An unforgettable portrait of a place and a people shaped by centuries of art, trade, and war.
In the middle of the salt-frosted Afghan desert, in a village so remote that Google can’t find it, a woman squats on top of a loom, making flowers bloom in the thousand threads she knots by hand. Here, where heroin is cheaper than rice, every day is a fast day. B-52s pass overhead—a sign of America’s omnipotence or its vulnerability, the villagers are unsure. They know, though, that the earth is flat—like a carpet.
Anna Badkhen first traveled to this country in 2001, as a war correspondent. She has returned many times since, drawn by a land that geography has made a perpetual battleground, and by a people who sustain an exquisite tradition there. Through the four seasons in which a new carpet is woven by the women and children of Oqa, she immortalizes their way of life much as the carpet does—from the petal half-finished where a hungry infant needs care to the interruptions when the women trade sex jokes or go fill in for wedding musicians scared away by the Taliban. As Badkhen follows the carpet out into the world beyond, she leaves the reader with an indelible portrait of fates woven by centuries of art, war, and an ancient trade that ultimately binds the invaded to the invader.
The trials and tribulations desperately poor Oqa, a hamlet in northern Afghanistan so remote that regional officials don't even know it exists, comes to life through the story of Thawra, a carpet weaver, and her family. Badkhen, a Russian-born war correspondent, charts the woman's work over a year of weddings, childbirth, Ramadan, and winter snowstorms. Amid the tedium and grinding poverty made bearable by opium for the young and old alike the local Turkoman women have over the centuries earned the distinction of producing some of the finest carpets in the world. It's an existence that Westerners can scarcely comprehend, Thawra's family surviving on less than a dollar a day, earned for an exquisite piece of craftsmanship that will command thousands in the US. Badkhen gains astonishing access to male-only gatherings, earning their lasting respect, and ably documents the infinitesimal though significant influence that Thawra has as breadwinner in this patriarchal society. More travelogue than reportage, her prose is rich and unhurried, evoking the harshness of the desolate landscape. Oqa's isolation means Osama bin Laden may be unknown, but the Taliban is not; their presence an inescapable fact of life, one that propels Badkhen's story to a simple yet chilling d nouement.