OQA, AFGHANISTAN — The wooden loom takes up the whole room, clay wall to clay wall, south to north. In the southern end of the room, two women sit cross-legged on top of the first few inches of the carpet they started weaving this month.

Fine clay dust dances in the light that seeps into the room through the entryway, a woozy approximation of a rectangle. There is no door. There is no roof, just some dry desert scrub brush over unfinished wooden rafters. There is no glass in the windows the size and the shape of a sheep’s head. There are only the coarse, undyed wefts stretched tautly over the loom; the maroon, beige, and black warp threads; the women’s fingers that knot the warps over the wefts; and the small, black scythes the women use to cut the warp thread after each tiny knot has been fastened.

Then they fasten the next knot.

The scythes go: Thk. Thk. Thk.

It takes six months to weave a carpet because the women can only weave from eight until 11 in the morning, and then from one until five in the afternoon. Before eight, they have to bake bread in the clay ovens that stand outside and boil eggs laid by the emaciated chicken that wander into the room to balance on loom beams. From 11 to one, they must cook rice for lunch. After five, they must cook rice for dinner. The diet has not changed for years, maybe centuries. In the fall, the women’s husbands will kill some chickens and hunt hare and gray fox in the infertile desert, and the women will cook some poultry and meat.

Thk. Thk. Thk.

This carpet will be six feet by 18 feet, and in the West, it will sell for $5,000 or more. The two weavers have never seen this kind of money. When they are finished, their husbands will take the carpet to a dealer in Mazar-e-Sharif — first, a three-hour trek by donkey to the nearest town; after that two hours by taxi — who will buy it for $150, plus wool for the next rug.

“The shopkeeper keeps half the money,” complains Chareh, the husband of one of the weavers. The shopkeeper keeps much more than that, I think to myself. But what’s the point of saying this to Chareh? I say nothing.

Under the fingers of women — and one day, under the faraway feet of some unknown patron who will pick out this carpet to grace a distant living room floor — small octagonal flowers with ogival petals bloom in frames of brown and beige rhombi over a field of deep maroon. Each flower is a thousand knots.

Thk. Thk. Thk.

Each knot traps the omnipresent dust, the hot sun that heats up the room like one of the clay tandoors the women use to bake bread in the morning.

It traps the dreadful cough of the small children who sometimes sleep in the two cloth cradles mounted to the walls above the loom. The small, perpetually sick children who sometimes die in these two cloth cradles: because winters here are cold and there are no doors and no glass in the window and the roof sponges and seeps cold rainwater onto the cribs, and the nearest doctor is three hours away by donkey (but even that only in the summer, because there is no road out of Oqa, only clay desert, and in the winter, when it is so cold that children die from sickness, rain and snow make the clay impassable, even by donkey).

Last winter, little Siaqol died like that. He was three months old.


Forty families live in Oqa, a village on a hilltop that protrudes slightly from the grey desert. There is no farmland, and no livestock. Most of the women weave carpets. Most of the men collect dry desert brush, burn it into coal, and sell that in Mazar-e-Sharif for $4 a bag. A four-day trip to the desert will yield four or five bags of coal. The men mount the bags on camels and take them to the town where there are taxis. The taxis charge $1 per bag.

Qaqa Satar, who has been driving me all over northern Afghanistan, brought me to Oqa; he often comes here to hunt. He said it was a place I needed to see. To find Oqa, you drive through the desert. At first a dirt road weaves through mine fields, which some international demining agency has thoughtfully marked with clusters of rocks painted red. Then the road ends, and there is just silvery scrub tufting a clay expanse. There is no road to Oqa because no one in Oqa has a car. From a distance, because of diffraction, the village looks like a city of skyscrapers. The villagers’ dozen camels look like dragons floating on air.

Qaqa Satar has heard that a thousand years ago, or maybe more, Oqa men ruled the desert on stealthy camels that flew like the wind, conquering and sacking castles all over northern Balkh. He thinks it might be true. People from Oqa had told him this, and their ancestors before them had told them.

Sometimes the women weave camels and dragons into their carpets. Thk. Thk. Thk.

The women don’t want to talk to me. One is hiding behind a soiled white burqa. The other interrupts her weaving to assess me, an alien presence over her loom. The room is dim; the woman’s pupils are very small. I have seen these pupils before, in the eyes of addicts. With no doctor around, the villagers use the traditional remedy for every kind of ache, the local panacea: opium. Opium eases pain, stupefies hunger. At night, the villagers give it to their children to chew, to ease them into sleep.

Opium helps the women focus on the ogival petals and the acute angles of the rhombi.

Thk, thk, thk.

What has changed in Oqa in recent years, I ask Baba Nazar, the local elder who says he is 70 years old.

Nothing, he says.

He thinks about it.

At first we had to travel to Mazar-e-Sharif by donkey or camel, and then cars appeared in the nearest town.

How long ago was that?

Thirty years? he guesses.

Chareh interjects: Three years ago the government came here in trucks and brought a generator. The generator is easy to find. It is inside the only building with sharp corners and straight walls.

It is a 23-horsepower generator, made in China by Shandong Laidong Engine Co., Ltd. It is not connected to the short power line the government has stretched the length of the village on poles. Nor is the power line connected to any of the houses, or street lamps, or any electric outputs anywhere.

When the generator first arrived the villagers ran it at night, to see how much it would cost to operate it. After two nights, the fuel ran out. The men figured that each family would need to pay 20 cents per night for gas. Chareh laughs. No one here has this kind of money. At $75 a carpet every six months, the weavers earn 40 cents a day. The villagers have not turned on the generator since.

But there is hope from foreign aid. One time, last year, two Britons came every day for 20 days by car and filmed something. And last month, a group of doctors showed up in Oqa and asked if there were any opium addicts who needed treatment. Three villagers went with the doctors: two women and one man.

They took them to a hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif, to make them healthy, Chareh says. They will come back in a month or so, Baba Nazar adds. The doctors will bring them back, corrects another villager. The doctors came in big shining trucks: Of course they will bring them back, and pay them money, says another.

The men tell the stories of these foreign visitors as though they have already appropriated these stories into the oral library of village yarns, full of legends of weavers who wove sun into the sky, and of thousand-strong armies of Oqa men who conquered distant castles on the backs of winged camels.

As though the foreigners and the hope they bring will fade into the woolen warp thread and become, just like the other sagas of the past, something the Oqa women might one day weave into their knotted carpets.

Thk, thk, thk, go the scythes over the loom.

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

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Anna Badkhen has covered wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Chechnya and Kashmir. She has reported extensively from Iraq since 2003. Her reporting has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The National, FRONTLINE/World, Truthdig, and Salon. Her book, "A War Reporter's Pantry," will be published in January 2011 by Free Press/Simon&Schuster. She lives in Massachusetts.