Badkhen, an award-winning freelance war correspondent, has covered conflicts in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Since 2001 she has reported regularly from Afghanistan, the setting of The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village in which she chronicles the lives of the residents of Oqa, a hamlet so remote the government didn’t know it existed.
How did you meet the family that you profiled in Oqa?
I was working in Afghanistan in 2010 on a series of dispatches for Foreign Policy magazine which later became an e-book, Waiting for Taliban. It was one of those days when I had no plans. I asked the man who was working for me as a driver, “Do you want to show me anything?” He said, “Yes.” First he took me to a beautiful village called Zadyan, home to the oldest surviving minaret in Afghanistan.
He then took me probably 10 to12 miles across a roadless desert to this hamlet perched on a hummock. Absolutely no trees, no water for irrigation; just sand dunes, the vastness of the northern Afghan desert, and about 40 homes. He introduced me to an old man, probably one of the oldest in the village, named Baba Nazar. My driver said, “When I was a little boy I used to come here and he would take me hunting.” Baba Nazar is the patriarch of the main family in the book.
What drives your desire to “document the lives of people in extremis”?
I was born in the global south, in Leningrad, USSR. So I grew up knowing the totalitarian state, knowing extreme poverty. That is very much a dichotomy that is familiar to me: A quarter of the world lives in the global south, lives on $1.25 a day, so that’s extreme poverty.
In the case of The World is a Carpet, what attracted me was the friction between the super ancient and the ultra-modern. You have this landscape that hasn’t changed for millennia, and, at the same time, you have super modern weapons on this landscape; you have people who are walking barefoot and bartering kindling for rice, and, at the same time, are using cell phones; you have extreme and dire poverty and violence. And in the middle of it, people create the most beautiful carpets in the world.
Ethnic Turkoman women, like Thawra the weaver, are breadwinners in their families: Do they have more influence than other Afghan women?
No, I don’t think so. In Afghanistan, women are very influential in the household because that is where they live and that is their purview. Women barely participate in social life outside of home. But inside the home, they are extremely active and dominate; they make a lot of the decisions.
Between the Soviet war, and now, the American war what are the challenges for weavers?
It means that infrastructure is extremely stunted. The carpets that are woven in Oqa—the men put them on the back of donkey and carry them to the nearest big town, which is about 25 miles away. It’s about a 7-hour walk.
Life in Oqa is incredibly harsh; how do the villagers survive?
I’ve always wondered why people stay there. What I understand is that Turkoman herders came to Oqa about 300 years ago and settled there because it was, they say, the jungle.
What happened next was serial drought, man-made desertification. Now it’s this tough, alkaline desert where nothing grows. But the descendants of the people who settled it first remain out of inertia, out of tradition, because their fathers say so, because they have no other place to go.
The World is Carpet recalls Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake, which opened up Vietnamese society to Americans during the Vietnam War. Are you familiar with it?
I have not read that book. But Chinua Achebe said once that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. I wanted to show the world from within Afghanistan, not Afghanistan from the outside world.
Why is there so little literature about the war from the Afghan perspective?
A couple of reasons: one, it is not politically expedient. The other reason is that it is very difficult to do work this way because it takes up a lot of time and it’s dangerous. You can’t walk into Oqa wearing body armor; you can’t walk into Oqa with security guards.
Most news organizations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan have very strict regulations about security. I am a freelancer there, so I am not bound by rules of news organizations: I can afford to go spend a month in a tiny little village or in somebody’s house in Mazar-e-Sharif or travel on a road that is not really safe for Westerners to travel on.