An Afghan Millennial in Exile Reflects on His Country From the US
Qais Akbar Omar says he appreciates his life in the United States, which has given him shelter, an education and a certain amount of fame.
But it’s not Afghanistan, his home country.
“Of course I would love to go home,” Qais says, sitting in his small but comfortable apartment in the Boston suburb of Quincy. “In Kabul, when I wake up in the morning and see the mountains, I know those mountains are mine.”
Qais moved to the US in 2012 to pursue an MBA at Brandeis University, in order to better develop his carpet business back in Kabul. But he has yet to return home.
In 2013, Qais released his autobiography, “A Fort of Nine Towers.” It’s a searing account of his family’s ordeal during the Afghan civil war and the Taliban years, and it attracted negative attention from some of his countrymen.
In a place where disagreements all too often end in violence, many took exception to Qais’ frank indictment of the actors in those conflicts. They felt it cast the country in a negative light.
“People would come to my father’s carpet shop asking for me,” Qais explains. “They slid letters under the door at night, threatening us.”
Things got so bad that last year, when the 32-year-old’s mother died unexpectedly, his father forbade him to come home.
“We were crying on the phone,” recalls Qais. “I said, ‘I will be there by tomorrow,’ but my father suddenly stopped and shouted, ‘No! You cannot come. I will not have a bloodbath at the funeral.’”
After Qais published an article in The Atlantic last September about Afghanistan’s presidential elections, the number of suspicious visitors increased so much, Qais’ father closed his store.
His father now sits at home instead of going to work, and has told Qais to clear any further articles with him.
“My father is now my censor,” Qais says with a laugh.
Qais comes from long line of carpet sellers, and he finds beauty and solace in the trade. Sitting in his apartment in Quincy, he says he never thought he would want more out of life than a carpet selling business. Destiny, however, had other ideas.
Qais was born in 1982, in a country at war. The Soviet invasion, which began in December 1979, was well underway.
Qais remembers his early childhood — spent in his grandfather’s large compound in Kabul, surrounded by parents, siblings, uncles, aunts and dozens of cousins — as idyllic. There was always someone to tease, fly kites with, and share meals with on the long tablecloth spread on the dining room floor.
Soviet planes may have been decimating villages, killing hundreds of thousands and driving millions into exile, but Kabul was calm and peaceful.
“We thought the Russians were very nice people,” recalls Qais. “They would throw us chocolate from their tanks, and we would yell “spasibo,” even though we did not really know what it meant.” (“Spasibo” is Russian for “thank you.”)
“We did not feel the effects of the war,” he adds. “The media was controlled by the government.”
The government, in turn, was supported and controlled by the Russians, so reports of the carnage were few and far between.
But once the Soviets left in 1989, things took a turn for the worse. In 1992, Afghanistan entered its darkest period, the savage and chaotic civil war, when the mujahideen, or “holy warriors” who had liberated the country from the Soviet invaders, turned their guns and anger on each other.
Qais was just 10 when the war started, but those years would mark him forever.
As he describes in his autobiography, Qais’ family lost everything — their livelihood, their home and the feeling that life made sense. Qais witnessed unspeakable brutality and unbelievable heroism, filing it all away in the deepest recesses of his young mind.
The fighting continued for four years. Qais and his family fled Kabul, setting out on a perilous journey where death seemed to hover around every corner.
When the Taliban finally drove the mujahideen from power, Qais felt only relief. No matter how harsh their rule, the Taliban were, at least initially, a vast improvement over what had come before.
“We welcomed those people,” Qais recalls now. “At least I did not have to worry that my aunt, my mother and my sisters would be raped in the next minute.”
But the Taliban rule became increasingly onerous. Qais himself was imprisoned for 10 days after a scuffle with a Talib who objected to his long hair.
“The movie ‘Titanic’ had just come out and everyone wanted to look like Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said with a laugh. Qais, who trained as a boxer, broke the man’s nose, and soon found himself chained to a wall with a mullah beating him with a whip several times a day. Adding insult to injury, they also shaved his head.
Qais’ father finally decided on the unthinkable: leaving Afghanistan. He paid a smuggler to get the family out through Central Asia, planning to wind up somewhere in Europe.
Before they could depart, on September 11, 2001, hijackers flew two planes into the World Trade Center, and Afghanistan once again found itself at the epicenter of world affairs.
Qais and his family watched the US-led invasion from the rooftop of their new house in Kabul, and his father suddenly announced that they would not be leaving after all. Over the vehement protestations of Qais’ mother, his father explained that a man did not abandon his country to an invader.
“We are not leaving Afghanistan until we find out whether these Americans are our real friends, or enemies in the mask of friends,” said Qais’ father.
Now, more than a decade later, Qais says he is still not entirely sure what the answer is to that vital question.
“The Americans are our friends, but they are not very smart about the choices they make,” he says. “They do not learn from their mistakes. They do not understand Afghanistan, our culture and customs, what makes us.”
The misunderstanding can be mutual, as Qais learned soon after he came to the US.
“I remember my first trip to Walmart,” he recounts with a smile. “I got up to the register and the cashier, a chubby blonde woman, rang up my purchases. ‘That’ll be forty-five dollars,’ she said. ‘Make it twenty-five,’ I answered. She just looked at me.”
Qais was with an American friend who in a panicked whisper tried to explain that this was not how things were done in the US.
Qais waved away his protests, sure that he had the situation well in hand.
“In Afghanistan, only an idiot pays the first price asked,” he explains.
On that occasion, the Afghan carpet trader ultimately had to bow to a new reality.
But he dreamt of bringing his country and culture alive for the rest of the world.
It was this drive to explain that led Qais to start writing. In the first years after the US-led invasion, he made friends with the waves of newcomers who were now living and working in Kabul. He taught himself English, and he regaled his new acquaintances with tales of his family’s ordeal. Slowly he came to realize that the events that had shaped his life were all but unknown outside of Afghanistan.
A friend, journalist and author Stephen Landrigan, encouraged him to write it all down. He started his epic autobiography in 2006.
“Once I started, I could not stop,” he says. “I did not leave my room for two-and-a-half months. Then I gave Steve a manuscript of 750 pages.”
Qais wrote his book in English because “it was too painful to write in my native language, Dari,” he says.
Landrigan helped him shape the book and find an agent. Qais was initially reluctant to make such personal reminiscences public, but once the publishers started calling, he decided to go ahead.
The book changed his life.
Over the past three years he has abandoned his carpet business and devoted himself to his new craft, completing an MFA in creative writing at Boston University. He is now a fellow at Harvard University’s Scholars at Risk program, and he is working on a novel.
He likes his neighborhood in this Boston suburb, and enjoys exploring local shops and restaurants.
“Here it is great,” he says. “You don’t have sewage in front of your house. There are no dead dogs in the streets for months on end.”
He is comfortable here, he says, but he still feels a hollowness at his core.
“There are so many places I cannot easily go in Afghanistan, because it is dangerous, but still I belong there,” he says. “I miss my country, I miss my people, I miss my food.”
With all its faults, Afghanistan is still home.
“The country’s a mess,” he said. “But maybe I should try and clean it up?”
He knows it won’t be easy. As Qais writes in his book:
“I know it will take a long time…I am a carpet weaver. I understand how, slowly, one knot follows another until a pattern appears. Oh God, can you not weave my destiny to keep me close to these people who mean more to me than any others in the world?”
By Jean Mackenzie, GlobalPost
This article is syndicated from GlobalPost.