The U.S.-Israel rift widens over Prime Minister Netanyahu's stance on Iran. Russia threatens to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and Western Europe. And "Jihadi John" has been identified as a British national. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Qais Akbar Omar was a young boy when his family fled their home in Kabul after civil war broke out. His father hoped to take them out of Afghanistan, but at every step of the way ran into difficulty, and Omar and his family became nomads in their own country. As they bounced from village to village, the group ended up living in unusual places, including the caves next to the famous — and now destroyed — Buddha statues. On one stop, Omar met a young carpet weaver. His fascination with the art saves him when his family returns to Kabul as the city falls under Taliban rule. Omar discusses his new memoir, “A Fort of Nine Towers,” with Diane.
- Qais Akbar Omar author of "A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story." He manages his family carpet business in Kabul.
Afghan Carpet Designs
Author Qais Akbar Omar manages his family’s carpet business in Kabul, Afghanistan. View a selection of his carpet designs, ranging from traditional to contemporary. Copyright © 2013 by Qais Akbar Omar. All rights reserved.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story” by Qais Akbar Omar, published in April 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Qais Akbar Omar. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. For nearly all of Qais Akbar Omar's life, his country, Afghanistan, has been in turmoil from civil war to the Taliban rule to the American invasion. Omar's world has been dictated by outside events.
MS. DIANE REHMIn his new memoir titled, "A Fort of Nine Towers," he describes the toll the violence has taken on his family and his country. In the middle of such devastation and hopelessness, also how he was sustained by the richness of Afghanistan's culture and people.
MS. DIANE REHMQais Akbar Omar joins me in the studio. You are, as always, are welcome to join the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning, it's good to have you here.
MR. QAIS AKBAR OMARGood morning and it's good to be here.
REHMThank you. You know, at the end of the book, you say that Afghans will understand why you do not use the names of your family members. Explain that.
OMARIf I do that, I'll put their lives at risk. They don't want to be identified. Afghanistan is not in that place yet that everybody can go and describe himself and his feelings and his emotion and his background and everything. So that's why I always refer to my uncles as my uncles and my aunts or my older sisters or my mother or father or my grandfather. So that's the reason.
REHMAre they all still in Afghanistan?
OMARYes, they are all in Afghanistan. I'm the only one in the U.S. My family, my friends, my business, everything.
OMARNo, in Afghanistan. I'm the only one here.
REHMBut how did you come here by yourself?
OMARI came on a scholarship, I'm at BU, Boston University, doing creative writing. I came to do business at Brandeis University. So I did some of that and now I am at Boston University.
REHMQais, apparently this story that you write about in "A Fort of Nine Towers" is one that you told a great deal to your friends. What made you finally decide to write it down?
OMARThis book was not -- I was not planning to write any book or anything at all. When the Americans, after 9/11, came to Afghanistan and the flood of foreigners pour into Afghanistan after 9/11, you know, after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan and they were defeated by Afghans, from then on we had five years of civil war and then the Taliban.
OMARAnd until 9/11 happened, but after 9/11, people did not know much about what was going on in Afghanistan. The media was kind of quiet and they all asked me questions like what it was like during the years of civil war and Taliban and the more I talked about it the more I felt good. It was like a therapy and I did not have those dreams anymore that haunted me in my sleep.
REHMWhat kind of dreams?
OMARIt was dreams that the things that we went through and, I mean, all the horrible things that we went through, like seeing dead bodies on the street or seeing people being shot or seeing women being raped or seeing a man's hand being cut in the stadium, which was turned into an execution center of Taliban.
OMARAnd all of that and being, you know, beaten by the Taliban. Like, I was put in prison because I had long hair or I had my armpit hairs a little longer. I don't know, you know, those are the rules that the Taliban turned Afghanistan into prison. But the thing is the foreigners don't know what we went through the Taliban.
OMARThey don't know about the five years of civil war that we lost, about 2.6 million people died there. And then overall, in the past 30 years, over 8 million people died in Afghanistan. It's like another holocaust so people don't know that. So the more I talked about what we went through, the more I felt relaxed and happy and good.
