Afghan-American writer Qais Akbar Omar’s autobiography, A Fort of Nine Towers
(2013), chronicles his childhood in Afghanistan during its years of bitter civil war and Taliban insurgency between 1992 and 2001. Published in many languages, the memoir has exerted significant political power in the years since its publication, owing to its humanization of Afghan people and history, and its rebuke of negative geopolitical attitudes towards the Middle East.
Omar begins by describing his memories of life in Afghanistan before the Taliban rose to power and the Mujahideen, or radical Muslim guerrilla fighters, became active in the region. Omar fondly recalls his grandfather, a highly intelligent and educated man who loved to read books and teach his grandson about the world. His grandfather particularly respected Mir Ghulam’s political work Afghanistan: In the Path of History
, which provided an incisive reading of Afghanistan’s history and expressed hope in the Afghan people’s will to fashion a peaceful state.
One night in Kabul, Omar’s home city and the capital of Afghanistan, the power was abruptly cut from the whole area. He recalls hearing protest cries, including “Allah-u-Akbar!” Omar’s family members, confused about the purpose of the uprising, have different reactions to it. His father, Abdul, quickly leaves home to join. The family learns that it is a planned revolt against the Soviet Union’s military and economic involvement in Afghanistan.
In the days following this first uprising, Omar experienced a multitude of uprisings of different sizes. Many of them turned violent. To drive out the Soviet Union and send a clear message to Russia that the country would remain fully sovereign, the people of Kabul allowed the Mujahideen to intervene with violent force. Omar recalls, with irony
, the difference between his imagination of what such an intervention would look like and its actual manifestation. He expected the Mujahideen to be a virtuous and organized force, consisting of “heroes in uniforms.” Instead, he witnessed the arrival of countless men in dark turbans and traditional Afghan tunics and pants.
The day after the arrival of the Mujahideen, Omar’s family began to hear bombs going off in the city. The bombs were deployed in the form of imprecise rockets that decimated many of Kabul’s buildings, leading to the deaths of innocent civilians. The roads of Kabul ran with the blood of Mujahideen, Soviets, and Afghans. The sheer percussion of the rocket blasts shattered many of the city’s windows; there were little means of escape for anyone in the city. The people of Kabul began to realize, if they had not before, that the Mujahideen were no “holy warriors” as they had touted themselves to be. They were terrorists and brutal war-mongers who turned on the Afghan people, looting their homes and raping them.
Several days after this realization set in, the different factions in Kabul began to turn against each other. No one was able to leave the city; even the nearby Kob-e-Aliabad Mountains were populated with snipers that would shoot anyone on sight who dared venture out. The Omar family, finding it impossible to stay at home, moved to the home of their father’s friend Haji Noor Sher, in the mountainous Fort of Nine Towers, or Qala-e-Noborja
. There, they enjoyed a much more peaceful and safe existence. Though they were now safe, they lamented having left behind Omar’s grandfather and cousin Wakeel.
Despite Kabul’s many casualties and the fraught conditions that endure in the Middle East, A Fort of Nine Towers
suggests an optimistic attitude about the future of Omar’s country through the stories of the overwhelming majority of people who simply want to find sanctuary and practice their religions in peace.