
blocks, and sticks in one of Oqa’s forty cob huts. Day after day, she
would knot coarse weft threads over warps of thin, undyed wool,
weaving the most beautiful carpet I have ever seen.
If the eastern hemisphere’s carpet-weaving region that extends from
China to Morocco were itself a carpet, and one were to fold it in half,
Thawra’s loom room would fall slightly to the right of the center
fold. Prehistoric artisans upon these plains were spinning wool and
plaiting it into mats as early as seven thousand years ago. Since
then, people here have been born on carpets, prayed on them, slept
on them, draped their tombs with them. Alexander the Great, who
marched through the Khorasan in 327 bc, is said to have sent his
mother, Olympias, a carpet as a souvenir from the defeated Balkh,
the ancient feudal capital about twenty-five miles southwest of Oqa.
For centuries, carpets were a preeminent regional export, a currency,
status symbols, attachés. When Tamerlane, who was crowned emperor
at Balkh, was absent from his court, visitors were permitted
to kiss and pay homage to his carpet, which they were instructed to
treat as his deputy.
Of all the Afghan carpets, those woven by the Turkomans are
the most valued. Marco Polo, in the thirteenth century, lauded
Turkoman weavers for producing “the best and handsomest carpets
in the world.” Six hundred years later, Francis Henry Bennett
Skrine, a retired commissioner of the Indian Civil Service, and the
London linguist Sir Edward Denison Ross wrote that Turkoman
carpets were “unrivalled in Asia for beauty and durability.” 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.
Fine clay dust will filter into Thawra’s mud-and-dung loom room as
she weaves. Through the scrub-brush lath ceiling there will seep
into the room particles of manure, infi nitesimal flecks of gold from
nearby barchans, the terrible black cough of her neighbors’ famished
children, echoes of the war that jolts the plains and contorts the
Cretaceous massifs of her land. A roadside bomb will go off, and the
desert outside her doorless entryway will groan in response with the
phantom footfalls of past invaders: Achaemenid and Greek, Mughal
and Arab, Ottoman and Russian, British and Soviet. A speck of an
American Navy F/A-18 strike fighter will catch a sudden sunray on
its wing and for the instant it pierces the incredibly high azure it
will become a ghost of a different glint: on Genghis Khan’s sword
before it split the skull of a Bactrian housewife, on the barrel of a
guerrilla’s jezail matchlock before it discharged at some subaltern
of the Raj. Taliban scouts will appear on the path where Amanullah
and I walked for yarn, then vanish again, the way all raiders
come and vanish upon this eternal battleground.
Thawra’s will be a yusufi carpet, a diamond pattern her mother
and her mother’s mother wove before her, on the backdrop of wars
past. Under her thin fingers, almond-size flowers with ogival petals
will shine in a field of ocher and deep maroon. Each fl ower will
bloom from two hundred and forty knots she will tie by hand the
way her foremothers did; each knot will be a temporal Möbius strip
that ties past and present.
Once the carpet is finished it will take flight from this fantastically
brutalized land that clings to the violent tectonics at the
thirty-fourth parallel. Amanullah will roll it up and cram it into
his donkey saddlebag, and his father will take the familiar footpath
across the desert to deliver it to Dawlatabad. A middleman
there will sell it to a dealer from Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in
Northern Afghanistan, the modern capital of Balkh. After that,
perhaps, Thawra’s carpet will be jabbed into the back of a beat-up
taxicab, then tossed into the bed of a truck painted with dreamy
pastorals, in which it will journey across Afghanistan’s war-racked
landscape and over the border, through Pakistan’s implacable tribal
areas, to the rug markets of Peshawar and Islamabad. Or maybe it
will travel west, past the mass graves of Dasht-e-Leili, across the
Karakum Desert, to the bazaars of Istanbul. Or else it will trundle
in the trunk of a bus bound for Kabul, from where it will fl y to
Dubai, and from there, across the Atlantic Ocean until it alights at
a dealership in the United States, the single largest purchaser of
carpets on the world market at the time of this story. A wealthy
patron will pay between five and twenty thousand dollars for it.
Wherever her carpet ends up, for her work Thawra will be paid less
than a dollar a day.
But first, she will weave. After each knot, she will cut weft yarn
from its ball with a small, sweat-darkened sickle. Thk, thk, thk, the
sickle will go, measuring time between dawn and dusk, birth and
death, peace and war, measuring life immemorial.