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Journalist Anna Badkhen has been reporting from war-torn countries for nearly two decades. After visiting the tiny northern Afghan village of Oqa in 2010, she decided to embed herself in the town of 240 people and make it the subject of her latest book. “The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in An Afghan Village” tells the story of how the small carpet-making village views the world.
- Anna Badkhen Author, "The World Is a Carpet: Four Season in an Afghan Village" (Riverhead 2013)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt can seem at times like the world is almost pouring into Afghanistan. For decades it's been in a perpetual state of war and lately it's been the venue of the longest running conflict in American history. Stories from within Afghanistan, however, don't always flow the other way, even on days like today as the Taliban makes overtures about peace talks. But the journalist, Anna Badkhen, says we can find such insight in things as simple as the carpets made there. The handmade masterpieces that come from isolated villages and often end up in American living rooms and studies.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBadkhen recently spent four seasons in a rural Afghan village weaving herself into the fabric of everyday life. She joins us today to share the stories she documented. Anna Badkhen is a journalist and author. Her latest book is titled "The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village." She joins us in studio. Welcome.
MS. ANNA BADKHENThank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIThank you for joining us. And if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-433-8850. America has been at war in Afghanistan for more than a decade. Stories about this country have been on the news here regularly for year after year, yet there's little that connects the two places culturally. But in carpets, you say you found something that connects the American audience to what goes on in small remote villages there. What do you see when you look at one of these carpets?
BADKHENI see human histories. I see a journey of a carpet weaver. A carpet in Afghanistan is made by an entire village. Everybody comes in and out of a loom room. The woman who's weaving the carpet will tend to her children. There will be goats who will amble into the room. There will be the noise of an F18 fighter bomber overhead. There will be the echo of distance explosions. So everything that happens around the loom room is woven into that carpet.
NNAMDIYou've been to Afghanistan many times during the course of the past decade. You've covered the war as a journalist from its earliest days. But for this book you spent four seasons inside a rural village in the north called Oqa, a village that does not appear on maps. What kind of place is Oqa?
BADKHENOqa is a tiny village of about 40 cob homes raised by hand out of clay on a small hillock in the northern plains of Afghanistan between the Oxus River, which we now call Amu Darya and the Hendelcush (sp?). And if you stand in the village and look in any direction you will see the world curving in onto itself. It's an epitome of the forgotten -- the abandoned Afghanistan which is where 80 percent of Afghans live. And the reason they chose to be there was because we hear a lot -- or we see a lot of images and we hear a lot of stories coming out of big cities in Afghanistan because that's where I guess the cameras are.
BADKHENBut big cities in Afghanistan are not representative of Afghanistan at all. Most Afghans live very rurally, hence Oqa.
NNAMDIIt is my understanding that carpet weavers there just earn just a few cents a day at the most, maybe $1 a day for making masterpieces that often sell for tens of thousands of dollars in other countries.
NNAMDIHow long does it take to make one of those carpets that someone here will buy for, oh, $20,000?
BADKHENBetween four and nine months, depending on how many women are working on it, depending on how many distractions there are. You know, sometimes the weaver will have to attend her sister's wedding in a different village, and so she will leave the loom and her carpet for a couple of weeks. And sometimes there will be extra hands, her daughters perhaps or maybe her sisters come in to weave with her. So there will be extra help and extra speed in the weaving.
NNAMDICan you walk us through the process of what connects a carpet from Oqa, a place with no running water, no electricity to a living room in the United States, starting from the hands of a woman like Thawra, I think, a figure who is at the center of this book?
BADKHENHmm. Well, you can look at it in different ways. You can look at the actual journey of the carpet from the moment when Thawra's father-in-law goes to walks on foot to the nearest market town which is about a seven-hour walk away to buy the yarn for the carpet, and then brings it back, and then the entire family participates in creating the loom, which is a horizontal loom made out of two beams.
NNAMDIBy which Thawra will spend seven months on that thing.
BADKHENThat's right. That's right. And a lot of things will happen on that thing. A lot of sex gossip will happen on that thing. A baby will be born on that thing. Chicken will hatch on that thing. There will be a lot of conversations. There will be tea that will be spilled onto that thing. So you can look at that sort of in a linear way as a thing being made and then that thing, the carpet, is rolled into a tube and probably wrapped in a burlap sack and taken by donkey and then by taxi and then by bus to Kabul, and then from Kabul it's -- maybe it's stuffed into the cargo compartment of a plane and sent to Dubai and from there to London or Washington D.C.
BADKHENOr maybe it continues its journey to Pakistan. So that's sort of the linear journey of what connects Thawra's village and Thawra's loom room to the living room of probably people in our audience. But the other connection is a much deeper connection that we all share as humans, and that connection is in the sex jokes. That connection is in the way a four-year-old goofs off as she's trying to help her mom.
