Qais Akbar Omar’s A Fort of Nine Towers is a remarkable book. As Akbar Omar marches you through the saga of his family in Afghanistan in the years after the Russians left the country until the Western forces led by the U.S. began their attacks after 9/11, there are tales that will shock you at the cruelty men are capable of, but there are just as many that will inspire you with the capacity of the righteous to maintain their humanity even in their darkest hour. The memoir is a testimony, not only of the evils man has done to man, but of man’s ability to rise above those evils.
After a short description of the idyllic life of his very well off family before the Mujahedin began fighting amongst themselves after the Russian withdrawal, Akbar Omar, a child at the time, begins a chronicle of disaster after disaster. The family is forced to leave the compound that is their home because the neighborhood is a prime target area for the warlords and their minions. They move to a compound in a safer area owned by friend and partner of Omar’s father; this is the eponymous Fort of Nine Towers, although there is in fact only one tower.
They are safe there for a while, but that doesn’t last. We find the family trekking through the county in a car and on foot in search refuge. They camp out near a river; they are taken in by benevolent patriarch; they join with some relatives out in the county side; they nest in a cave behind the head of one of the Bamiyan Buddhas; they join with a group of Kuchi nomads. They look for ways to leave the country, but nothing seems to work out. Eventually they end up back in Kabul in time for the Taliban to enter the narrative. And through it all, there are stories of almost unimaginable horror, beatings and torture, rape and torture, stories more compelling in their effect coming as they do from the eye of a child.
Through all the darkness though there are the portraits of those who manage to maintain their humanity: the deaf young woman who teaches the youth to tie knots to make carpets, the young nomad boys who want to learn to read and write from their equally young teacher, the mother of a Taliban who stops him from beating women shopping for clothing, the baker who risks his life by hiding the young boy in a pile of flour sacks, and so many more. As bad as things get, and they get very bad, there are still those—normal, average people—who rise above the horror that surrounds them. In many ways, the book is an homage to those people.
Omar writes with a lucid pen. His narrative is straight forward and pulls no punches. He draws you in with his honesty. Once read, this is a book that will be hard to forget.
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