OMARAnd after talking like 10 minutes or so, suddenly it was like I was different place. I did not feel all the pain on my shoulder, on my, you know, and it was a good way to start, it started that way, yes.
REHMRead for us from the start of the book, would you?
OMAROkay, so I will start just a passage in the middle of the book. It was a time when I did not know how to start a new life. It's just a short passage. "I did not know how to start this new life. Every day I woke up and breathed in and out and waited for the time to change.
OMARI learned that waiting is a skill that must be mastered. I told myself that my past was finished and that I had to do something new now. But every day in the cage of my heart, I felt of the weight of the memories of the time before.
OMARMany times I thought about the mother of my carpet teacher who had told me many, all the stories that always included a wise lesson. I thought about the bright sky and snow around us as she spoke in her quiet, mysterious voice. Her voice was always close to mine and her face was always close to mine.
OMARHer wide eyes gazing into mine, and sometimes it felt like she was pulling a string into my heart. She sang rather than spoke. The longer the story went on, the more musical she became. It was an inexpressible joy to listen to her. I had never known my grandmother, she had died before I was a year old.
OMARSometimes when I was with my teacher's mother, I wish she could be married to my grandfather. When I was with her, it was like she was holding me when I was falling backward."
OMARIt was, this passage is from the time when we had to leave Kabul because the war was just impossible.
REHMDescribe Kabul before the start of the civil war. Your family was well off, you had a beautiful home.
OMARPeople, when I try to tell people about the Kabul of before civil war, it's almost unbelievable because they don't see that. There is no sign of that anymore. You don't see anything. It was like a lush garden, it was a city of 300,000 people. Now, it is a city of over 5 million people.
OMAREvery house was like a garden, like our house. our house ran for like three acres and we had over 100 Macintosh apple trees and we had probably, I don't know, 20 or 30 kinds of roses and we had geraniums and all the hollyhocks and, you know, all of Kabul, you can just think of it.
OMARAnd we had a peacock, we had a horse, we had a camel in the courtyard and we had a mountain of sand in the courtyard and we were playing and it was very joyful. People are very educated and the whole city of Kabul was like a garden. Trees were lined on both sides of the road and it was just beautiful.
REHMAnd when did you realize all this was going to change?
OMARWe did not know that until the mujahedeen that -- who are the seven factions formed by Americans to defeat the Soviets, which they actually did, and I think the world and Afghanistan is grateful for what they did. Freeing half of Eastern Europe and ending the Cold War between America and Soviet Union and ending the Cold War between the UK and Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.
OMARBut Afghanistan was in the middle of it. Afghanistan was used like a chess game. And so when they came to Kabul, then the world forgot about...
REHMWhen they came to Kabul.
OMARThe seven factions were formed in Pakistan and then they defeated the Soviets and then the Soviets were destroyed and then they came to Kabul. Then everybody was very, very happy.
OMARYes, exactly like my grandfather, my father, my uncles and other grownups. They all started to refer to them as our brother mujahedeen is finally here and we have a country of own and we'll rule our, you know, we will not have Russians or any foreigners ruling us anymore.
OMARAnd then that's the tragedy where it starts. They did not get along with each other. They started fighting each other but then people said that's probably, they're just, you know, it's like a family. Brothers always get in fights but...
REHMSo the mujahedeen were fighting with?
OMAREach other, each other.
OMARThe seven factions started fighting because they would not get agreed on who is going to be the next president or the prime minister or the minister of foreign affairs or the minister of defense or interior minister. So all of them wants to be, you know, this and they had money and they had weapons and they start getting one part of Afghanistan, one side of Kabul city.
OMARAnd then they're firing rockets from this part to the other part and people in between just, they either had to leave Kabul or these major cities where the fighting started or they just stay home in the basement or just under the ground somewhere to be safe and, so those who could migrate to Pakistan, India, Iran or Europe or America, they were gone.
OMARThose who stayed inside Afghanistan, they either lost too many members of the family or suffered so that's why when you go to Afghanistan anywhere you ask us, very single family, who did you lose in the family? You can't find a single family who did not lose one or two or several of their family members.
OMARI lost quite a few, my cousin, closest. He, five, six years older than me, we lost him and several of my uncles, my aunts.