BADKHENYou know, that connection is in the absolute humanity that we all share, and I think that that connection is woven into that carpet, and that is much more important than the actual yarn -- the physical yarn.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Anna Badkhen. She is a journalist and author. Her latest book is titled "The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village." You can call us at 800-433-8850. Is there an Afghan carpet in your home? How often do you stop to consider where it came from and what life is like for the people who made it? 800-433-8850. Your book follows Thawra and her family for four seasons. What can you tell us about them as a group, and as a journalist, how did you find that family? How did you get to know them and them to open their lives to you in this way?
BADKHENI was born in the global south. My global south was very far north of the 57th parallel in Leningrad, USSR. But I grew up in a place where in order to talk to somebody, you walked into their door and you sat down over a cup of teas, and the conversation would commence, and people will open up to one another because everything outside that door was hostile. So for the last 17 years, I have been walking through these doors professionally as a journalist working in extremist, and yet I'm always fascinated and humbled by how it is that I come in a complete outsider and the reaction of my hosts is, oh, okay.
BADKHENWell, my name is this. Please have a seat and let's have a cup of tea, and we share stories. I was introduced to Baba Nazar, the patriarch of Thawra's family by a friend who was working with me as a driver in 2010 in Afghanistan, who said, I've got to show you something. And he brought me to Oqa, and it was one of the most destitute places in the world that I have seen, and I have traveled quite a bit in fairly destitute regions. And he introduced me to Baba Nazar.
BADKHENHe said, this is Baba Nazar. He is a hunter. This is Anna, she is a journalist from America. And Baba Nazar extended his hand and said, welcome. Let me show you my house. And we walked through a door, which was actually a doorless cavity in his mud brick house, and there was his daughter-in-law weaving the most beautiful carpet I've ever seen. And that friction between the immense beauty and the absolute poverty, and the war that was happening all around us as we were speaking, as we were drinking that tea, it pierced me. It made me want to stay as long as it takes to weave a carpet.
NNAMDIYou studied the craft of carpet making fairly extensively, and one thing you noticed is that at the other end of the spectrum, the dealers look specifically for mistakes, proof of human fallibility. Why was that significant to you?
BADKHENEverything that proves that we're human is significant to me. My job, I think, in life, is connect -- to mediate between people who live in the west, because this is where I live now, and this is where my audience is, and people in the global south which is where I come from and where I work and where I spent most of my life and a giant portion of my working life. So anything that proves to my audience that people far away are not simply stick figures, two dimensional cartoonish characters in the backdrop of this American war, or that American engagement, anything that brings the background or what American audiences very often see as background to American wars, to the foreground and says, look, these are deeply people landscapes.
BADKHENThirty million people live in Afghanistan, men and women and children, and they laugh and they fall in love and they fall out of love, and everything that humanizes -- well, that's a very bad word actually, because nothing humanizes. Anything that reminds humans on this side of the ocean that that side of the ocean is also populated by humans is very important to me.
NNAMDIAnd when we talk about human fallibility, it is my understanding from "The World is a Carpet," that the carpet maker deliberately does something to make the carpet not perfect because only God can create perfection.
BADKHENA very, very good carpet weaver, who never gets distracted by her children's crying who never stands up from the loom because somebody came in and she wants to embrace her, a very professional carpet weaver will weave mistakes into her carpet so as not to offend the perfection of Allah. But usually she doesn't need to think about that because she will run out of thread. She will forget how many pedals she has already woven because a goat has ambled into her room and she has to shoo the goat away, or somebody told her a joke so vulgar that she is in fits of laughter, and once she recovers she's forgotten and accidentally woven an extra line.
BADKHENSo she doesn't need to worry really about, oh, I must make a mistake. She will make mistakes. It's almost inevitable.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Tom in Laurel, Md. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMYes. I was in Afghanistan with the military in 2003, and one of the trips we had was to Samarkand Uzbekistan. We went to a factory that made rugs, and the director of the factory was a medical doctor who mentioned the reason he was running the business is he had tried to do medical work in Afghanistan, but because he wasn't connected with an NGO, the expense was too much to, you know, his living expenses in Afghanistan.
TOMBut what he had going on in Uzbekistan, there were two women at a loom, and it was like an apprenticeship program, and in Uzbekistan, there are a lot of protections for these folks, good working conditions, time off for maternity leave. Also, this medical doctor had a sister who was a medical doctor in Arizona, and she was sending patterns where the American Indians had, you know, rugs that were put on walls, patterns that were no longer made, and they would duplicate those patterns and he would sell them over the Internet.
TOMHe sold -- pointed out some flaws in some rugs and gave the fellows discounts. Some of the guys that didn't have a check he gave them the rug and said, send me the check. And I found this person to be very, in my mind, very, you know, upstanding, and he said the real problem was the mulberry trees had been devastated in Afghanistan, and if they could only produce more mulberry trees which facilitated the making of silk, that this industry could take off and you'd have, you know, an increased economy for Afghanistan. I just want to comment on that.
NNAMDII am fascinated by that because I'd like to hear what Anna Badkhen says that would mean to the family in Oqa.
