Anna Badkhen's lyrical narratives, filed from war zones all over the world, never skimp on important historical context; she tells the stories of people living amid violence. She's spent the last year working on a book, Walking with Abel (2015), for which she spent a year in Mali herding cattle with Fulani cowboys. Anna is a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant winner. Her work also won the 2007 Joel R. Seldin Award for reporting on civilians in war zones. She has written about conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Chechnya, her reporting appearing in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Nautilus and other publications. She is the author of Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories; Afghanistan by Donkey; Waiting for Taliban: A Journey Through Northern Afghanistan; and The World Is a Carpet.
In a Skype conversation, Badkhen talks about her years as a war reporter, being at home everywhere and nowhere, and how the single most important story right now is the environment.
Madiha Kark: Can you talk about your first trip to Afghanistan in 2001? How did that come about?
Anna Badkhen: The first time I came to Afghanistan was just before the war began but after the September 11 attacks. I was a freelancer working on assignment for both The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe. Along with a group of colleagues, I crossed over to an island on the Panj river, which separates Afghanistan from Tajikistan. We found ourselves in this refugee island of people who were running away from fighting farther south but were unable to cross into Tajikistan, which was incapable of accepting refugees. I had covered the sidelines of conflicts before, but it was the first time I found myself surrounded by such grinding, devastating conditions. Children were picking wild weeds to boil for soup and the single well on the island was diseased.
A strange thing happened. I had water with me. It was very hot and very dusty. I gave my water to a child and then I passed out from dehydration or malaria. I was pretty sick. I awoke on this bed of reeds on this dry marshland that was ruined by birds and I could hear the crackle of the radio. I could hear women and children laughing and a child was standing above me offering water. It was not my water but some other water. I remember that and I come back to that because it was incredible how generous the child was and how generous the people were and how they found within themselves the magnitude of the soul to laugh and to share. That generosity was my first experience in Afghanistan. I have traveled there since; my last trip was to research my book The World Is a Carpet, my fourth book (and my third about Afghanistan).
MK: I want to know a little bit about your journey as a writer - from your first book Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories to the latest one, The World is A Carpet.
AB: I went to Afghanistan many times as a news reporter and I traveled in Afghanistan for many months in 2001-2002 on assignment for The San Francisco Chronicle. When I say traveled, I mean, I rarely spent the night in the same place. I went by car - sometimes on horseback, but mostly by car. I traveled a lot and saw a lot of things very briefly. Very intense things - beautiful, devastating, amazing things – and every night I would come back to where I was staying and I would write a story for the paper in San Francisco and somebody in the morning would read it.
I think that mode of journalism availed me to a lot of flashes and not a lot of nuance. The first book, Peace Meals, is based on 10 years of journalism mostly in conflict zones, some in Afghanistan, a little bit in Iraq and other places. What that is is a recollection of these very quick, very intense moments – what we call "parachute journalism," when you drop into a place, write as much as you can, see as much as you can, write very intensely and then move on to the next story.
As I grew up, I wanted to stop and sit in one place for a long time. I wanted to stop moving so quickly through the human landscape because I realized I wasn’t retaining very much. What I was seeing was very superficial. I was just looking at the surface and I think there is a lot of journalism like that, which is very good. The quick-quick-quick, snapshots of a landscape. But I am more interested in the subtleties of how people live and how we’re connected. How we are similar and how we are different? How is it possible for a child in a refugee camp to bring me water? What goes through the mind of that child? I think in order to do that one has to slow down…very much.
In 2010, I returned to Afghanistan on assignment for Foreign Policy to record in a diary-like form what was happening in northern Afghanistan. It has always has been a multi-ethnic part of Afghanistan and never under Taliban control completely, even when the Taliban were in control in Kabul. The Taliban were slowly and very quietly coming back to power in northern Afghanistan because that part of the country was off the radar.
I wanted to go back to almost retrace my steps from 2001-2004, and I wrote this diary that later came out as an e-book called Waiting for the Taliban. I was mostly in the province of Balkh. While I was there, a gentleman who was working for me as a driver took me to this village. He said, “I’ll show you something you’ve never seen.”
He took me to this village I had never seen, in the middle of the desert, where nothing grows. It’s a village of former shepherds who settled on this knoll that used to have vegetation but no longer did. It is a very small village called Oqa. The women in the village wove carpets and the men smoked opium.
It was so beautiful and so forgotten. To me it epitomized what was happening in Afghanistan, and what has been happening in Afghanistan for much longer than we want to acknowledge. It is a country through which invasions have moved over and over. The northern part of the Khorasan, Alexander the Great had walked through that desert, the British had walked through that desert and the Kushans had walked through the desert and the Soviets had walked… Everybody had walked through that desert. No one had stayed except the people who lived there. And to me, that was a concept that I thought needed to be explored more, because in the West – especially in the United States – there is this idea that the war in Afghanistan started 40 years ago with the Soviet invasion which, in addition to being dramatically inaccurate, doesn’t allow policy makers in the West to have an idea of what is happening in the mind of an Afghan person who lives in a village. What I wanted to do was to stay in or around that village, long enough to see a carpet created. This beauty out of this devastation. But at the same time, I wanted to portray the country not from the window of an armored truck or through the sight of a marine or even from the heavily guarded compound of the wealthy American newspaper, but the way Afghans themselves see it, with the caveat that I am not Afghan. I am an outsider, but I am a translator. So I wanted to translate. The World Is a Carpet is that attempt at translation of the language of the villagers. Afghanistan is almost 80 percent rural. In a way, the book is not just about Oqa, but about a lot of the country.
