No roads led to the village, only herders' footpaths that each rain erased anew. Rains were rare. There was no surface water. Oqa's two hundred and forty people — knots per square inch — drew their water with yellow plastic canisters tied to lengths of rope from the two wells some previous and forgotten generation had dug by hand. The well on the southern slope of the hummock was for humans. The well on the northern slope, where the Oqans went to relieve themselves behind some large tussocks, was for the animals, but most of the villagers watered their livestock by the southern well because it was easier to make the steep downhill trek to a well only once and because anyway the water was diseased in both wells, with typhoid, cholera, and bacterial dysentery. The water in both wells was seventy-five feet beneath the surface and briny.
If you approached Oqa from the south — say, coming from Mazar or Khairabad or Karaghuzhlah — you first came to the village cemetery. All the graves were unmarked ovoids of dry clay except for one, which was confined by a mud fence. It was the grave of Baba Nazar's grandfather. Above it dangled a large ceramic jug impaled upside down on a tall wooden staff, and against the fence leaned a plywood board with three lines inscribed upon it in Arabic in dark green paint. The first line read: "In the name of God, the most compassionate and the most merciful." The second: "There is no God but God. Mohammed is His prophet." The third line was illegible, but that didn't matter, because almost no one in Oqa could read anyway — and certainly not Arabic, the language of the mullahs. No one could tell me who had put the board there.
The graves came in two sizes: big ones, for adults, and small ones, for children. Most of the graves were small. One belonged to the youngest daughter of Amin Bai, the Commander. Five belonged to the daughters of Oraz Gul and Abdul Khuddus. All of their daughters. All the children the couple had ever had.
"Every winter five or six children die," Amin Bai explained once, and the men around him echoed, in unison, like a choir in a Greek tragedy: "Every winter, five or six."
"Die of what?" I asked.
Amin Bai pulled a half-chewed Korean cigarette from his mouth, whether to better articulate his response or to think, then returned it to its notch in his thin lips. Who knew? Cold. Cholera. Poverty. Life. All the girls in the village were named Something
Gul, "Flower" — Hazar Gul, Fatma Gul, Leila Gul — the dead ones, too. In late spring, the rush skeletonweed plants that grew between the graves and on top of them sprouted bright yellow blossoms that bowed over the mounds like sharp and frigid little suns.
After the cemetery, the footpath to Oqa crabbed windward, to the northwest, then turned abruptly right, toward the village. As if those who came here were sailboats on their final tack to some spectral mooring and the path were charting their course. Or maybe to give visitors one last chance to reconsider this godforsaken destination. The first three houses at the weather tip of the ridge belonged to Baba Nazar. Two were small, single-room boxes to keep newborn kid goats in early spring and to host the occasional houseguests in all other seasons; the main house was slightly larger, with three rooms and a kitchen and a woozy entryway on the lee side, and sat a bit farther inside the village boundary. There were no fences around Baba Nazar's houses or, for that matter, around anyone else's: privacy, vigorously guarded by thick compound walls in most of Afghanistan, meant little here. Oqa's women walked through the village unveiled, and nursed their children in plain sight.
Baba Nazar had sculpted his houses out of the desert by hand, and their walls were lumpy, like claymation props. A jerry can with the words turbo active engine oil fading from its side hung from a knobbly rafter outside the larger house, where the hunter and his family lived. In the late nineties, when Baba Nazar's older daughter, Zarifshah Bibi, was a teenager, she was playing under this rafter and tripped a Soviet land mine that had been buried in the dust. The explosion tore off her left leg below the knee and her left
thumb, index, and middle fingers. Baba Nazar still managed to find a match for her, a sharecropper from Zadyan named Mustafa, who was in his fifties when they married. Mustafa had little money to pay the bride price. His few teeth were stained brown from chewing naswar — a blend of tobacco leaves, calcium oxide, and wood ash — and never brushing. He was the man you married when you had one leg and a hand with fingers missing, a hand that couldn't weave.
On the opposite, leeward end of Oqa stood the teetering shanty of the village mosque. The villagers themselves had hand-molded the mosque out of brush and mud. It had no minaret from which to summon the faithful to prayer, no arched mihrab, no calligraphy over the door. It offered no succor. Once, the Oqans had hired a mullah to come by motorcycle from the silty banks of the Amu Darya and lead them in prayer on Fridays. After a few months the mullah quit, no longer satisfied with the two hundred and twenty dollars a year the villagers could scrape together to pay him. The Oqans were left to pray alone, in the crepuscule of their homes or outside, kneeling west-southwest on kerchiefs or prayer rugs they spread over drying goat turds.
