Weaving Time: Anna Badkhen on The World Is a Carpet

It’s been over a dozen years since Afghanistan most recently popped into American consciousness — this time as the site of a distant war about terrorism. We’ve been engaged in conflict there for over a decade, and our media has offered pictures of tankers and poppies, soldiers and explosions, guns and grief. As a result of the current conflict, many people who never knew the history of the Hindu Kush now know about Afghanistan as a contested region since the times of Alexander the Great, as a strategic territory in the Imperial Great Game, and more recently as a site of American-financed fighting against the former USSR. That is to say: many of us know Afghanistan as a country shaped by war. Yet even after over a decade of war, few of us know Afghanistan as a country shaped by art, by textiles, by the carpet trade. And despite the myriad images of a war-torn country, very few images have let us inside the homes and lives of ordinary Afghans, into their meals and conversations, into their cycles and festivals, and into their domestic space.

In The World Is a Carpet, journalist Anna Badkhen offers us an Afghanistan few of us have seen, a meticulously drawn portrait of village life in a place where some of the world’s most beautiful carpets are being painstakingly woven by hand, by women who live in huts and drink tea and sing and joke as they weave. In a place known for its carpets since the time of Alexander, Badkhen weaves us into an ancient way of life, an ancient means of making a living.

Anna Badkhen spoke with me via email about  her book and the Afghan people whose stories she tells. —Tess Taylor

The Barnes & Noble Review: As someone who lived in rural India as a kid, I read this book with recognition and gratefulness. You captured something I feel has been missing from nearly all reporting about Afghanistan, which is the daily state of people’s lives; what they are doing when bombs are not falling; who they are; how they live; what their arts and homes are like. Your affection for and sense of connection to that daily life shines through. Indeed, your book is remarkable in capturing what at one point you call the “pastoral” rhythms of village life in Afghanistan. In a place whose history is shaped by epic acts of war, you chose a domestic frame. When did it become apparent to you that you needed to do this?

Anna Badkhen: I, too, was raised in the developing world — though my Global South lay quite far north, on the fifty-seventh parallel, just below the Polar Circle, in Leningrad, USSR. Outside was hostile, because of the shoddy infrastructure, the KGB spooks, the indifferent officialdom. But then you walked through someone’s doors, into their beggared kitchen, and there, inside, you shared their tea, their grief, their joys, their daily routines: the universe.

I know, then, that the geographies many in the West perceive as backdrops for wars, famines, man-made and natural catastrophes, are in fact thoroughly peopled landscapes. I wanted to show Afghanistan not the way we in the West most often see it — through the gunsight of an American Marine, from behind the fortified glass of an armored truck, or blast-proof walls of compounds in Kabul — but from within, the way Afghans themselves see it: from a village mud hut, the back of a pack animal, the window of a crowded passenger bus heaving over mountains. Because I am at home both in the West and the Global South, such storytelling is, I believe, my responsibility as an intermediary. It is my responsibility to remind my readers that the almost 30 million people who live in Afghanistan are not cartoonish, two-dimensional stick figures. Only in this way, I believe, can we fully appreciate both the humanity within one another and ourselves, and the savagery of war. I must remind my audience of our complexity as humans.

BNR: How did you first connect with this family? Did you set out to write about rugs and find them, or did you find them and get intrigued by rugs? How did you and they build relationship? Will they see this book or your writing about them?

AB: One April day in 2010 I had a spare afternoon, and the man who was working with me as a driver brought me to the village of Oqa. We drove across a roadless desert from another village, where we had talked to an old shrine keeper, climbed a minaret, and feasted on handfuls of warm, juicy mulberries from the trees. There were no mulberry trees or minarets in Oqa. The village sits on a barren clay hillock overlooking convex loess desert. The landscape around it is just as barren. There are a few camels, some sheep. Men earn their families’ living by taking to nearby villages heaps of calligonum, a thorny desert brush that serves as kindling,  and bartering it for rice, oil, and flour. And in almost every house a woman squats atop a horizontal loom, weaving.

It was inexpressibly beautiful, this desert village of carpet weavers at the edge of the world, and it was also utterly forsaken by everybody else. It was a distillation of everything that has gone wrong, is going wrong, with the West’s war in Afghanistan. Yet it also was, in a way, a distillation of everything that persistently, stubbornly goes right: a village of survivors of millennia of war that has been ravishing Afghanistan almost incessantly since the beginning of recorded history.

The driver said: “This is Anna, she is an American journalist. This is Baba Nazar, he is a hunter.” And Baba Nazar said, “Welcome,” and I said, “Thank you,” and he took me inside his mud-and-straw home so I could meet his wife and the rest of his family. His daughter-in-law was there, in the loom room, weaving. And I knew I had to return and write about the friction between violence and beauty, between the ancient and the modern. I wanted to tell the story of our perseverance in the face of mass violence. I wanted to return to Oqa and spend there as long as it takes to weave a carpet. A carpet is a good common denominator — most of my readers have heard of, and some perhaps own, an Afghan carpet. It allows me to throw my audience a familiar thread to grab onto as they journey to this very unfamiliar land.