REHMQais Akbar Omar, his new book a memoir of an Afghan family is titled, "A Fort of Nine Towers." When we come back we'll talk more, take your calls, stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Qais Akbar Omar is with me. He's written a new memoir. It's titled "A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story." In the first segment you heard him describe life in Kabul before the civil war, when the Mujahedeen had defeated the Soviets, came back victorious welcomed by the Afghanistan people and then fell into a war among themselves. What then happened to your family, Qais?
OMAROne -- in the first year of the civil war, we did not know how long will it last. After eight months, we had to leave Kabul. It was just too dangerous. Of course, my aunts, my uncles, the rest of the family stayed there and my family, my father, was planning to get us out of Afghanistan with my four sisters and my mother. And then once he get out of Afghanistan, he'll find a way to get the rest of the family out.
OMARWe were planning to either go to Turkmenistan or Tajikistan or Moscow, one of those places. From the time that my father -- he was a boxer. He did a lot of boxing matches and he made some good friends there over the years. And the problem was to just get across the border to find a smuggler. So we went on a journey. We went to Mazar, which is in north, which is close to Turkmenistan. And to cross the border, go to there and then find a way to get the rest of the family.
OMARBut then, by the time we were halfway through our journey in a place called Tajkorhan (sp?), we hear from BBC World Service that then there's another war going on in Mazar. And it was coming towards Tajkorhan and what should we do? So we had to go through Bamyan, which is Central Afghanistan and it was relatively safe. We have no one there. Like, we are Pashtun and they are all Hazaras.
OMARSo we went there and since we didn't know anyone there and there was -- still there was no hotel, very few except for the foreigners. When they go they have their own guest house there. But for Afghans it's really nothing almost. Back then there was no hotel, nothing, so the best place to go and live was to live in a cave. And we lived in a cave behind the Buddha statue, which were blown away by the Taliban before 9/11. And so we lived there for several weeks, four or five weeks. And of course it was really hot.
REHMHow did you live there?
OMARWell, we walk into the cave. My father -- as soon as we got to Bamyan, we had breakfast -- we had lunch at a teahouse. And then my father said, let me just show you a little bit of Bamyan. So he took us to the statues of Buddha and we walked through the stairs all the way to the head. So you can -- inside the Buddha there are, you know, stairs that you can walk all the way just curved inside the mountain.
OMARAnd so we walk into the cave and all the way to the head. Behind the head there was another big cave which you don't see anymore because the whole thing was blown up.
OMARAnd so we went there and my father said, well it actually looks like our living room. What do you think? And my mother said, you're kidding. And -- because you're really high up. It's like 42 -- no, 52 meters high above the ground. So -- and down below it's just beautiful. The whole valley and it was autumn and it was so beautiful, you know, the color of the -- everything turning yellow and green.
REHMAnd by this time, were your sisters with you as well?
OMARYeah, yeah, my sisters and they're all young. I was nine years old. My oldest sister was 11 years old and the others were all younger than me. So imagine having like five sisters all younger than you, you know, one or two years younger than each other. So -- and my mother said, you're kidding and we all look at my mother. Of course she has different looks and we didn't know what she was thinking. And my father said, well show me a place where we can go and live. Can you find a hotel...
REHM...and be safe.
OMAR...and be safe. And this is way high up. Nobody bothers us. And there were some other families who came from Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan to live in these caves. So we can just easily live here. And then my mother didn't know what to say because, yeah well, what can you do? And so my father sat -- you know, crouched on his knees and he said, come everybody. So we all stood in a line in front of him and he said, rule number one, everybody looks everybody else. The one who's older looks after the ones who's younger. And rule number two, there's no rule.
OMARSo that's that. And that was that. And we lived there for five weeks I think. And until it gets really cold and snowing and then it was suddenly very, very cold. It's central Afghanistan. The altitude is, I think, 6,000' high on the mountain. And so...
REHMHow did you get food? How did you get supplies?
OMARWell, the town -- there was a town. There were some shops. We could get -- we could go there. And after like two weeks I got friendly -- I mean, it's just a small town -- you get friendly with people. Sometimes I would just go to shop and buy some bread or meat or vegetables...
REHMSo you had enough money to keep you going.
