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Book facts
A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story
by Qais Akbar Omar
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
416 pages, $27
Qais Akbar Omar claimed to have lived in a cave behind this statue of Buddha, which was destroyed by the Taliban after it took control of Afghanistan.

The carpetbaggers’ folly

Afghan’s tale reminds the West of the repeated error of its ways

In many ways, the Mideast stretches all the way to Afghanistan. The U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade-plus, for example, have the same trappings – and the same traps.

There’s a new book about Afghanistan that explains, by way of a teenager’s personal story, what the West doesn’t know about that society, and why whatever it does there is doomed to failure.

The fort in the book, “A Fort of Nine Towers,” has only one tower. The other eight are no longer standing, writes the author, Qais Akbar Omar. It’s a metaphor for the whole country, torn by decades of war after war.

We follow Qais and his family through violence, death, war, tragedy and nomadic travels back and forth across the country to try to stay alive. Yet the stories are warm, human and engaging, despite the suffering.

The autobiographical book starts when the author, who says his first name rhymes with “rice,” is 11. It begins like this:

“In the time before the fighting, before the rockets, before the warlords and their false promises … before the Taliban and their madness … we lived well.”

The fort is the first place they live after incessant rocket fire by competing armed factions drives them out of their home in another part of Kabul.

The writing is personal, simple, eloquent, captivating. The stories are so detailed in their fable-like content, one after the other, that it is hard to believe that they actually happened to one person. A composite seems more likely. Yet the author claims that this is, in fact, the story of two decades of his life, and a veteran Afghanistan reporter confirms it’s all credible.

Carpets tie the stories together.

His father and grandfather are carpet merchants, though his father is also a high school teacher and a former professional boxer. Many of the key moments in the story relate to carpets, a mainstay of Afghan art, business and culture.

Thugs empty his grandfather’s carpet warehouse at gunpoint. A rocket fired by militants years later sets his father’s carpets on fire, destroying everything.

Qais learns the art of carpet weaving from a beautiful, magical, captivating deaf woman near the hovel where the family is forced to live during one of the wars. As a teenager, he weaves his own carpets, expands the enterprise into a neighborhood factory and supports his family.

Its travels take the family – Qais, his parents, three sisters and a baby brother he calls “the crying machine” – by car, camel, on foot and even by helicopter from place to place, looking for relatives, finding hospitable strangers, managing to stay alive.

One place of refuge is a cave.

Qais writes that the cave – and this strains credulity – is behind the head of one of the two huge statues of Buddha carved into the side of a mountain in Afghanistan. Qais describes how he can see the valley below through the mouth of the statue.

Years later, long after the family made it back to Kabul, the Taliban blew up the ancient statues, destroying them. Here is an example of the kind of writing that draws the reader emotionally into the middle of the story, the country:

“I had always expected I would see our Buddha again. But the storm of ignorance that has been raging in Afghanistan for so many decades smashed him to bits before I could return. I once lived inside his head. Now he lives in mine.”

The picture the author draws of his beloved homeland is of a society riven by warring factions, divided by competing tribes and torn by pointless violence that sucks innocent people in as hapless, helpless victims.

Twice he and his father are captured and tortured by warlords but somehow survive.

Then come the Taliban. The unwashed religious fanatics terrorize the society and confine women to their homes. Qais runs afoul of them twice, thrown in prison once and later escaping a gang rape by faking a bomb scare.

Yet when the Americans start a bombing campaign in 2001, after 9/11, to defeat the Taliban and al Qaida, the people are skeptical. They want the Taliban out, but they reject foreign occupation.

That’s where the book ends. We know what happens next. After aligning with a weak, corrupt government, Western forces are targeted with deadly attacks by Afghan militants.

The same thing happened in Iraq. It should have been clear to the West that it was in over its head in 2006, when Sunni Muslim insurgents blew up the Golden Mosque, revered by Shiite Muslims much as St. Peter’s Basilica is revered by Catholics. Imagine fellow Christians destroying St. Peter’s.

And the same thing happened to Israel in Lebanon.

In 1982, I went through southern Lebanon as a reporter after Israel’s invasion drove out the Palestinian militants. Israeli soldiers were welcomed as heroes. But at a gas station, a man pulled me aside and warned, “We welcome you now, but don’t stay too long. If we consider you as occupiers, we will drive you out.” And they did. It took 18 years, but they did.

Afghanistan is even more hostile than “A Fort of Nine Towers” depicts. The author starts out by claiming that before the turmoil, “we lived well.” Perhaps they did, but history shows otherwise.

Afghanistan has been the victim of bloody tribal conflicts for centuries. And it has been the graveyard of foreign army after foreign army.

Another recent book, “The Dark Defile” by Diana Preston, relates in excruciating detail the arrogant, ill-planned and doomed 1838-1842 British invasion of Afghanistan. Tribes play the British off against each other, while the British believe they’re the players. It ends in a blood-curdling massacre.

“We learn from history that we learn no history,” said an eighth grade teacher I’m fond of quoting.

Perhaps if we read more books like these, we could spare ourselves the inevitable defeat and degradation that awaits Mideast carpetbaggers.

Mark Lavie, a Fort Wayne native, has been a Mideast news correspondent since 1972. He wrote this review for The Journal Gazette.