BADKHENI'm actually -- well, I'm laughing at this story, Tom. Thank you very much for telling it, because you said that you were in Afghanistan and then there was a factory in Uzbekistan that was dealing with Arizona over the Internet. And mulberry trees, which of course grow on my street in West Philadelphia, and I go and pick some mulberries very often around this time of the year if they're now is season on this continent. You know, talking about human connections, it's all just in this one call.
BADKHENMulberry trees would not -- more mulberry trees would not help the weavers of Oqa because they weave wool carpets. They don't weave silk carpets.
NNAMDISo it would mean nothing to them. Tom, thank you very much for your call. A lot of people are trying hard to understand the psychology of the Taliban today with the news that the Taliban wants to move ahead with peace talks. You reviewed an anthology of Taliban poetry a few years ago for the New Republic, and you wrote that poetry is one of the most revealing sources of how Afghans actually feel. What do you think is so revealing about art, particularly when it comes to Afghanistan?
BADKHENAfghanistan has been making art since the time before Europe was even a feudal part of the world. There is a grave not far from the village of Oqa where I worked in 2011 of an Afghan woman poet named Rabia Balkhi, who in the 10th century composed poetry in both Arabic and Farsi. Alexander the Great, when he invaded Balkh in 327 BC sent his -- is rumored to have sent his mother Olympias a carpet from Balkh because it was so beautiful.
BADKHENSo we may forget individual characters, individual people of Afghanistan, but what we will always remember because of historians and because of artifacts is the art of Afghanistan, and also, for me, the fact that Afghanistan produces some of the most beautiful, not just carpets but poetry, pottery, jewelry, in the world is very important because we seem to forget that life continues in war. And so when we think of a war zone, we basically classify it as this hellish place where nothing good ever grows, everybody's dying, everybody's suffering.
BADKHENIn fact, again, wars wouldn't be so horrible, to paraphrase General Lee, if they weren't waged in landscapes where people are producing art. So the juxtaposition of art and war, it's very important to remember, I think. It's very important to keep that art in mind because it keeps preserving in the most direst of circumstances.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Anna Badkhen. She is a journalist and author. Her latest book is titled "The World is Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village." After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, how much do you know about the lives and cultures of the people who live inside that country? Give us a call. 800-433-8850, and send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What's the relationship of a place like Oqa to the central government of Afghanistan? How have the people in your book been shaped or not by the central government, by the Taliban, or anyone else's influence? Any other authority's influence is what I should say.
BADKHENWhat is the relationship indeed of most Afghans to the central government of Afghanistan? So once I went to the provincial government of the province of Balkh which is northern province where Oqa is situated, and asked a question about how come Oqa doesn't have a teacher to teach the children of Oqa? And the officials -- there were several people sitting in the room. The head of the Department of Education and her assistants, and she said, Oqa, where is that? And one man said, I don't know where that is, and the other man said, it doesn't exist.
BADKHENSo in the eyes of the government of Afghanistan, most of the rest of Afghanistan probably doesn't exist, which is how come most of the rest of Afghanistan, 12 years into billions of dollars, aid dollars, into the war, still has not seen almost any of the international assistance that the world has provided to Afghanistan. Conversely, for the rest of Afghanistan, the central government doesn't really exist because it doesn't do anything for the people of Afghanistan. So it's a very -- it's a theoretical relationship.
NNAMDIReminds me of a piece you wrote for Foreign Policy a few years ago where a driver from Northern Afghanistan told you we don't care about the government or the Taliban. Neither is going to look out for us or change our lives. We have to look out for ourselves. But last month you wrote an article about American claims that the war effort has been helping the women of Afghanistan.
NNAMDIYou said essentially that progress has been uneven at best. What, in your view, are the things that can be done to improve lives for Afghan women in the long terms after American troops withdraw?
BADKHENVery little, to be honest. There is no easy solution, and -- because what Afghan women need is to have their basic human rights protected. The right to life for example. One in four Afghan children dies before the age of five. It's the highest infant mortality rate in the world. One in eight Afghan women die in childbirth. That is also pretty high because they have no access to sanitation, no access to clean water, no access to health care or very, very limited access to any of these things.
BADKHENSo what Afghan women need is access to health care, access to sanitation, adequate nutrition, roads to take their beautiful carpets to market.
NNAMDINot to mention adequate compensation for making their carpets.
BADKHENAdequate compensation would probably follow if there were roads to -- which they could take -- use to take their carpets to market rather than be limited to the one dealer who's a seven-hour walk away, you know. If I had a choice, maybe I would go to a dealer who's a little farther, but would pay me a little better. And, of course, Afghan women need security, and that is something I just am not seeing in the future of Afghanistan.
NNAMDIWe're almost out of time, but it's my understanding that your next stop is Mali. When can we expect to start seeing stories from there?
BADKHENWell, I'm working in Mali right now. I'm herding cattle with Fulani nomads, and there is a book that's supposed to come out in 2015.
NNAMDIAnna Badkhen is a journalist and author. Her latest book is titled "The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village." Anna Badkhen, thank you so much for joining us.
BADKHENThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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