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.

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.

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.

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.

Were the people in Oqa afraid of invasions? What were their greatest fears?

It's hard to say. I think there wasn't so much fear as survival. Day to day survival. There was a resignation that violence will continue and will wash over again and again. I don't know if it would be described as fear. Violence doesn't exist in a vacuum. Violence is when you're walking with a bag of rice that you've managed to barter and some bandits stop you on the road and take your rice. Or an American plane accidentally drops a bomb nearby. You can't control those things flying in the sky. Everybody has heard stories of one neighbor reporting another neighbor to Afghan security forces or to the Americans, saying "he's Taliban" and the next thing you know there's a raid and the neighbor's taken away. So fear is not an acute sense, but there's underlying apprehension. You know that one way or another violence will affect you.

Did you feel safe? Was there anything you were afraid of?

My concern was, first and foremost, for my hosts. I was very aware that my presence could jeopardize my hosts and the people working for me -- I was working with translators and working with drivers, and I lived in people's homes. So I knew that I was a potential source of very big trouble. That was my primary concern. Of course, I was careful in my travel. But I can't say that I was afraid. I was cautious.

One thing that struck me was how much opium addiction seemed to pervade people's lives. Can you talk about this?

Opium is the main medicine in Northern Afghanistan. Most people are introduced prenatally--pregnant women take opium as a palliative when they're pregnant and continue to give tiny bits of opium to newborn babies to keep them from crying and as medicine to their children whenever their children are sick, and children are sick all the time because of the water, and there's no other health care.

There's a scene in your book where women are sharing very crude sex jokes, which surprised me. I would have thought those would be more taboo.

No culture is more uptight about sex than the American culture. You and I are talking in the most uptight culture I've ever seen. Nothing was taboo. They told sex jokes all the time.

That's one of the things that I felt was important to tell in the book. I have never been made blush as many times as I was made blush in Afghanistan. The conversations that women would have in their kitchen were so obscene -- and I don't blush very easily -- but my host mother would come into my room and ask me why my breasts were so small.

With everybody watching. I think the reason people in the States think Afghanistan is sexually repressed is because we have the rule we're not supposed to talk about sex in the media. So there you have it. Some of the most sexually charged conversations I've ever taken part in were in Afghanistan.

A recent bid to add protections to the "Elimination of Violence Against Women Act," issued in 2009, failed to get Parliamentary approval. How does this fit in with the picture you've seen, especially as someone who's spent a lot of time with women? Did any of this filter down to Oqa?

None of it filters down. I will risk sounding cold -- and I'm not; I feel that women's rights are extremely important -- but in Afghanistan, one in eight women dies in childbirth. And watches her infant die at the rate of one out of four. So when we talk about basic rights for women, why don't we start with talking about the right to watch their children grow up and not die? The right to clean water. The right to sanitation. The right to electricity. The right to have enough to eat. These are the rights that women in the provinces are concerned about. They're not concerned about going outside without a burka because they don't need to go outside. They don't have anywhere to go. Education is extremely important, but on the scale of Afghanistan, what's much more important is basic survival. There needs to be a conversation about how to help not just the educated, select women of big cities, but every woman in Afghanistan. We need to build roads. We need to create mobile clinics. Every woman in Afghanistan faces a Sophie's choice every day. That is something that we rarely talk about.