An Afghan Writer Wants To Return Home, But It Could Cost Him His Life
Qais Akbar Omar lives on the first floor of an ordinary looking house in the city of Quincy, on Boston's South Shore. But stepping inside his apartment, you're immediately transported to a different place.
Spread on the floors are hand-woven rugs from his family's carpet business in Kabul. One is made up of four rectangular prayer rugs all woven together, in reds, oranges and blacks. In the kitchen, there's a woolen rug, traditionally used by nomads. It's edged with goats' hair to keep out scorpions and snakes.
"We also use it in Kabul," Omar explains. "Most of the houses in Afghanistan are made of mud brick or concrete. Our house is concrete, so we put this under the carpet and then that will keep the cold away."
Omar moved to Boston three years ago to finish an education cut short by Afghanistan's long civil war. He was forced to leave his school and home because of the fighting. He wrote about those painful years in his memoir: A Fort of Nine Towers, which has been translated into more than 20 languages.
"One thing led to the next, and now I can't go back because the book got so much publicity," he says.
Omar's growing success as a writer — and his outspoken criticism of those in power — created problems for him and his family back in Kabul.
"I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about ghost money that the CIA was giving to President Karzai at the time," he explains. "As soon as that one came out we got a lot of visitors coming to our shop trying to 'take me to lunch.' And of course, you go to that lunch and you never come back."
Omar's father was forced to close the carpet business which had been in the family for four generations. And then last year, he called with the news that Omar's mother had passed away.
"I told him: I'll buy my ticket right now and I'll be there for the funeral," Omar recalls. "And my father stopped crying and said: 'No, you can't come.' He was afraid that if I went there a suicide bomber might have come into the funeral."
Omar says it's still not safe for him to return home so he remains in Boston. He recently graduated from Boston University with an MFA in creative writing. His professor was Leslie Epstein — the program's former director. Epstein helped Omar secure a full scholarship.
"He's a man of great humanity," says Epstein. "One of the ways you can always tell such a person is when I think you can find, in the most tragic circumstances, something humane and usually something humorous, and he does."
Epstein says Omar's fiction is strongest when he's able to harness that humor — such as in the story "A Flower Made of Stone."
"Everyone in the neighborhood is basically underground," Epstein say, "and the bombing starts again, and there are limbs flying, and in the midst of all this chaos and suffering comes a donkey with a cart and a fellow is selling potatoes right down the middle of the street."
"A Flower Made of Stone" is part of a collection of unpublished short stories based on Omar's experiences living in Kabul. He's also finished two unpublished novels and two novellas. Writer Stephen Landrigan, a long-time friend, says that over the next 20 years, he expects Omar "will create a body of literature so that the outside world will understand Afghanistan in a way that we really didn't after we went in there after 9/11."
Landrigan worked with Omar in Kabul 10 years ago when they put on a production of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. (Together they wrote A Night in the Emperor's Garden, a book about the experience set to publish in the U.S. in September.) The performance was groundbreaking because it featured Afghan actors, both male and female, performing together in their native tongue: Dari.
I really want to be back to help my country, because as you know now, Afghanistan is run by the young generation, my generation, even though my generation went through hell ... I want to do more, but not if it costs my life. Then I won't be able to do anything. I'll be in the ground.
Many of those actors have since fled Afghanistan because of deteriorating security. As for Omar, he says he's conflicted about his own exile.
"I really want to be back to help my country, because as you know now, Afghanistan is run by the young generation, my generation, even though my generation went through hell ..." he says. "I want to do more, but not if it costs my life. Then I won't be able to do anything. I'll be in the ground."
For now, Omar is polishing one of his novels which he hopes to publish soon.
This story was produced in collaboration with The GroundTruth Project and the series: "Foreverstan: Afghanistan and the Road to Ending America's Longest War."
Copyright 2015 GBH