Humaira: Do you have an Afghan carpet?
Anna: I don’t have an Afghan carpet: I’m not a big collector of things. If I were to own one I probably couldn’t ever look at it as an objet d’art, let alone a household object. I would think of the history of the Afghan carpet—prehistoric artisans upon these plains were spinning wool and plaiting it into mats as early as seven thousand years ago, and Alexander the Great, who marched through the Khorasan in 327 b.c., is said to have sent his mother, Olympias, a carpet as a souvenir from the defeated Balkh—and also of the history of the carpet in my possession: who wove it? Was she healthy? Was she happy with her marriage? How many children did she lose to disease or malnutrition while she was at the loom? It would become too intimate, almost painfully so.
Humaira: What do you think makes the various types of carpets woven in Central Asia different from an Afghan carpet?
Anna: There are many kinds of Afghan carpets, but those woven by the Turkomans are the most valued. For their rich palette of reds—mahogany, terracotta, liver, and the atrorubent of the fratricidal blood that soaks their land—the Turkomans are called the Rembrandts of weaving. Marco Polo, in the thirteenth century, lauded Turkoman weavers for producing “the best and handsomest carpets in the world.” Six hundred years later, Francis Henry Bennett Skrine, a retired commissioner of the Indian Civil Service, and the London linguist Sir Edward Denison Ross wrote that Turkoman carpets were “unrivalled in Asia for beauty and durability.”
Humaira: Do you have a favorite Afghan dish or two?
Anna: Mantoo. The incredible paisleys in which the three sauces—the yogurt, the chickpeas, and the tomato sauce—feather around the dumplings. I remember the first time I helped prepare mantoo, in the house where I was staying in Mazar-e-Sharif: four women at the counter, preparing lunch for forty. At first, the other women watched me very suspiciously: were my untrained fingers a match for the filigreed, stuffed beauties they were making? After my second mantoo, they said: “Good, you can do this,” and stopped watching. I felt as though I had been accepted into a tribe.
Humaira: What did the people of Oqa make for a wedding celebration? (Note: There is a great wedding scene in the book which I really enjoyed reading.)
Anna: In Oqa, the wedding meal was palau. It was a poor man’s wedding, so the palau was simple: onions, lamb, and rice. The chef cooked it in an enormous cast iron vat he had lowered into a dugout fire pit at the edge of the village. He stirred it with a shovel. After a village elder seasoned the rice with salt, the chef’s apprentices laid serving trays upside down to cover the rice, spread a bed sheet on top of that, covered it with patu blankets, and then with a black tarp. They tucked in the blankets with their fingertips and patted them down with the flats of their palms. The way a mother might tuck in a child.
Humaira: Do you cook for your son? Has he tried Afghan food?
Anna: Definitely—lobia or red beans is a staple, as is borani kaddo, stewed pumpkin with yogurt and garlic sauce. Lamb korma, sometimes. Firni, the dessert pudding. We eat a lot of rice at home, and I season it with the Badakhshani cumin my Mazari host mother gave me. Bamya, the okra stew with tomato sauce. Mantoo is very labor-intensive, but I did prepare it once (I cheated and used wonton wrappers instead of making my own dough). My son loved it of course. Who wouldn’t?
Humaira: Did Afghans treat you differently when they found out your were born in the former Soviet Union?
Anna: I was born in the Soviet Union, and carry an American passport. So one could say I represented two occupying powers. But in twelve years of traveling to Afghanistan I never have experienced distrust. I am very fortunate. Instead, I met a lot of Afghans who had studied in the Soviet Union and wanted to practice their Russian. I met a lot of Afghans who wanted to know more about the United States. When I first came to Oqa, in 2010, the introductions went like this: “This is Anna, she is an American journalist. This is Baba Nazar, he is a hunter.” And Baba Nazar said, “welcome,” and I said, “thank you,” and he took me inside his mud-and-straw home so I could meet his wife and son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren. In Afghanistan, this is how you welcome a stranger.
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