An unforgettable portrait of a place and a people shaped by centuries of art, trade, and war.
Anna Badkhen first travelled to Afghanistan 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 immortalises 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.
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