Qais Akbar Omar’s gripping autobiography, ‘A Fort of Nine Towers’, gives a glimpse of an Afghanistan that slid into chaos during the Taliban rule
Author photograph by Tom Fattori
By Shevlin Sebastian
Afghan author Qais Akbar Omar has a deceptive style. He begins a paragraph in the most innocuous manner and gives you a jolt by the end of it. Here is an extract: “In the centre of the courtyard where the platform for the musicians had been, there was now a ditch filled with the heads of men and women. Dozens of them. I looked at them with their eyes open, staring at me, with their shabby hair matted with blood. I started to vomit, but controlled myself.'
Another example: ' Berar did not answer. Then he nodded at the other two men. One man picked the commander up on his shoulders, and in one fast move carried him over to the edge of the roof and tossed him off. We listened to one long scream and then a thud.'
This event was the climax of a two-week period when Qais, then only 11, was imprisoned along with his father by one of the factions in Kabul and made to do forced labour. During that time, Qais watched the captors rape a woman repeatedly, while another woman gave birth.
He also saw a prisoner being shot to death at close quarters. “When they turned the victim on his back, there was a tiny hole where his heart was,” writes Qais. “The exit wound was bigger than the entrance. The exit wound is always bigger than the entrance; this is something children in Kabul had come to know.”
'A Fort Of Nine Towers' is a compelling and lucidly written autobiography of life in Afghanistan during the 1990s when fighting broke out between the various tribes – Panshiris, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Pashtuns, Hazaras and the Taliban. Eventually, it was the Taliban that took over and brought the country to its knees, with its puritanical and rigid laws and random killings.
Qais belonged to an upper middle-class family, which dealt in carpets. However, they sank into poverty when the Taliban raided their house and took over. The apple orchards were destroyed and 6000 carpets were stolen. Qaia's family fled to the Qala-e-Noborja (The Fort of Nine Towers), the title of the book, on the outskirts of Kabul. From there, they went to places like Kunduz, Tashkurghan, Bamiyan, and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Along the way they had strange experiences that resembled more a work of fiction than reality. When staying with the Kuchis in Samangan, Qais discovered an astonishing way the people caught fish. They took a generator to the river, switched it on, and placed the wire in the water. Soon, the electrocuted fish floated to the surface. On another occasion, a Kuchi threw a grenade into the river and dead fish fell on the shore, in large numbers.
In Bamiyan, the family lived for weeks inside the cave behind the 2000-year-old Buddha statues. They could peer outside through the eyes of the Buddha. This, incidentally, was a United Nations World Heritage site, which was blown up, with the use of dynamite, by the Taliban in March, 2011.
Meanwhile, there were horrifying experiences, too. His cousin, with whom he had been close, died of a rocket attack. He saw random murders and killings by trigger-happy youth. Finally, Qais watched, with growing dread, Taliban-staged amputations and public hangings at the football stadium in Kabul. His description of one such event is calm, clear-eyed and accurate.
“They stood the thief in the middle of the football field and opened his handcuffs,” says Qais. “The Taliban held his right hand down on a table. A doctor injected the man’s right arm with anaesthetic, then took a saw and cut off the man’s hand while he watched. One of the Taliban took the hand and waved it around to the crowd. The hand was still bleeding, and the pale fingers seemed to our horrified eyes to be moving very slowly.”
Despite focusing on these tragedies, what ultimately shines through in the book is the powerful and positive spirit of Qais and their family, as they passed through the numbing darkness to the hazy daylight of the post Taliban era.
And as we journeyed along with him, he kept throwing little nuggets of wisdom: ‘Those who carry a gun are the most cowardly because they cannot protect themselves without it’. ‘A woman can keep you warm like wine or cold as ice’. ‘The secret of survival is to open the eyes. Closed eyes can never see the path’.
Qais shows the path to the reader on how to survive in a society of such unpredictability and chaos. For Indians, there is a lesson to be learnt: divisive politics leads to horrors and destruction, while an inclusive one produces a harmonious and prosperous society.
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)