Women Tell Dirty Jokes, Rely on Opium, and Other Insights From Afghanistan

An interview with Anna Badkhen, who spent a year in a small Afghanistan village for her book, The World is a Carpet.
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Zahara weaves carpets at her house in Kabul December 21, 2010. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Journalist Anna Badkhen has been writing in battle-scarred areas for two decades. But unlike much war coverage in mainstream media, her stories are often told from the perspective of those she writes about. Badkhen's latest book, The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village, is about Afghanistan from "the inside out." I spoke with Badkhen about her new book, what she thinks has changed in Afghanistan since the war began, and what she sees as the central issues for women.

You first visited Afghanistan before the war began. Can you talk about your early impressions?

In September 2001, everybody knew that the U.S. was going to invade. I found myself in this no-man's land between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, on the Oxus River, a village of refugees. People who had flocked to this border and were living in huts made with straw. It was very hot and I had stupidly given my

water away to somebody who I felt needed it more, so I passed out in the leaves, on the river. When I came to, I could hear women laughing and children talking and the radio chattering, talking about war that was coming. All around me, the sand showed footprints of all the migratory birds that stopped on the Oxus, and a child was handing me a bottle of water. The tension between the beauty and the absolute, devastating poverty and desolation and impending violence was extraordinary and heartrending. I left a part of my heart in Afghanistan right there and then.

How have you seen things change in Afghanistan in the decade that you've covered it?

There have been different sorts of changes. Things changed a lot in the capital city of Kabul. I would probably say that most of the billions of international aid dollars remain in Kabul. Restaurants and clubs and supermarkets have gone up. Must of the hinterland has remained unchanged. The electricity, the sanitation, the clean water, and education has not really reached most of Afghanistan. It's a very rural country, and in the rural areas, almost nothing has changed since 2001. Since 2000 years ago, much of Afghanistan lives the same way as when Alexander the Great invaded in 327 BC. Changes accumulate in capitals.

In a recent interview for the NYT magazine, Khaled Hosseini said "... the last 12 years have not been a waste. There's far greater personal freedom in Afghanistan; millions of children are now in school, including girls, which was unheard of in 2001. Women run for president, women serve in Parliament." But your conversations seem to indicate that not much has improved.

It is true that more girls are enrolled in school today. There were 5,000 girls enrolled in school in 2000, and about 2.2 million enrolled in school today. Most of these girls do not actually attend school, they're just formally in school. And most of the girls who do attend school drop out after fourth grade because middle school for girls is either unacceptable or too far away or the families of the girls decide that they're much more needed at home than at school. Imagining progress in terms of education for women is a favorite thing for western do-gooders to do, but unfortunately it's a very iffy measure.

Women in Afghanistan face a Sophie's choice every day.

Most of these girls are city girls. And as I said, yes, there have been a lot of changes in cities. Personal freedoms are irrelevant in most of Afghanistan. Most of Afghanistan is just trying to survive. We're talking about a country with the second highest infant mortality in the world after Mali. People who have no access to health care, no access to electricity. If I were to have a conversation about personal freedom with my host in Oqa, they would laugh me out of the village. For what? What do they need their personal freedoms for? They're free to go take opium as a palliative because they don't have other medicine. They're free to die of typhoid because their water isn't clean. They're free to starve to death because they have no source of income and none is coming. The vision of change in Afghanistan is very skewed towards city-vision. But 80 percent of Afghans live in rural areas.

You just spent a year writing about women weaving a carpet in a small village. What drew you to this story?

It is a tiny settlement in the middle of the desert where 240 people cling to life absolutely remote from everything. The nearest small town is seven hours on foot. There are no roads. Men make a living by collecting a kind of thorny underbrush in the desert and bartering it as kindling for rice and oil and flour in nearby villages. And women weave the most beautiful carpets in the world. What struck me was the tension between absolute devastation and decimation and this incredible beauty.

Where is Oqa located? How could I find it?

You would take a road north of Mazar-e-Sharif, drive about an hour, then take a left turn, and drive for about 30 minutes and hope you're not lost in the desert. And there will be Oqa--maybe! It's not on the map. I have spoken to officials in Mazar-e-Sharif who tried to convince me that it actually does not exist. You can't find it on Google Earth.

Can you talk about the title, "The World is a Carpet"? What does that mean?

A lot of books written about Afghanistan in the last 10-12 years by Westerners have been us looking in. I wanted this to be about a book about Afghans looking out. Looking out of their homes, looking out of the crowded bus, looking out from the back of a donkey.

You also quote someone in your book who thinks that the earth is like a carpet, with four corners.

We're talking about people who don't have a lot of understanding of what the world is. That's the literal interpretation. Most Afghans are illiterate. So the idea that the world is not a square, for example, is not very popular or very common. But what I was trying to convey is a different way of looking at the world.

Can you talk briefly about the path the carpet takes?

First, the men go to the market and buy carpet yarn. The weaver, a woman, creates a loom with two broad sticks or beams, and weaves a carpet squatting down on top of that loom. Depending on how much time she spends working and how large the carpet is going to be, it can take between four months and a year. In this case, it was from March to September. Then the carpet travels first back to the dealer who sold the yarn, then they will go to another dealer who will maybe reach out again either to a dealer in Kabul or put it on the back of a truck and send it to Turkey to Istanbul, where there's a huge market for carpets, or send it by bus or truck to Pakistan where there's another global market for carpets. Or the carpet will go to Kabul and will be stuffed into an airplane and fly to Dubai, and then from Dubai to Germany or England or the United States. The United States is the largest global purchaser of carpets. A lot of the carpets in Afghanistan end up here in this country with a gigantic markup. A weaver will get two or three hundred dollars for their work, which comes out to about 40 cents a day. Here, the carpets would cost between $5,000 and $20,000.

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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