Weaving a World

the carpet wars
Published by Flamingo/Harper-Collins

At the beginning of Islam’s most important feast, Eid al-Adha, Australian journalist Christopher Kremmer was invited to spend the holiday with the [Afghan] Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud. Kremmer travels to his appointment in the Hindu Kush region in a decrepit Soviet-built Mi-17 helicopter. He says it looks like a leftover from a Mad Max film. Inside the hulk are heavy drapes and two red velvet chairs. Pinned to the rear bulkhead is a red-and-blue Baluchi prayer rug. There is also a liquor cabinet, installed when the chopper belonged to another [Afghan] warlord, Uzbek Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, from whom Massoud’s forces had captured the “shuddering behemoth.” It barely survives this trip—expiring on a football field in Taliqan, in northeastern Afghanistan, surrounded by a horde of tribal children. There, in brief, you have all the rich contradictions and complexities of an extraordinary tale of travel, wars, and carpets, pieced together by a man whose working life has put him in pursuit of all three.

Two days before the attack on the World Trade Center, Massoud was assassinated. Gen. Dostum lives on, one of the surviving forces in an Afghanistan now free of Taliban domination. Dostum is on Kremmer’s list of warlords who, in careful understatement, made him uncomfortable—one of the “transparent killers.” Massoud he describes as a man who “always came across as human—ruthless perhaps, but no more than was necessary in a war.” The force of Kremmer’s evaluation comes from his having interviewed all the men he judges—men such as the assassinated killer and former president of Afghanistan, Muhammad Najibullah—often and long enough to give you a sense of them as men: more or less human. Najibullah pranced for him on a magnificent filpai—elephant’s foot—carpet. In the time of Tamerlane carpets symbolized the presence of the ruler. Foreign emissaries would kiss and pay homage to the carpet.

Kremmer does much the same throughout The Carpet Wars (Flamingo/ HarperCollins), a long and subtle book. He pays full but realistic homage to the culture and the peoples of the regions he visits, lives in, trades in, and writes about. These are ancient places, historically layered with conflict and high culture, the one woven into the other. The carpet has traveled with the people of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and India for so long that it reads like a chronicle and serves as a barometer.

But it is on the people, not the high commerce or the high politics, that Kremmer fixes his interest. In consequence, you learn more than you could from any strategic analysis. But there is more here than the chance encounters of the travel genre. Kremmer begins his book in the shop of a rug merchant of Kabul, Tariq Ahmed, and stays with him throughout his long narrative, in many cities and regions as war and chance shift the two men about.

We meet the young Hazara student, Ghulam Rasoul Yaqub, assisted to Australia as a refugee by Kremmer himself. There is Massoud, Saddam Hussein, rabid merchants who exploit child labor, the Taliban leaders, and countless more. Kremmer is a player, not just an observer, a self-confessed “carpet pilgrim.” One of the pleasures of The Carpet Wars is to watch his character unfold as he talks, interviews, journeys, and trades.

If you read no other nonfiction book post-Sept. 11, don’t miss this one. At the very least it will make premature judgments impossible. It is also a source of vivid, unexpected pleasure—sharp as the air in the Afghan mountains.