CANADIANS may be most interested in Afghanistan's last decade or so, when Canadian forces attached to NATO were involved in liberating that country from the Taliban, and in the apparently futile attempt to set up a functioning democracy.
Afghan scholar and carpet merchant Qais Akbar Omar's readable and often engaging memoir of his formative years -- when Afghanistan was under Mujahedin, warlord and Taliban control -- presents many examples of the personal sufferings and sacrifices of the Afghan people. However, A Fort of Nine Towers ends abruptly, and disappointingly, soon after the Taliban are driven out of Kabul by the 2001 invasion.
Omar has also co-written Shakespeare in Kabul, about a 2005 tour performing a translation of Love's Labours Lost. He has been a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado, and is currently studying creative writing at Boston University.
His new book begins with an elegantly written prologue, but most of the narrative consists of more workmanlike prose: "Perhaps someday I will understand all these things better. Perhaps others will, as well. Perhaps this book will help."
Unfortunately, A Fort of Nine Towers falls short of giving Westerners a clear understanding of the players in these desperate times and places. Many of Afghanistan's leaders and power players are mentioned, but as experienced by a child, not interpreted or explained from a more mature perspective.
Omar's family were influential and well-off, but not politically connected. His grandfather, whom he revered, was a banker and a carpet merchant. His father was a boxer and a teacher, who later also dealt in carpets.
Under the chaos of civil war between warlords after the Mujahedin were successful in driving out the Soviets, Omar's family suffered setback after setback. They were chased from their home, and lived for years at an ancient fort in Kabul, where only one of the original nine towers still stood. For years they tried to escape the violence of Kabul, and the dangerous instability of Afghanistan.
During one escape attempt, Omar describes their temporary residence in caves behind the famous Bamyan Buddha statues, which were eventually destroyed by the Taliban.
He also spent time working on Afghan carpets with a Turkmeni family, including a deaf daughter, a carpet-making prodigy whom he calls his teacher.
"I was far from being a man, but I quickly made a poem in my heart about her," Omar writes. "She was paradise, and music, and charm. And she was making a magic carpet."
Among all the death and destruction, Omar's family continues to encounter noble and helpful people, even of different tribal backgrounds, who illustrate the best of Afghan culture.
Still, the warring factions and later the fanatical but often corrupt Taliban make life a nightmare for those caught between unscrupulous and ruthless leaders. Even later, after initial optimism when the Taliban were first driven out, Omar notes: "Not everything, we soon learned, is the fault of the foreigners."
With all the depredations suffered by Omar and his family, it's hard to imagine how anyone could have grown up with the capacity for positive thoughts and hope. Yet this memoir never slips into despair, no matter how desperate their circumstances become.
After the Taliban take over, and Omar experiences some of their horrific oppression, he is still able to say that their regime was preferable to the instability of civil war and the warlords.
"A woman might be killed for leaving her home alone, but in other ways the Taliban regime provided a sense of security. Many things worked."
It is nothing short of heart-wrenching to imagine the lot of people who can find positive aspects of Taliban rule.
It also elicits grateful appreciation for North American stability.
Bill Rambo teaches English and history at the Laureate Academy in St. Norbert.