Award-winning reporter Anna Badkhen discusses her new book The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village and why there’s no such thing as “objective journalism.”
Zola: You’ve visited Afghanistan many times in the last 12 years, and have written no less than four books about your travels there. How has your relationship with the country evolved since your first visit in 2001?
Anna Badkhen: I first came to Afghanistan a 25-year-old newspaper reporter; I would file a story a day back then and, in that torrent of overwhelming new images and my rush to convey them, I missed many things. I think I was cocky and disrespectful then, because I never gave myself the time to listen—to my hosts, to my fellow travelers, to the very geography—for a very long time. I was in too much of a hurry. I had deadlines. And I had not read enough books about the land and its people.
I am much slower now. I no longer believe that by writing a story a day I do any service to my hosts or my readers. I like to think that I am more patient—in the sense that Afghanistan’s immemorial landscape has paced me down—though maybe I am fooling myself, maybe I’m simply out of shape. But I imagine that, by sitting down for a long afternoon of conversation, by walking to market on foot across the desert for hours instead of driving, I give the country the time to unfurl before me in a more intimate way, and give myself the time to appreciate its extraordinary gifts.
Zola: Your second book, Peace Meals, looks at Afghan conflict zones through the prism of food, and your latest does the same with carpet weaving. Why did you choose to focus your research on day-to-day life and activities as opposed to the cold, hard facts of war in Afghanistan?
AB: The main cold, hard fact of war—in Afghanistan and elsewhere—is that war takes place in peopled geographies. The bullet-strafed, bomb-blasted lands we call “war zones” are homes to bakers, farmers, poets, butchers, carpet-weavers and housewives. Ninety percent of victims in modern wars are civilians; were it not for this fact, wars would not be so terrible.
Yet, somehow, in the brutalized landscape of Afghanistan people fall in and out of love, get married, have children, visit relatives, cook amazing meals and weave the most beautiful carpets in the world. In my work I try to explore the intricacies of life that are shaped within the precarious balancing between violence and beauty. How do we remain human in the middle of such derangement? How do we persevere against depravity and at the same time do unspeakable harm upon one another?
Zola: Objective journalism requires some level of emotional detachment vis-à-vis its subject, and in The World Is a Carpet you often paint yourself as an observer, an outsider in the village of Oqa. At the same time, several passages reveal a deep emotional connection with its people. How did you balance the two?
AB: There is no such thing as “objective journalism.” Simply by deciding to write about armed conflict and not about, for example, public education in the United States—a subject of tremendous importance—I declare my personal interest, my bias, and so do all other war correspondents. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.
That said, I try, in my observations, to be fair. The only way to be fair, I believe, is to be compassionate toward the subjects of my narratives. This does not mean glorifying them or absolving them. Many of the people I write about are killers, thieves or liars. But all of them deserve the respect of having their story told as fully as possible.
Zola: Speaking of your relationship with the Oqans, your book starts at a point in which you’re already familiar with them. What was your very first approach to them like? Did they accept you immediately or where they distrustful of a Russian-born American?
AB: A lot of my hosts, in Afghanistan and in the Middle East and the Caucasus—and, this year, in the Sahel—often don’t understand the purpose of what I do. Many people neverhave heard of a journalist or a writer before; many neverhave seen a book. But I never have experienced distrust. I am very lucky.
The man who was working with me as a driver brought me to Oqa in 2010. We drove up across roadless desert from another village, where we had talked to an old shrine keeper, climbed a minaret, and ate handfuls of warm, juicy mulberries from the trees. The driver had known one of the elders in Oqa, Baba Nazar the Hunter, since childhood; it was his idea to bring me there. 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 the Global South, where I have spent most of my life and where most people in the world live, this is how you welcome a stranger.
Zola: What would you say is America’s greatest misconception regarding the Afghan people?
AB: I think there isn’t a whole lot of conception of the Afghan people. If you get your information about Afghanistan from television snippets, you see Afghans as two-dimensional figures in unfamiliarclothes that move across our television screens, foreign and strange, almost cartoon-like, unsung. One goes up. One goes down. At the very best, they are generalized as victims or evildoers. Most commonly, they are simply statistics.
In truth, the Afghan people are just like the American people or any other people. Some are selfless. Some are covetous. Some tell vulgar jokes over dinner and some love to picnic with their families by an emerald waterfall and some are junkies and some are health fanatics. Just like the people on my block in West Philly. Just like all of us. Let’s start there.
Zola: You’ve been trained as a journalist and war correspondent, yet your prose is surprisingly lyrical—almost literary. Are there any particular authors or books that have inspired the way you write?
AB: I received no formal training in journalism or war corresponding, but I don’t think there is a rule that restricts storytellers to a certain kind of language. I simply look for the most effective way to tell a story. I look for words and rhythms that say exactly what I want to say. Some stories can be told in a thousand-word newspaper article; others require a book. Matsuo Bashō [17th century Japanese poet] told stories in 17 syllables and each of his haiku-stories contained the universe. Language is an amazing tool. It sets no limits, and when you feel that it does, there’s always silence.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.