The award-winning Russian-American journalist Anna Badkhen writes from a rare and intimate vantage point: for one year, she lived in northern Afghanistan and regularly visited a village so isolated that it can't even be found on Google Earth. With the help of a translator, she ate, cooked, took walks, rode the bus, went to market, shared the "brackish and murky water", and gossiped with the women and men of the village of Oqa. The children tried on her shoes, and the author tried to cook curry for a Ramadan meal.
From that experience, Badkhen has produced her fourth book, The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village.
When it is good, this book is very very good, with insights into Afghan life and carpet-making as finely detailed as the most intricately woven rug designs. A carpet, Badkhen points out, is the weaver's "future autobiography, her diary of a year, her winter count, with its sorrowful zigzags, its daydreamy curlicues, loops of melancholy, knots of joy".
The major problem is that there is too little of this wonderful description. Barely four dozen of the total 288 pages talk about the carpet, the supposed fulcrum of the book.
Luckily, Badkhen, who was born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and now lives in Philadelphia, has a lot to say about daily life in the village.
Another unusual touch is that she drew about 20 sketches of Oqa and its inhabitants, which are scattered throughout the book. However, she includes too much wasted filler, about topics such as the workings of Google Earth, various types of sand, and the different clothing worn by Alexander the Great and British explorers. She also has an annoying habit of turning nouns into verbs ("We thanked the driver and farewelled the Uzbeks").
In writing The World is a Carpet, Badkhen joins what seems to be a group of journalists and emigrés - mostly women - who set up temporary residence in Afghanistan and then use a particular piece of everyday life as a metaphor to explain that mysterious nation.
This trend was apparently begun by Asne Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul (2004), but also includes Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman's Journey through Afghanistan (2011) by the emigré journalist Fariba Nawa; Badkhen's previous books, Afghanistan by Donkey: A Year in a War Zone (2012) and Waiting for the Taliban: A Journey through Northern Afghanistan (2010) and Roberta Gately's novel, Lipstick in Afghanistan (2010). Another title is due out in June, The Afghan Queen: A True Story of an American Woman in Afghanistan, by Paul Meinhardt, although this one takes place back in the late 1970s.
With so many writers exploring "real life" in Afghanistan, Badkhen's special contribution this time is the carpet - a tradition for which the women of Oqa have been famous for centuries.
Badkhen homes in on a small carpet being made by one particular Oqan housewife, Thawra, and her mother-in-law, Boston.
The carpet's life begins when Thawra's father-in-law, Baba Nazar, sets out to purchase yarn in the market town of Dawlarabad - "a drab provincial grid of straight grey streets" but a booming mega-mall compared to Oqa. With only Dh5 worth of Afghanistan's worn, frayed currency in his vest pocket, Baba Nazar can't afford enough yarn for a full-size, three-by-six-émetre carpet plus the carrots, onions and potatoes his wife has requested. So Thawra will have to settle for making just a one-metre-wide runner, and Boston will have to forgo the potatoes.