OMARYes. We had enough money because we were living way well before the civil war started. We were -- my father was physics teacher and he was also in the carpet business. My mother was a banker and so we made good money. We were not a wealthy people but, you know, middle class family. And we had enough money to run us for several years, which is what had happened.
REHMTell us about the Fort of Nine Towers.
OMAROh, after like eight months of the civil war, we had to move out of Kabul. We have to move out of our neighborhood because it was no longer safe. It was the frontline for too long. The (word?) were there, the Uzbeks were there, the Pashtuns were there, the Hazaras were there, fighting there.
REHMHad they disturbed you and your family?
OMARVery much. Everybody -- almost the whole town move out of that place. And we were one of the few who left at the very end. We were hoping that it will change, it will end but it didn't, so we had to move out. And so we went to the other side of the mountain, only like 4 kilometers. I don't know how many miles that would be, like one-and-a-half or two miles almost. And so we move on the other side of the mountain which was a totally different world. We're safe. We're secure.
OMAROf course we hear the sound of rockets, noises, the war, everything going on on the other side, but here life was normal. People were going to school. People had -- parents were...
REHM...that it's so close by.
OMARThat's the whole story of Afghanistan. That's the whole irony, the whole madness, you know. It is so -- in one part, it's just so peaceful. Another part it's like hell.
OMARAnd so we went to the Fort of Nine Towers which was an old fort built about a hundred and -- you know, 180 years ago I think in the late 1800s I think. So we...
REHMWhat kind of a fort? Give me a sense of its shape.
OMARIt's very, very hard to describe because you don't have anything similar like it. It's like a castle. It used to have nine towers made of mud -- mud bricks and straw and built in the late 1800s for King -- the King (word?) built it for his -- one of his viziers. And also it was his kind of guest house that he used to bring his foreign or friends there to entertain them. And it had a huge garden. But my father's business partner bought it a long time ago. So he owned it.
OMARAnd we went to his house and we stayed...
OMAR...with him. Well, he was there. His family moved to India but he was still living there himself. And then he let us stay there. And we ended up there living for six years. Amazing, yeah.
OMARUntil the Taliban moved out and the Americans came and we had to go back and build our house. Of course, by then we lost our house. The Taliban forced my grandfather to sell our house to them just by -- forced him. And when he sold the house, a few months later they came back and asked for half of the money. And my grandfather had to just do it because, you know, we have a saying in (word?), you can't argue with a dog. You know, when a dog barks at you, you can't bark back. So that's the Taliban.
REHMTalk about the ethnicity in Afghanistan and how that affected you and your family.
OMARWell, in terms of ethnicity in Afghanistan we're very close. Like when you go from -- like when you go from Kabul to Mazar you will find probably people who are related to your cousin. Or you'll probably find you a third or fourth cousin there. And you're Pashtun but, you know, he can be Tajik or Uzbek or, you know, anything, or Turkmen or Hazara. That's how we are, you know...
OMAR...integrated over the years...
OMAR...totally. Still, there is some discrimination going on like every other society like...
OMAR...against the minorities like the Hazaras or the Turkmens or the, you know, Uzbeks. They are not -- well, I don't want to get to all that details but ethnicity -- I mean, it's -- we all get along very well like brothers and sisters. And it is in each tribe that you have one or two or several bad people who is kind of taking the lead. And then they have some followers and they make Afghanistan into hell.
REHMYou and your family really became nomads. Talk about wandering.
OMARWell, again, we went to the journey. When we went to Bamyan after, you know, it got cold and then we had to go to Kunduz. We went to Kunduz which is where my mother was born. And there I discovered the whole rest of the family from my mother's side, all, I don't know, 35, 50 cousins and uncles and aunts. We stayed there for a bit. And then we went back to Mazar.
OMARAnd then by then we hear that Kabul is safe. We will try to come back to Kabul. And then our car broke down on the way. And then we didn't know how to get the car. My father could not just leave my mother in a bus to go to Kabul. It was not safe enough. So he could not trust anyone. She was pretty. She was young and we were all young too.
