In "The World Is a Carpet," Anna Badkhen threads her story through a loom of time: a year of carpet weaving.
The author is befriended by a family in Oqa, a distant village in the nearly barren northern Afghanistan desert. The inhabitants, who think the world is flat like a rug, are deeply impoverished, but they have two special gifts: antique carved wooden doors and women who weave beautiful carpets. Though Badkhen lives in Mazar-e-Sharif, she regularly visits Oqa and watches the creation of the women's carpet in a dirt-floored room that serves as a barn in the winter.
Skilled at journalistic observation, Badkhen, who has published two other books on Afghanistan and has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, Foreign Policy and the Boston Globe, weaves together detailed description with historical research and political background for the armchair traveler. The book includes some of Badkhen's charming amateur drawings.
The narrative is structured by the seasons and becomes more intimate with each chapter. Badkhen first paints the picture of the village and landscape: "A slight warm breeze came from the west, blowing grains of cream-colored sand and large sleepy flies and slow coils of cigarette smoke and bits of digested thorns weathered out of camel dung." She never judges the town's poverty and is slow to disclose how opium is used to ease the pain of hunger, even for infants.
Badkhen documents her observations but rarely her thoughts and feelings. This lack of commentary distances the reader from the action. There is much intriguing historical research but very little interior monologue. I longed to hear more of this Afghanistan expert's enlightening analysis on this troubled and complex country, especially from her female viewpoint.
Though Badkhen is not a native English speaker (her first language is Russian), her prose is usually poetic and fluid: "The morning glare was eating away at the horizon the way a slow fire eats at the corner of a burning page, almost imperceptibly, consuming the edges in a barely visible radiant hairline border." Sometimes, however, the language becomes a bit stressed, such as "suppurating stumps" or "putrid puddles." Her vocabulary is voluminous, filled with words like "epicanthic," "strabismic" and "orogeny."
The greatest strength of this book is also its weakness: Badkhen's keen journalistic observations keep the reader from understanding the emotions at play in a country where family, tribe, alliance and town shape interaction. If she had disclosed more of her own feelings and thoughts, she would have opened the carved wooden doors into this ancient and war-torn country a bit farther.
Kathryn Kysar is a poet and teacher. She lives in Minneapolis.