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

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.

What was your daily life like?

I just stood and took notes, sketched in my sketchbook. My day was uneventful. The women would wake up and have breakfast with her family, make sure her children are clothed and fed and she would adjust her headscarf to the nape of her neck and squat on top of the loom and start weaving. Break for lunch, then weave again until it got dark. Because there's no electricity her weaving hours are very much tied to the hours of daylight available. It would've been way too costly to spend kerosene for a lamp to weave. So weaving takes place during the day. And her friends would come in, start weaving with her, tell jokes, gossip, and sometimes there would be a wedding she would go to for a couple of weeks in a different village. It would be wrong to portray this as excruciating slavery, because it is not. It's the way of life. The weaver knows how to protect herself from self-destruction, but it's very hard work. It's extraordinarily taxing on your body because you're squatting all day. You develop muscle aches, and in the absence of any medicine, most women take tiny bits of opium and dissolve it in their morning tea to alleviate those aches. The woman whose carpet I watched being created, her father-in-law wouldn't allow her to take opium, he thought it was bad for you. So she just suffered her pain.

What was your relationship like with the women you wrote about?

You try to not stand out as much as possible, not draw attention to yourself, but it's impossible -- I'm an oddity. I'm a foreigner who does strange things. It's hard, for example, to explain, "I'm here to write a book" to people who can't read and have never seen a book. But I think we became friends and somehow I managed to gain my hosts' trust, which never ceases to amaze me. I've been doing this for 17 years, walking into people's lives, intruding, saying "I'm going to impose myself on your life here, and you will tell me everything," and most people say "okay." It has always blown me away, and is extremely moving and reassuring -- it gives me the sense that there is such a thing as human connectedness.

You write that the people in Oqa are "a timeless people in a timeless landscape keeping alive a timeless craft." Can you explain this sense of time?

It's really a book about timelessness, because this is how it feels in Afghanistan. The western concept of time is very superficial there. People in the west see Afghanistan as the site of America's longest foreign war. The Afghans don't care about that. They have been at war since the beginning of recorded history pretty much nonstop. To them, this is the latest iteration of that conflict. There's a sense of seasonal time, season of cold and season of hot, season to plant and season where mulberries ripen. But time is measured differently. A lot of life in Afghanistan today happens in the same way it happened 2300 years ago. It's very palpable. You're on the Grand Canyon of time. You have people walking barefoot around you to collect kindling in the desert that they would then barter for rice, and at the same time they have cellphones, and at the same time there's an F/A-18 bomber flying overhead.

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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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