OMARSo we ended up living with nomads because one day I was just -- we were waiting for the mechanic to fix our car. And I was out with my sisters -- one of my small sisters and then I saw a nomad boy with his goats and sheep, you know, blowing a flute very, very nicely. So I found him and I start singing and he was, you know, fluting, you know. It was really beautiful. And then we started asking questions and he wrote his name, Amihan (sp?) on the sand with a stick. And I said, oh, that's your name. And he said, yeah that's my name. And I said, oh.
OMARAnd then he looked at me and he said, you can read and write? And I said, of course, yeah. And he said, oh, I would like you to teach me. And I said, sure. And I said, then you have to teach me how to play a flute. And he said, all right. So the next day we met and I taught him all the (word?) alphabets. And then we start talking about each other's ancestry.
OMARAnd he said, I'm a nomad. And I said, well my grandfather used to be a nomad too but two, three generations ago. And now -- and he also married a nomad woman, so we also consider ourselves nomads. And he said, then you're my cousin. And I said, yes I am your cousin. So he gave me a big hug and then he took me to his family, which they had their tents in the village. And that' show I met the whole tribe.
OMARAnd then one thing led to the next and, you know, and the next day we were living with them for several weeks. And then we went back all day with a whole care, went to Mazar, which was quite amazing.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Talk about the carpet maker that you met. And I do want to let our listeners know that there are some beautiful handmade Afghanistan carpets on our website that you can see. Go to drshow.org. They are absolutely gorgeous. You learned from this carpet maker. How did you meet the carpet maker?
OMARWhen we were in Mazar my father was always busy trying to find the smugglers. My mother was busy visiting her cousins in Mazar. My sisters were busy with my cousins, you know, playing with, you know -- and you know, when the girls -- when they are young they really like to sit in front of the mirror and put makeup and, you know, weird clothes. And, you know, I did not have any -- I did not have too many cousins in Mazar to play with me. the ones I had, I did not have much in common. So I spent a lot of time in the shrine playing with other kids or playing with kids on the street.
OMARAnd one day it was snowy and I could not go to one of those places to do that. And I hear the neighbor of my aunt always making this dum-dum-dum-dum-dum noise when they are combing -- you know, when they make a row of knots and then they have to comb it. And then -- and I said, what's going on? And my aunt said, well they're carpet makers. I learned how to make small carpet in the school. And I said, oh I'd like to go there and learn a few things. And I saw that and it was a different world. It was a whole family, they were Turkmens, and -- like 50 of them and they had two, three big looms in each room and five, six people working on a carpet.
OMARAnd I just took a hook and sat next to them and I started making the carpet. And it was -- that's how it was started. And it was really fund. So after a while I kind of got bored. I tried to go from one room to the next room to see what's going on. And finally I found the most beautiful girl in the world I think. And she was seven or eight years younger than me. And, you know, as soon as I saw her it was like, wow, she is a beauty.
OMARAnd I sat with her on the loom and tried to make a -- you know, tie a knot. She did not accept me and she tore open up my knot...
OMARYeah, and I said, what's wrong with you? And I said hello, she did not answer me. And I was quite offended. I said, what's going on? So I went to her mother and her mother said -- and I said, your daughter, who is she? And she said, that's my daughter. And I said, she's really -- she insults me. She opened my knot, she did not say hello and she does not talk to me when I talk to her. And she said, oh, she's (unintelligible) . She cannot hear you because she is deaf. She cannot speak because she's mute.
OMARBut if you want to go and work with her, take (unintelligible) and then go and work with her. And I said, I'm not going to mass to pray, and I said, well, that's the rule. And also when you sit next to her, don't waste a lot of wool. And she was making the most beautiful carpet. It was totally different than the rest of the family. Way intricate pattern. She used probably like 75 colors or more. And the rest of the family only used like 10 or 12 colors for their carpets. It was really quite fascinating.
OMARSo I did that and I sat there and she -- I learned a lot from her over two, three weeks. And when it was time for...
REHMShe accepted you...
OMARI took (unintelligible) .
OMARYeah, she accepted me. And then I started to talk to her. And at first it was really hard to talk to her because she could not communicate. We had to communicate with our hands.
OMARAnd I could not understand what she was talking about. So after a week or so it was like you and me, you know, talking very, very...
