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book review

Canadian and Afghan soldiers swept through the village of Khenjakak, about 15 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city, in a large operation on April 25, 2008.Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail

Just a few years ago, it seemed that every possible memoir or novel had been wrung out of Afghanistan. The readers in countries with active military roles there hungered for stories that could humanize the Afghan population, and literate Afghans served up an endless buffet of books (The Kite Runner, A Woman Among Warlords, The Favored Daughter) to satisfy the appetite.

Those who thought they had read the last mawkish sentence about that benighted country were mistaken, and those who saved room for one more memoir will find their restraint rewarded. Qais Akbar Omar, a young carpet merchant in Kabul, has written an autobiography that is among the best to emerge from Afghanistan. In places, it is sentimental, but less so than its predecessors. And it more than compensates for its flaws by providing a memorably harrowing view into the decade preceding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's invasion, and clues to how a movement like the Taliban's ever achieved power there.

Omar's father, a champion boxer during the Soviet era, taught science at Habibia High School, the alma mater of the current President, Hamid Karzai, and a sort of Upper Canada College for the Afghan elite. The book begins with the eclipse of the post-Soviet Afghan government. For the next decade, Afghanistan fell into a nightmarish civil war whose horrors and fighting make the current conflict look tidy and humane by comparison. His family crouched at home. "Nobody talked, nobody laughed," Omar writes. "We were waiting for a rocket to land on us and kill us all."

During a lull in the fighting, they packed like clowns into a Russian Volga sedan, and fled to the century-old home of a rich family friend. That home, called Noburja (the "Fort of Nine Towers" – only one of which remained standing when they arrived – of the title), provided some shelter, although during some periods rockets fell through the roof literally every other day.

About half the story consists of description of family life in Noburja, "living in the time of Shaitan, the devil." The other half recounts the family's wanderings around Afghanistan when even Noburja grew too dangerous. Omar's family travels north to Mazar-e Sharif, west to Bamiyan, where they enjoy the kindness of strangers and live in the caves near the now-destroyed Buddha statues – at times in the company of Kuchi cousins (who, he notes at the end, continue their peregrinations, "but they all have cellphones now").

This is no simple camp-out. Along the way, Omar and his relatives fall into the clutches of highway bandits – "not ordinary thieves," he says, "but Mujahedin," the holy warriors who sowed chaos for years after the fall of the Soviets. Many of these warlords have exploited the chaos of the civil war to extort and murder innocents. But there are others who are evil in needless and outré ways, like villains from Greek myth. One operates a torture den where his assistant bites people to death. Omar and his father barely escape this fate, and several others almost as gruesome that are described in frank detail.

One of this memoir's virtues is that it captures the chaos and depredations of the era, and explains completely why Afghans at first welcomed the Taliban as liberators. Their punishments and rules were bizarre and capricious in their own way – at one point a Talib stops Omar on the street, and threatens to rape him as punishment for having a hair from his left armpit that is more than an inch long – but they killed or jailed most of the other bandits and criminals who had previously terrorized Afghans, and many were happy to swap chaos for Taliban's harsh law and order.

Omar hails from a wealthy Kabul family. Like all Afghan memoirists – only a quarter of the population can read in any language, much less write in English – he is prosperous and educated; the book flap says he is pursuing a master's degree at Boston University. That means he is hardly representative of Afghans in general, who are dirt-poor and have suffered through much worse than Omar. To those who had no Noburja for shelter, or whose families were slaughtered in the countryside, he must sound like the proverbial man who has fallen out of a first-storey window. But even what by Afghan standards is a soft landing must hurt indescribably, and we're lucky to have it described in such detail.

Graeme Wood has reported from Afghanistan for The Walrus, The New Yorker and The Atlantic.

Note to readers This story has been modified to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that some of author Qais Akbar Omar's family were Kuchis and that they are Ghilzai nomads. They were not Ghilzai. In addition, the author said he does not have Hazara ancestry.

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