BNR: There’s a seamlessness about the reporting in the book: You capture a year in its four seasons of village life. Yet you’re not ever able to spend the night in the village, so much of what you report is made via visits from a neighboring town. What exactly was the balance of time? Did you spend the whole year in Afghanistan?  If not, how did you plan your travel?

AB: I stayed in Afghanistan for long stretches of time during all four seasons of the year when I was researching this book. I did not spend an uninterrupted year in the country, and I did not need to: I have been traveling to Afghanistan since 2001, I have lived in it in all seasons, and I know the way the country feels, tastes, smells throughout the year. Staying in the area continuously for a year would have endangered my hosts and friends tremendously. It is very unsafe to be picked out by anti-government, anti-Western insurgents as someone who harbors, or works with, a Westerner.

BNR: I’m interested in your choice not to tell us what year it is. As we read, we fall away from our own temporal measurements and enter the rhythm of a place and time where cycles are measured differently. But war is encroaching. Did you ever feel a need to announce more concretely what was happening outside the frame of the book?

AB: I’m glad you’re asking this. On the one hand, the year is irrelevant because, in a way, Afghanistan is timeless, its perpetual war is timeless. Western time means nothing in the Khorasan: it abides by its own clock, the clock of snow and kidding ewes, the clock of Ramadan fasts and spring solstice celebrations. Time pools and unfurls in its valleys and crevasses at a pace set not by the calendar but by memories of trespasses ancient and recent, by scars of iniquities, by wedding feasts, by harvests abundant and measly. I wanted the narrative to abide by such rhythm, as well.

At the same time, Afghanistan does not exist outside time, because it doesn’t exist outside the world. So the book, like the people in it, has a very distinct countdown of events that take place during that particular year, that condition the cadence of life: the Taliban attack on a United Nations compound in Mazar-e-Sharif; the seizures of certain villages and towns by insurgents; to a lesser extent — though the villagers of Oqa did not acknowledge it — the killing of Osama bin Laden. These milestones, not the dates to which we in the West bind them, are what matters.

BNR: This book centers around craft, art, and hearth — a family that is sustaining itself through the labor of a woman who is weaving a rug, which then goes out into the markets of the world, where it fetches a great deal more money than the family and village that made it will ever see. I noticed that you didn’t actually follow the rug we’d been reading about in the book to the market. Tell us about that difficulty in tracing and following objects.

AB: The original idea for the book was to follow the rug. I thought of it in the States, after my first visit to Oqa. Then Afghanistan happened. One of the conditions of my work in extremis is always to expect that nothing will go according to plan, especially if the plan is not something I have devised on the road. Being flexible makes me vulnerable and uncomfortable. Being vulnerable and uncomfortable are, I believe, preconditions for hearing acutely, seeing acutely. Plans that work out perfectly breed complacency. This might be a bit of a spoiler, but I do love the fact that at one point the carpet simply vanished. Poof! It humbled me. Beauty, not just in the Khorasan, is ephemeral. This is why it is so precious.

BNR: Often, in these village situations, you seem remarkably flexible as a reporter. For instance, as a woman, you have access to women’s lives, but as an outsider you’re often in conference with men. How did gender factor into your ability to record this story?

AB: Being a woman granted me access to the world beyond the purdah, to priceless hours of sex gossip and vulgar jokes in kitchens, nights jigsawed among a dozen of women and girls and infants on bedroom floors. No male outsider, foreign or Afghan, would have been allowed to spend such intimate time with the women. At the same time, because I am such an oddity — a foreign woman traveling alone — men usually seemed pleased with the opportunity to swap stories with me. To circumvent our gender differences they would treat me as an honorary man. My work in traditional societies that prescribe strict male and female roles almost always ends up being slightly gender-bending.

BNR: You mention the presence of your son at the beginning of the book. As a fellow mother, I wondered if you could share some of other the logistics of gender. How do you shape time to do this work? What resources does it take?

AB: It takes an extra load of mother-guilt, reliable friends, and a very independent and mature son. He is now sixteen. We are proud of each other, most of the time.

BNR: I’m curious if there are any epilogues that you would share with us about the family, the village, your time. Do you remain in touch? Are they well?

AB: I hesitate to answer. We are in touch. Baba Nazar recently had most of his remaining teeth pulled. Amanullah periodically travels to Mazar-e-Sharif and visits with Fahim, one of the men who worked with me as a translator. Are they well? A clean well hasn’t sprouted in Oqa, a doctor hasn’t materialized, nor a mullah or a teacher. The desert hasn’t reversed its desiccating encroach and no one got suddenly rich. But they are survivors. They hearten me.