An Afghan Writer Wants To Return Home, But It Could Cost Him His Life Qais Akbar Omar's memoir has been translated into more than 20 languages. But his outspoken criticism of Afghanistan's government has created problems for him and his family back in Kabul.

An Afghan Writer Wants To Return Home, But It Could Cost Him His Life

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In the nearly 14 years since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, millennials have emerged as perhaps the best hope for Afghanistan's future. They're the most educated generation in the country's history, and we're going to meet one of them now not in Afghanistan, but in Massachusetts where he's been living in exile for the past three years. For our series Muslim Artists Now, Elizabeth Ross of member station WGBH brings us the story of a writer whose growing success has come at a price.

ELIZABETH ROSS, BYLINE: Qais Akbar Omar lives on the first floor of an ordinary looking house in the city of Quincy on Boston's South Shore. But stepping inside his apartment, you're immediately transported to a different place.

QAIS AKBAR OMAR: This is the carpet I made.

ROSS: Spread on the floors are hand-woven rugs from his family's carpet business in Kabul.

OMAR: And that one over there.

ROSS: One is made up of four rectangular prayer rugs all woven together in reds, oranges and blacks.

OMAR: Everything you see came from Afghanistan.

ROSS: In the kitchen, there's a woolen rug traditionally used by nomads. It's edged with goats' hair to keep out scorpions and snakes.

OMAR: We also use it in Kabul. Most of the houses in Afghanistan are made of mud bricks or concrete. Our house is concrete, so we put this under the carpet, and then that will keep the cold away.

ROSS: Omar moved to Boston three years ago to finish an education cut short by Afghanistan's long civil war. Omar was forced to leave his school and home because of the fighting. He wrote about those painful years in his memoir, "A Fort Of Nine Towers." It's been translated into more than 20 languages.

OMAR: And then one thing led to the next and the next, and now I cannot go back because the book got so much publicity.

ROSS: Omar's growing success as a writer and his outspoken criticism of those in power created problems for him and his family back in Kabul.

OMAR: I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about ghost money that CIA was giving to President Karzai at the time. And as soon as that one came out, we got a lot of visitors coming to our shop and trying to take me for lunch. And of course, you go to that lunch, and you never come back

ROSS: Omar's father was forced to close the carpet business which had been in the family for four generations. And then last year, he called with the news that Omar's mother had passed away.

OMAR: I told him, I'll buy my ticket right now, and I'll be there for the funeral. And my father stopped crying and said, no, you can't come. He was afraid that if I went there, a suicide bomber might have, you know, come into the funeral and blew himself up.

ROSS: Omar says it's still not safe for him to return home, so he remains in Boston.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Boston University's 2015 graduating class in English...


ROSS: Omar recently graduated from Boston University with an MFA in creative writing. His professor was Leslie Epstein, the program's former director. Epstein helped Omar secure a full scholarship.

LESLIE EPSTEIN: He's a man of great humanity, and one of the ways you can always tell such a person is when, I think, you can find, in the most tragic circumstances, something humane and usually something humorous, and he does.

ROSS: Epstein says Omar's fiction is strongest when he's able to harness that humor.

EPSTEIN: In one of the stories, everyone in the neighborhood is basically underground, and the bombing starts again. And there are limbs flying and everything else. And in the midst of all this chaos and suffering comes a donkey with a cart selling potatoes right down the middle of the street.

OMAR: (Reading) Then they both laugh at the same time. Jamal (ph) spoke first. Remember we always made fun of the vegetable seller for yelling and waking us early in the morning, he asked. And we shouted back at them from behind our walls, shut up, shut up. Now who's going to make fun of us?

ROSS: This story is called "A Flower Made Of Stone." It's part of a collection of unpublished short stories based on Omar's experiences living in Kabul. He's also finished two unpublished novels and two novellas. Omar's long-time friend, writer Stephen Landrigan, has great hopes for Omar's future.

STEPHEN LANDRIGAN: And what I expect is that 20 years from now, that all of the stories that he will be exploring between now and then will create a body of literature so that the outside world will understand Afghanistan in a way that we really didn't when we went in there after 9/11.

ROSS: Landrigan worked with Omar in Kabul 10 years ago when they put on a production of Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character, singing in Dari).

ROSS: They've written a book about the experience that's coming out in the U.S. The performance was groundbreaking because it featured Afghan actors, both male and female, performing together in their native tongue, Dari.



ROSS: Many of those actors have since fled Afghanistan because of deteriorating security. As for Qais Akbar Omar, he says he's conflicted about his own exile.

OMAR: I really want to be back to help my country because, as you know now, Afghanistan is run by the young generation - my generation - even though we went through - my generation went through hell. I want to do more but not if it costs my life. Then I won't be able to do anything. I'll be in the ground.

ROSS: For now, Omar's polishing one of his novels which he hopes to publish soon. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Ross.

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