Oqa did have one building with sharp corners and straight walls. It was the shelter for a twenty-three-horsepower generator made in China by Shandong Laidong Internal Combustion Engine Co. Ltd. A few years after the Americans had come to Afghanistan, some Afghan men showed up at the village in pickup trucks, delivered the generator, filled it with fuel, built the shelter for it, raised twelve aluminum poles, ran a power line between them, and left. The power line sagged from pole to pole the curved length of the village. It was not hooked up to any of the houses or to the generator, and there were no streetlamps or electric outlets anywhere. Just as well. For two nights after the generator arrived, the villagers ran the motor from dusk till sunup, to see how much it would cost to operate it. Then the fuel ran out. The men of Oqa figured that each family would need to pay twenty cents per night for gas. Then they gathered up the wires that would have connected the generator to the power line and gave them to a villager named Choreh for safekeeping, presumably until such a time when the Oqans strike it rich. Village children used the poles for target practice with their slingshots. Whenever they hit one, it pealed magnificently, like a bell.
Three years after the generator arrived in Oqa, two foreign men came by car every day for twenty days with cameras and filmed something. No one here quite knew who these men were or what they had come to film or why. Some villagers believed they were British. Journalists documenting the opium addiction that plagued the village? Geologists cutting for sign of some rare mineral that could be extricated from the dunes should the war ever abate? Scholars looking for the graves of the fabled Great Game player William Moorcroft and his companions, George Guthrie and George Trebeck, who met their end somewhere in the Bactrian plains? Or the Britons' latter-day successors, NATO scouts? After twenty days, the men stopped coming. No one in Oqa saw them again.
"The Soviets were in Afghanistan. They passed through Oqa. The mujaheddin passed through, too — like Ustad Atta, who is now the governor. The Taliban also passed through. Everyone passes through Oqa. No one stays. It's a forgotten world."
Baba Nazar spoke, and on his namad the other men nodded and contemplated in silence a universe that chose to trespass on their village in such warped, distorted ways, as though reflected in a carnival mirror. It was noon. A lustrous morning had temporarily returned shape to the formless objects of the night, but the high sun had flattened them out again into two-dimensional and nebulous apparitions. The Hindu Kush became a long mauve smudge crudely smeared over the southern horizon. Out of refracted desert two
enormous camels loaded with mountains of calligonum sailed on stilts without touching the ground, shrinking as they approached. A few minutes later, Amin Bai's firstborn, Ismatullah, fourteen and solemn, came and knelt quietly on the ground beside his father. The boy had gone with the camels to gather the brush, which he would barter as kindling for rice, salt, flour, tea, and cooking oil in Karaghuzhlah or Khairabad. Until the Americans came to Afghanistan, the Oqans had taken calligonum all the way to Mazar-e-Sharif, a seven-hour walk to the south, where people were wealthier and the brush sold for more. But the American war had made people in cities wealthier still, and now Mazar was full of cars. A few cars would have been okay, but this many cars scared the camels, made them skitter. A city car could hit a camel. It was not worth it to walk all the way down there anymore.
On top of that, for two years running there had been no rain. Prolonged cyclical droughts had sapped the desert since anyone could remember, but lately the droughts seemed to last longer and the cycles were more frequent. What if calligonum ran out?
"It's not like there's a jungle out there," worried Amanullah. "Day after day there is less of it. One day it will be finished. Then we'll sell all our animals — donkeys, camels, goats — and go to Mazar and look for city work there."
For all his dreams of running right off the margins of his rectangular world, Amanullah dreaded that day.
"When I go to the city, I get a headache because there is a lot of traffic, noise, pollution. Here it's very quiet."
"Yes, it is so quiet," said Sayed Nafas. The older men had listened to Amanullah speak and had nodded their acquiescence to his worries, but now they were glad for the opportunity to change the subject to something good on such a peaceful day and pitched in eagerly.
"At night you can see stars everywhere."
"You really should see it."
Suddenly something startled a brace of ducks out of a hollow by the cemetery. The birds flowed in long streaks over the desert, all wings and necks; circled twice, as though unable to find their vees at first; then headed southeast, black and perfect against the golden sky. Baba Nazar followed the birds with a hunter's appraising gaze. Then he announced that Thawra would begin to weave the carpet on Friday. Friday was an auspicious day to start a carpet because it was a holy day. The carpet would be blessed.
From The World is a Carpet by Anna Badkhen. Copyright 2013 by Anna Badkhen. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books.