Compelling storyteller brings ‘Fort of Nine Towers’ to life

My mere words cannot capture the raw storytelling power in author Qais Akbar Omar’s moving memoir, “A Fort of Nine Towers.” So I’ll give you a taste of his.

NineTowers“In the time before the fighting, before the rockets, before the warlords and their false promises, before the sudden disappearance of so many people we knew to graves or foreign lands, before the Taliban and their madness, before the smell of death hung daily in the air and the ground was soaked in blood, we lived well.”

So begins Omar’s story.

I heard Omar speak recently at the annual conference of the Association of Personal Historians, of which I am an active member. Before he spoke, I was skeptical — I had no interest in an Afghani’s family story. But in 90 minutes (that flew by), he had won me over with his sincerity, his humor and his philosophy of life.

His book delivers on the promise created by his talk. He writes about growing up in Afghanistan beginning in the early 1990s. His coming-of-age tale recalls how his family endured, then escaped, then returned to war-torn Kabul.

As a fellow memoirist, I agreed wholeheartedly with the healing nature of writing about one’s hardships.

“The more I talked about about my past, the more I felt better, like therapy,” Omar said. “Maybe the way to get everything out of you is to write it down.”

He writes poetically about his country and his countrymen while distancing himself from the warmongers, first tribal mujaheddin and then the vicious Taliban.

Much of his story reads likes a postapocalyptic adventure journey that includes elements of campfires and nomads interspersed with unimaginable horrors of war no child should ever witness. So many moments of terror fill this book, but for someone who’s spent the better part of my profession career preserving family photos, my heart was in my throat as I read how Omar’s family burned all — all — of their family photos before they were discovered by the Taliban, who would have tortured or killed the family for keeping images of their Western existence.

It’s not just his story that’s compelling (and it is), it’s how he tells it. At one point in the family’s exodus, Omar’s Muslim family takes refuge in a cave behind a mountain-size sculpture of Buddha (yes, Buddha in Afghanistan — one among many small facts of the country’s history I learned while reading this book). Eventually, they are able to move on.

I had always expected I would see our Buddha again. But the storm of ignorance that has been raging in Afghanistan for so many decades smashed him to bits before I could return. I once lived inside his head. Now he lives in mine.

“A Fort of Nine Towers” is a fairly long book — 389 pages — but I hung on every word. “It’s a very long story,” Omar said when he spoke at the APH conference. “That’s how we do it in Afghanistan — we tell the whole story, not just part.”

I highly recommend “A Fort of Nine Towers,” as a piece of literature, as an enlightening historical and cultural document, as a beautifully told story. When I finished the last word, I wept, unable to tear myself away from this small piece of Qais Akbar Omar contained in the pages of his memoir.

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