REHMYou could understand what she was saying.
OMARYeah, she could -- exactly.
REHMAnd she could understand...
OMARShe could read my lips. And I could -- I learned how to read signs with hand, like what she's trying to tell me. She could make a few small limited sounds but I could not make sense of them.
REHMAll right. We'll take a short break here. I want to hear more about your carpet-making endeavors when we come back. We also have callers who'd like to speak with you. Short break. Stay with us.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, writer Qais Akbar Omar is with me. He's written a new memoir. It's an Afghan family story of life before the Taliban, before the Mujahedeen began a civil war, before he and his family had to leave Kabul. It's titled "A Fort of Nine Towers." Before we go to the phones, talk a little about how you went from practicing these knots with your deaf, mute friend to becoming a carpet maker and carpet seller yourself.
OMARWhen we came back to Kabul, my father started -- tried to start a business all over again. So since we lost everything, all of our carpets, he went to the (unintelligible) where we have the carpet shops. We used to have a shop there. He bought a carpet from one of the shops and sold it for a little profit. And then 1 -- he turned 1 carpet into 2 and 3 and then 20. That's how he tried to make some more money so we'll have enough money to get out of the country. Still we were trying to get out of the country.
OMARThen he store all his carpets in a room at the Fort of Nine Towers where we are staying. And one day a rocket landed there and burned everything. My father thought the carpet business is just cursed. And he did not want to get into it, so he start a new business importing flowers, you know, corn or cooking oil from Pakistan and selling it for a little profit in the Kabul markets. And he did not make enough money. And at age 16 you're supposed to help your family, support your family in Afghanistan. And you have to bring money on the table and feed everybody.
OMARAnd at age 16 I didn't know what to do. So I was really frustrated. I was like -- I was, you know, what's wrong with me? I have to do something. So one day I hear my voice in my head. I thought it was my teacher talking to me. And that you have to make a carpet. So I came home. I mean, first I run for, like, three hours. And then I sat under the tree and, you know, I didn't know what to do with this frustration to get it out of me. And she talked to me and I came home.
REHMIn your head?
OMARIn my head, yeah. And I came home. And I tried to -- I look at the pattern on the floor on the carpet, try to draw that into the paper. And I saw that I could it and I said, oh, I can do that. So the next day when my father came around midnight, I said, I would like to start a carpet business, you know, carpet making. And he said, no, you don't want to get into that and don't do that. And I said, well, I'm serious about it. I want to make a new design on my own and I want to start a carpet. And he said, all right, I am very tired, let me go to bed. He went to bed.
OMARWhen I woke up the next day, there was some money on my pillow. So I went and buy some graph paper, some, you know, pen and I start making this design. And then I try to sell my design to some carpet factories in Kabul. They look at it and they said, oh, this is silly, stupid, just throw it out.
OMARToo complicated or it just doesn't apply -- it just was very new. It was very contemporary, let's say that. So they did not like it. And so -- and I said, okay, nobody wants to buy it. Then I have to go and make the carpet. Maybe if someone will buy the carpet. But I didn't have the money and my father did not make enough money to -- gave me enough money to buy the loom and the hooks and all the other material to make the carpet. So I went to the wool shop and said, I'd like a few kilos of wool. And he gave it to me and I said, oh, I forgot the money, sorry. Well, but, you know, I have this whole big factory going on and it's just an experiment and so on and so on. And you know my father of course.
OMARAnd he says, oh, yeah, I know your father. Because, you know, once we had a lot of money. The same thing I did with the carpenter when I made my loom. So for three months I did not pay those people. You know, they were expecting that someday he will come and pay us, of course. And I made my first carpet, took me like six months, I think, I mean, overall to make the design and the first carpet. And I took it to the (unintelligible) and tried to sell it to someone. And the guy that I talked to and he just laughed at my carpet. And he said, what the hell is this? This is really stupid looking thing. I've never seen such a thing before.
