Mapping 'The World' Of A Remote Afghan Village
When freelance journalist Anna Badkhen returned to Afghanistan in 2011, she set her eyes on a region so remote it doesn't exist on Google Maps.
In her new book, The World Is A Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village, Badkhen chronicles her time in Oqa - a rural, rainless village of 240 people and "40 doorless huts."
For many of its residents, survival hinges on the fingers of women and children. They engage in the local tradition of carpet weaving, earning about 40 cents a day for carpets that eventually sell for $5,000 to $20,000 abroad.
"It took a village to weave a carpet," writes Badkhen, explaining that each carpet served as a personal diary, "with its sorrowful zigzags, daydreamy curlicues, loops of melancholy, knots of joy."
In what reads like poetry, Badkhen's book conveys the age-old tradition against a backdrop of deprivation and violence — it's "the friction between extreme poverty and unspeakable beauty," she tells Wayne Goodwyn, host of weekends on All Things Considered.
On the village and how she arrived there
"A friend introduced me — he worked with me as a driver in 2010, and we came by car to this village of this humped desert in northern Afghanistan where nothing grows. The only water source in the village is two diseased wells. People live extremely poor — one of the poorest villages I visited in Afghanistan."
On the significance of carpet weaving
"I want people who happen to own an Afghan carpet or who go in a dealership in New York, or Philadelphia, or San Francisco and examine and admire an Afghan carpet, I want them to remember that these were woven by hand in a village, that the entire village participated. That this one carpet helps sustain the livelihoods of a lot of families, starting with the very poor weaver in Oqa to the slew of middlemen and traders who sell it each time at a markup larger than the previous markup."
On village reaction to the U.S. war in Afghanistan
"It's fair to say that most Afghans are extremely disillusioned in this war that was fought, and is being fought, very largely in their name. To them, this is just the latest iteration of war that has been battering their land since the beginning of recorded history. People in Oqa had never even heard of Osama bin Laden, which I found out after bin Laden was killed. I said, 'Have you heard?!' And they said, 'Who's that?'"
WADE GOODWYN, HOST:
Journalist Anna Badkhen first ventured to Afghanistan weeks after 9/11. Since then, she's returned several times. Her travels have inspired a book entitled "The World Is A Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village."
And what often reads like poetry, the book describes life in a remote village called Oqa, population 240. There, families sustain a living with a local tradition of weaving carpets, earning about 40 cents a day.
Anna Badkhen spoke to me from member station WBEZ. I began by asking her how she came across Oqa, a village you can't even find on Google Maps.
ANNA BADKHEN: A friend introduced me. He worked with me as a driver in 2010, and we came by car to this village in the middle of this humped, convex desert in northern Afghanistan where nothing grows. The only water source in the village is two diseased wells. People live extremely poor - one of the poorest villages I visited in Afghanistan where poverty is predominant - and very basic living. And it also is a village of carpet weavers. So what pierced me was the friction between violence, between extreme poverty and between this unspeakable beauty. So I wanted to come back and stay as long as it would take to weave a carpet.
GOODWYN: One of the images you vividly portray in the book is that the sweat and dust and dung and tea and sticky-fingered, sugarcoated hands of a little girl are woven into these carpets. Why was that important?
BADKHEN: Because I want people who happen to own an Afghan carpet or who go into a dealership in, say, New York or Philadelphia or San Francisco and examine and admire an Afghan carpet, I want them to remember that these were woven by hand in a village that the entire village participated, that this one carpet helps sustain the livelihoods of a lot of family starting from the family of - the very, very poor family of the woman weaver in Oqa to the slew of middle men and traders who will sell it each time at a markup larger than the previous markup.
GOODWYN: Oqa is just very isolated place and miles above it will suddenly appear a bomber, an American fighter, an American tanker plane. And you described the villagers trying to make sense of what they were seeing above their heads. Talk to me a little bit about that dynamic.
BADKHEN: It's fair to say that most Afghans are extremely disillusioned in this war that was fought and is being fought very largely in their name. They are very disappointed with the fact that 12 years later, much of Afghanistan still lives the same way it lived 12 years ago or 2,300 years ago, with no access to sanitation, no access to health care, that Afghanistan still leads the world in the number of infant deaths, that there are still no food for people who were starving 12 years ago. This is something that a lot of the people, with whom I had conversations, just can't fathom.
GOODWYN: You mean to say they're disappointed we haven't won?
BADKHEN: They don't really see this war as something that the United States must or can win, because to them, this war is not a specific American war. To them, this is just the latest iteration of war that has been battering their land since the beginning of recorded history pretty much incessantly. People in Oqa had never even heard of Osama bin Laden, which I found out after bin Laden was killed. And I said: Have you heard? And they said: Who is that?
So it's irrelevant. The winning or losing dichotomy doesn't apply. What applies is, well, we hear that our lives will get better because the international community is pumping all these billions of dollars into our economy, supposedly. We hear that our lives will get safer because the United States is here to protect us, supposedly.
GOODWYN: What do you hope your readers take away from your book?
BADKHEN: I hope the book brings Afghanistan a little closer to my audience, which is mostly Western, mostly American audience. I hope that it reminds my readers that we are all threads woven together in the same beautiful carpet and very flawed carpet that our world is.
GOODWYN: Anna Badkhen is the author of the new book "The World is a Carpet." Thank you so much for being with us.
BADKHEN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.