A FORT OF NINE TOWERS: An Afghan Family Story, by Qais Akbar Omar. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 396 pp., $27.
We see the worst and best of people in Qais Akbar Omar's lucid, moving English-language memoir of the grim civil war followed by Taliban rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s. At the age of 9, he stood in the courtyard of a house in Kabul where once he had attended an engagement party, looking down on a ditch filled with severed heads while the commander of the men who had seized him and his grandfather said, "I . . . like to collect human skulls. Sometimes I plant flowers in them. . . . Do you want to have your skull become a nice pot for a rosebush?"
Omar recounts this and other horrific events in the same simple, unadorned language he uses to describe the elderly villager who welcomed the family, in flight from decimated Kabul, into his home after the starving boy stole pomegranates from his garden. "This garden is not mine, it is God's," the old man told them. "He gave it to me for use by those who need it for as long as they want."
The graciousness of Afghanistan's ancient civilization is as evident in Omar's portrait as the frightening speed with which a civil society can collapse. After five years of chaos, with constantly shifting boundaries between warring factions, the brutal order imposed by the Taliban in 1996 was almost a relief. Still, Omar writes, "Most Afghans had nothing but contempt for the Taliban, whom we considered illiterate peasant extremists."
A blackly humorous passage depicts a shopping expedition with his mother and sisters, their vision so restricted by the mandatory burqas that they kept walking into people. When they pulled up their veils so they could see the merchandise in one store, an outraged Taliban enforcer burst in and began whipping them -- only to retreat in the face of a barrage of teacups flung at him by a fellow shopper who turned out to be his mother.
The painful, sometimes funny human complexities of such anecdotes make Omar's book more than simply an eye-opening account of a terrible period in recent history, though it's valuable enough as that. For all its evocative Afghan particulars, "A Fort of Nine Towers" is, in essence, a classic autobiography of universal resonance, about a boy growing up in hard times, sustained by his family, his faith and the sometimes surprising influence of people he meets by chance.
Omar reveals character with the economy of a seasoned novelist. His deeply religious grandfather, the family's revered patriarch; his proud father, humiliated by his inability to protect them; his devoted mother and teasing older sister all live on the page, as does the deaf-mute carpet weaver he encounters during their flight. She imparts without words the skill that gives Omar a trade and a reason to persevere in the bleakest days of Taliban oppression, and his book -- tender and hopeful against all odds -- closes with the wish that they will meet again.