OMARAnd I said, well, can you please keep it in your shop for at least a week? And he said, three days. And I said, please one week. Four days later he came and knocked the door and he handed me $200. And he said, I sold your carpet. And I took the dollars and I thought they were fake. And they were so new and sharp on the edge. And I said, are you making fun of me? Please you can bring my carpet back. And he said, why? You are not happy? Here's another $100. There's $300. And I said, you really sold it? And he said, yeah, a guy from Germany came, an Afghan, who has a good business in Germany. And can you make like 100 more? And I said, 100 more? And I said, yeah. And I said, oh, yeah, of course.
OMARSo I was holding the money for the first time, $300. I mean, that's a lot of money during the Taliban years, you know. It's like 3,000. I could easily, you know, buy a used car or anything, a motorcycle or, you know, and then he gave me $1,200 more. And he said, here is the money for wool and loom and this. And that's how I started my whole factory.
OMARAnd two months later, I had 45 women working for me.
OMARAnd my parents taught them basic school subjects, like mathematics, physics, chemistry. And my sister...
REHMSo these were very young people...
REHM...working with you.
OMARWith me, yes.
REHMI hope you paid your debts...
OMARAs soon as I went to the carpenter shop and I gave him the money, and I said, I would like you to make 10 more looms for me. And he said, you don't have the money for a piece of bread to buy and you want me to make 10 more looms for you, get out of my shop. When I gave him $500 and I said, here's the money, he looked at it and he said, wow. And I just walked out of the shop. And the guy was, I am going to make you the (unintelligible) and I just, you know, waved and walked out. And so I was...
OMAR...feeling a little (unintelligible).
REHMAll right. We have some callers. So first let's go to Ross. He's in Mount Dora, Fla. Good morning to you, sir.
ROSSGood morning. Good morning. I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to get to speak to your guest today, because I just read Salman Ahmad's memoir "Rock and Roll Jihad" talking about his struggles in Pakistan with the corruption in the Zia government and the Bhutto government and the various things and the same kind of problems that you are having in terms of your hair versus your beard and the intrusions of the Mujahedeen and so on. And so there are some parallels to your story. And I would really be interested -- I just heard a great show from Diane about how we Americans were so offended that our government would do something that was maybe a little questionable going over the lines about, you know, wire tapping or...
REHMOkay. So your question...
ROSSMy question is, do you have any incite having dealt with the situation in Afghanistan how we can create the same kind of reaction to corruption in Afghanistan that we are blessed to have in America?
OMARThank you very much for this question, Ross. His name was Ross? Yes, Ross. The thing is in Afghanistan when the foreigners come, they just come with their own plans. Before you do anything there, try to study the culture, the custom, people, how people behave. What you try to do for them, will they take it seriously, will they understand that? That's the key to success. To know a society first before you act. And I think that's one of the Americans failure in Afghanistan that they spent over $100 billion in Afghanistan and we still don't have sewage. We don't have water. We don't have electricity. We still import it from other countries.
OMARWell, we have 21 hydroelectric dams, that they can be repaired and that will provide a lot of electricity. And we have 300s of sun every day. That can be used for a solar, you know, system, electricity. And we have a lot of wind. You can -- we can have windmills. And these things don't cost that much. All you have to do is repair. So these are the things they have to study. We are very, very grateful for Americans coming to Afghanistan, liberating Afghans from the claws of the dark minded Taliban, that we are really grateful to that. But mistakes have been made, one over -- after another, one after another. It's just because they don't the society well enough.
REHMHere's an email from Kay, who says, "Thanks to Qais for his stories. What a wonderful storyteller he is." She goes on to say, "I love the carpets shown on the website. Where can you purchase these here in the U.S.?"
OMARWell, you have to get in touch with me because I don't have a shop. That's how you can do that. We produce them in Afghanistan and we sell them to wholesalers in New York. And through them you can buy them anywhere. Except the prices, of course, you probably will be able -- if I sell you a carpet, it will be like 500. If you go to a carpet shop, it will be 5,000. So it's sometimes more, but of course they pay tax and...
OMAR...insurance and all of that stuff.
REHMNow, give me a website.
OMAROkay. It's Kabul dot -- Kabul carpets...
OMARAnd Kilims, yeah, Kabul carpets and Kilims, yeah. Kabul carpets dot -- Kabul Kilims -- www.kabul...
REHMAll right. We'll get that on our website...
