The World Is a Carpet/Anna Badkhen: Reflections

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

This past Sunday, an entire community gathered in the home of the generous documentary photographer Lori Waselchuk (whom I wrote of here) to celebrate the release of Anna Badkhen's new book, The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village. Cilantro humus, hot peppers, spiced cheese. Artists, intellectuals, neighbors (mostly one in the same). Children and old people like me. Two friends—Lori and Anna—whose friendship ripened in New Orleans in the days following the devastation of Katrina. It was a book party like few others. Lori's entire home was filled. When Anna stood on the stairs to read four pages of her story, Lori's pride in Anna's work was as moving as Anna's astonishing prose.

That kind of pride. That kind of love.

And the children were spellbound.

This is a book (exquisitely packaged with velvetish cover paper on the outside and Anna's own ink drawings within) that evokes an off-the-map village in Afghanistan called Oqa, its door-less homes and sand-roughened people. It's about a place where time doesn't matter but seasons do, where boys marry girls they are not ready for, where imperfection is celebrated as if a carpet's beauty mole. It's about a Russian-American journalist who finds her way not just to this village but into its very soul—into its weddings, its private conversations, its dreams. Over the course of four seasons a carpet will be made—its threads carted home, its weft and warp deliberated, its colors dropped into the dung on the makeshift floor or powdered with the dust of a broken roof. A carpet will be made and carted away, and maybe this very carpet lies now in your living room, and if it does, every knot contains a secret, and it is those secrets, or the intimations of those secrets, that Anna carries forward with her prose.

The book is a fugue—a composition of rare words, future imperfects, irregular verbs, remarkable histories, fragments of Rumi poems, small interludes of the personal I, discrete returns to the making of that carpet. It is tender where tender lives and terrible, too; the deliberate poisoning of a crane, for example, broke my heart, as did the opium doping of babies, and the stagnant arc of lives, and the joyless face of the young bride. Anna's primary companion is a man named Amanullah, whose dreams of being elsewhere are palpable, and sometimes comic, and sometimes not, for not having choices is hardly the thing we want for the people whom we love. The skies are gorgeous, Anna tells us. The sand composes itself into something almost unearthly. Laughter rises up from bare kitchens and from behind the dunes where the townspeople go to relieve themselves. And color. There is color her, in Oqa, and there is color in that rug.

A favorite scene, simply and magically told, concerns a bed brought to Oqa by old Baba Nazar, the only bed in the town. In winter it lives in Baba's room. But look what happens in other seasons:
In warm months the hunter and his son would drag the bed into the sun and anchor its uneven and hollow rusted legs on three clay bricks. Then the bed would become the village centerpiece, teh Oqa equivalent of a town square, or of a mosque. Men would lounge on it as they would on a takht and talk. They would gather around it to listen to newscasts on Baba Nazar's thirty-year-old transistor radio and discuss dispatches from the world beyond their desert, even beyond the serrated Hindu Kush and the Amu Darya. Children would hide under it, run around it in circles, chasing one another, and, when Baba Nazar was not looking and when no adults were sitting on it, bounce on the squeaky springs.
Anna Badkhen writes with transporting authority and poetic license. When she told me that her editor was Rebecca Saletan, I was not surprised. Becky publishes beautiful books.


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