Afghanistan is a country full of compelling stories and people with unfathomable resilience against all odds. Qais Akbar Omar is one of the people with a compelling story, and his book, A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story, is gripping. The backdrop of his story -- indeed much of the Afghan story itself -- is well-known. It encompasses war and conflict, devastation, daily indignity, as well as survival and overcoming immense difficulty.
In his first book, A Fort of Nine Towers, Omar recounts his experiences and the experiences of his extended family trying to survive the events of Afghanistan's last several decades. While the book alludes to "the time before the fighting" the book is about the time after the fighting started. During time period of the book, the author grows up. These are tough years to say the least, beginning with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and ending with the fall of the Taliban. This frank and at times horrifying book chronicles the impact of these years of upheaval on Omar and numerous members of his family. Through his story, you feel the magnitude of the impact on so many others.
You are also confronted with the specter of death, either at the hands of the forces fighting in Afghanistan, warlords or the Taliban, or the deaths that occur because the years of war have ripped apart the infrastructure of daily life. But you also see that despite that backdrop, Afghans strive to do the best they can to support their families and survive for an undetermined and undefined future.
I recently returned to the U.S. after working for 13 months in Kabul. And because of that, I have read dozens of books about Afghanistan. This book is different. It is a riveting and heart-breaking story told through the eyes of a boy, who over course of the book grows into a young man. Unlike most other authors of memoirs or novels, Omar did not leave Afghanistan during these years (I note not for a lack of his family's attempts to do so). He tries hard to understand the ravages of war, and the confusion about who these people are who are ripping his life apart. He mourns his missed opportunities, and the opportunities that are not what he thought they would be, such as his studies at Kabul University during the Taliban. His father's drive to protect his family from the conflict is nothing short of heroic, and the stories of travel to Mazar and living in the Bamiyan caves are incredible stories of what people will do to survive.
Most compelling are the chapters about the Taliban years, with brutal tales of how men and boys were impacted by the Taliban and its drive to impose a draconian world view. We read so much about the Taliban's impact on girls and women, but this story illuminates the very real impact on boys and men. I found the description of Omar being stopped by a Talib to measure his armpit hair one of the most chilling vignettes I have ever read. Omar is a good narrator; but I must admit at times, I found it hard to read more than a few pages. I knew the general outcome of the story, but the details were often overwhelming.
Whether you've read other books about Afghanistan, or not, A Fort of Nine Towers is worth your time. It documents a riveting and chaotic time, and gives you a sense of what it was like to be there.