REHM...so people can know how to get in touch with you. Let's go to Katherine in Baltimore, Md. Good morning, you're on the air.
KATHERINEGood morning, Diane. And good morning to your guest. I'm a 30 plus year listener and a first-time getting through.
REHMWell, I'm so glad you are.
KATHERINEThank you. And I'm so glad I got this opportunity. I just wanted to share a positive story about your country that was told to me years ago. I had some friends who spent their honeymoon traveling the world. Nine months and they had six trays of slides. And I sat through every one. And they tiered it down to six trays. It took six evenings. And at the end of the sixth evening I looked at them and I said, okay, tell me, what was your favorite country? And I expected to hear Italy or France or because they were Jewish, maybe Israel. The answer came back Afghanistan. And I was kind of taken aback and...
KATHERINE...really? And why is that? And they said, because you would never meet -- you could never meet a kinder, gentler people than the people of Afghanistan. It doesn't matter how little they have. They would give you the shirt off their back.
REHMYou must be what, concerned, disappointed, fearful? What is your feeling today about what's happening in Afghanistan?
OMARIt's very tragic what's happening there. The same thing that I hear from other Americans who were in Afghanistan in the '60s. And my father, when he talks about the foreigners when they came with, you know, the flood of hippies came to Afghanistan in the late '70s or early '70s and then they used to wear bellbottom trousers with the sideburns and long hair. And they used to come to our shop and smoke hashish and then sleep in our shop. My father will at the end of the day say, okay, now get out of my shop, I am closing and come back tomorrow.
OMARAnd they say, we would like to stay here. We don't have a hotel. We don't have anywhere. Do you want to just -- I mean, we will not steal anything. And my father said, but don't let anyone. So my father will just go home and then they will sleep in the shop for the night. And the next day he comes back and say, guys, get out, I have to do business.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Qais, could you talk about doing Shakespeare in Kabul?
OMARYes. In 2005 we decided to do a play by Shakespeare, "Love's Labours Lost." After 35 years in Afghanistan, we did that. It was a time that people were trying to change, you know. We were trying to -- the reason we choose that play is because there are four noblemen and four princess. And these four princes in the palace decide to do the outrageous things like the Taliban. Eat once a day, don't see the woman, study all day long, like a madrasa. And that's what's going on, they decide to do that. And at the same time there are four princess coming from another province, beautiful woman. But they have to, you know, we have to be an Afghan, you know.
OMARWe adopted that play into our culture. And they have to be Afghan to let them -- I mean, that's the play is written, but we have to adopt it even more to make it very Afghan and let them stay there. And then how can they keep their vows if they do that? And they fall in love with these woman. At the very end of the play, the woman decide, not the man. And at the time when the Taliban came and, you know, kicked all the woman out of the society and they just had to stay home. And here the woman making the final decision. And they're as capable as man. They can do as well as man. And they are, you know, because they're woman, that doesn't mean anything. So that was the message we are trying to, you know, get across.
REHMAnd before we close, I know you have poetry...
REHM...you'd like to read. Would you do that for us?
OMARSure, sure, sure. Well, I just translated this. It is -- you don't get the same beauty, the same rhythm, the same thing, but still it's good. (speaks foreign language). And the translation of this is, my life has only brought me sorrows, life's good and bad only taught me sorrows, my constant companion is only pain, my love has only brought me sorrows. So when we recite poetry like this, we interpret it in many ways. Like now here love is our country. At the moment the country just brought us sorrows. But who is the cause and who is doing this?
OMARAnd then there's another poetry, I can go on to answer your poetry with that. (speaks foreign language) And the translation, a new challenge every day, you keep away and lay, when I act to close the gap, fate says there is a bigger gap. So we bring it back to the fate, like it's probably our fate. We don't know what's going on, so we should just be relaxed. And then my sister will go on with another piece of poetry. And then it will bring it back to that conversation again. So it goes on and on and on and on. And then it just...
REHMIt goes on.
OMARAnd on, yes.
REHMThank you for being here.
OMARThank you very much.
REHMI've enjoyed talking with you. Qais Akbar Omar, his new story, an American -- sorry, an Afghan family story, is titled "A Fort of Nine Towers." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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