Qais Akbar Omar: What We Owe the Afghans

Qais Akbar Omar's view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes.  The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 2006, in flight from the fighting in Kabul.

Qais Akbar Omar’s view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes. The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 1993 When he went back and took this photo in 2006, the Buddhas were gone.

qais omar akbar

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood in Heaven and a civil war in Hell. In the most exciting days of his life, we’re sharing his idyllic view of the Bamyan valley from the eyes of the giant Buddha statues, before the Taliban blew them up. Then come the breakdown years of holy gangsterism and grotesque cruelty. Alongside young Qais, we’re staring down mad dogs who mean to tear him apart — and a man, believe it or not, making ready to bite him to death.

Qais Akbar Omar was studying business at Brandeis University when we started our conversations a year ago. Since then he has entered Leslie Epstein’s graduate program in novel writing at Boston University. Rug making is the link, as it also underlies the “strategic patience” he is recommending to Americans in the world. His grandfather was a rug trader, but young Qais was the first in his line to learn the rug-maker’s knots. When he started writing his personal history, he started noticing “how words are like knots in a carpet. One connects to the next until several make a thought, the way knots make a pattern.” He speaks now of this first book, A Fort of Nine Towers, as “the most complex and difficult carpet I have ever woven.” Of the post-American Afghanistan emerging, he says: “I know it will take a long time. I am a carpet weaver. I know how, slowly, one knot follows another until a pattern appears.”

In all his adventures and in his cathartic recounting of horrific fear, pain and loss, Qais has absorbed and adopted the stoic voice of his beloved grandfather. Old man and teenager are held together at one point in a ditch filled with dead bodies, under a sign promising “you will not walk out alive.” His grandfather tells Qais to write an answer in charcoal on their cell wall: “Death only breaks the cage, but it does not hurt the bird.”

There’s a challenge in this tempered memoir of a people, a culture and a U.S. warzone we barely got to know: “I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart,” Qais writes. “Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.” For American readers the particular challenge, as I take it, is to look inward at the presumption and folly of our faraway military interventions. In this case: our appropriation of Afghanistan as a key battlefield of the Cold War.

Of the Americans’ long half-trillion-dollar engagement, direct and covert, for 30 years (his own lifetime) Qais Akbar Omar writes scathingly: “We are waiting to see what they will build, besides their military bases.” What Americans have not helped Afghans build is sewers, a electrical grid or clean-water systems. What we have not learned is the double lesson dealt to Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.: that the Pushtun tribesmen of the Central Asian mountains are not to be dominated by outsiders; and that they have their own venerable shuras and the loya jirga, or grand council, for managing their many differences.

“One thing Afghans talk about,” Omar is saying, “is that Europeans and Americans owe Afghanistan this much — to bring peace to this country for defeating the Soviets and ending the Cold War.”

The way it works in Afghanistan is that with the local shura or jirga you invite the head of the town or the heads of each tribe and you sit together in a big mosque. Whether it takes one day or one month you talk about things and you come to solutions, and go on to the next thing… Militarily you fight with them for centuries. And they fight back. Afghanistan is 75 percent mountain, and every Afghan who fights back believes he is a child of the mountain. How do you fight the mountain and its children? It just doesn’t work that way. The best way is the tradition of the jirga or shura. Where is the problem? Where is the solution everyone benefits from? And then let’s go for that.

Qais Akbar Omar in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 2013.

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  • The Parrot

    Great conversation. Heart rending and thought provoking. Thank you Chris and Mr. Omar.

  • Robert Zucchi

    A land unimaginably old, inhabited at least since the start of the Upper Paleolithic (50,000 BCE). The “Graveyard of Empires,” and locus of the “Great Game,” the imperialist rivalry between Russia and Britain. You’d think that sufficient Afghan history had accumulated for even our Imperial Presidency to absorb the lessons, but no.

    Qais Akbar Omar brings a measured perspective to this surfeit of history. His advice to adopt the patience of the artisan and the consensus-seeking of Afghan deliberative bodies like the jirga and shura is persuasive, and he candidly allows that meeting in council does not always forestall armed conflict. By way of contrast: in Vietnam and Iraq, and in Afghanistan still, our commanders-in-chief have been impetuous, conflating their own prestige and honor (or their projections of same onto the nation) with objectively legitimate national interests.

    It should be of concern to supposedly freeborn Americans that every war since the Korean War has been waged without a formal declaration from Congress, which is required by the Constitution. That the public has descended into apathy and denial respecting our militarized foreign policy is deeply ominous. So too is the acquiescence of our loya jirga, the Congress, in “wars of choice.” Qais Akbar Omar says, “The best way is the tradition of the jirga or shura. Where is the problem? Where is the solution everyone benefits from? And then let’s go for that.” I hope The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body is not too sophisticated for his counsels.

  • Potter

    What drives people to do such awful things? Maybe Hannah Arendt had it. Maybe any of us could be so driven,so maddened, by religious fervor, by trauma and the need to act out, for revenge.

    What is so extraordinary is Qais grandfather’s ability to refuse to succomb. And then Qais finds that one cure is writing, creating, perfecting his craft. This is his healing his therapy, his cure, from impending mental illness, depression, spiraling downward with the rest. And his grandfather shows the way, saves him by example..

    I can connect to this. It is heart to heart. I also understand that the telling re-traumatizes but as it does it also strengthens.

    I agree mostly everyone wants normal life and some kind of shura jurga to go to to resolve differences. Why isn’t it working Mr. Karzai in Afghanistan? Or will it work once we leave? And why, after being there so many years are we not leaving more of a basic infrastructure at least? At least we are leaving- I hope.

  • Potter

    Loya jirga and shura are democratic forms, Afghan and Islamic. We are too big for a loya jirga I think, or too divided, unwilling to compromise or give in. We criticize Obama for this willingness to give in and to find compromise because we want leadership and wanted him firmly on the right side when we elected him. And so it’s a conflict, ongoing.

    In ancient Greece the ideal polis or city state was very small by comparison, manageable. Probably the feeling of community was more real.

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