MK: Can you talk about language as a barrier? You describe these very delicate moments, sitting under the stars or walking on a trail. Do you understand the language or is there a translator with you at all times?
AB: It depends. There is a translator with me sometimes, but not all the time. There is a book by the anthropologist Paul Stoller called The Taste of Ethnographic Things. He worked in West Africa and talks about how much of the information you gather comes from hearing, how much of the information comes from being there.
I think that’s another reason why I prefer to stay with the same people for a long time. Because so much information is just from being there. Just observing or participating. I think what we talk about, if it’s only a conversation or an interview, is going to be superficial, because first of all it might not be a subject that interests you. So I won’t know really what you are all about until I spend enough time with you to understand from my sense rather than from my ears. But of course I’ve never had enough money to hire a translator whose English and translating skills – which are two different things – were superb. There has always been struggle, but I’ve worked with translators who interpreted for me, not just the words but also the landscape. Translators who were such incredible guides into culture that the fact that they spoke poor English didn’t matter very much. It’s strange but it’s possible. I’ve worked without a translator in places where I speak very minimal language, and just trying to learn and understand it and do things together – cooking together or going for water or firewood together – is a very significant part of the learning process, I think.
MK: I read this quotation by Edward Said who was talking to a German Monk, and he said: "The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land." How do you feel about that and does that fit your experience?
AB: It’s a good quotation. I don’t feel at home anywhere. I’ll give you another one from Georges Perec: “To put down roots, to rediscover or fashion your roots, to carve the place that will be yours out of space, and build, plant, appropriate, millimetre by millimetre, your 'home': to belong completely in your village, knowing you're a true inhabitant of the Cévennes, or of Poitou. Or else to own only the clothes you stand up in, to keep nothing, to live in hotels and change them frequently, and change towns, and change countries; to speak and read any one of four or five languages; to feel at home nowhere, but at ease almost anywhere.”
I kind of feel at ease everywhere and feel at home nowhere, which is a very useful trait for somebody who does what I do.
I think in Western culture, it’s considered bad to be surprised because you are supposed to be competent. I think in the West, people often confuse being surprised or astonished with being incompetent, which is a shame.
MK: Reviews have described your writing as lyrical and poetic. Is that a conscious decision? Can you talk a little bit about that?
AB: That’s how I see it. I believe in the precision of language. I believe language is a tool for me, because I don’t know how to do anything else. I cook, not badly, and I keep my knives sharp.
I think that I want to convey exactly what I want to convey. Writing is trying to find a way to convey it. I don’t think I see something poetic. I think: this is what I see, this is how I experienced it, this is how I’m going to put it down on paper. I try to use very specific words that describe very specifically what I am trying to say. That’s all. There is no magic behind it. It’s trying to be very diligent and respectful with the language.
The hard part is grasping how I feel. Once I can understand that, then I need the words, my tools, to translate that. If how I see is poetic, that’s what people read. I’m not trying to be poetic.
I guess my writing is impressionistic. I translate my impressions of things. But I am not frivolous with it. It’s also not mine. There is an interesting thing about using a language that I am borrowing. I was reading this exchange between J.M Coetzee and Paul Auster – they published their epistolary exchange last year, in a book called Here and Now. Coetzee writes that all words are borrowed, because they’ve already been used by somebody before. So I’m using borrowed language, borrowed words. I have to be careful with them.
MK: Can you talk about how you came across Walking with Abel?
AB: I was halfway through The World Is A Carpet and I panicked because I wanted to know what I was doing next. That’s the journalist in me. I thought I wanted to spend a long time walking with nomads. I wanted it to be someplace warm. I’ve wanted to work in the Sahel since I was a kid.
I fell in love with Ali Farka Touré, who was a musician, when I was 14. Not with him, but with his music. I loved the music. Interesting things were happening in Mali [in 2012], the climate change, the war in the north, the invasion, al-Qaeda – all of it created extreme circumstances for the people who have been walking these annual and annular routes of transience for thousands of years, a lifestyle that is endangered or disappearing in the globalized world.
It was a challenging decision to make because I had never written about anything but conflict, and there is a conflict in Mali, but that’s not where I was working. I was not going to write about war, which turned out to be interesting and challenging. No less heart-capturing than working in a conflict zone.
MK: How do you get your hosts to trust you? In Peace Meals as well as The World Is a Carpet, I can sense that your hosts care about you. Is it just about being there?
AB: I think if you want people to be open with you, you have to be open with people. Trust goes both ways. You can’t just come in with a microphone and say trust me. You create relationships. The same way I create relationships outside of my work. I am trusting my friends, my hosts, with my story and they trust me with theirs. There is no trick, it’s not a tool. It’s not a trade secret. I try not to be a burden.
I was, maybe, in very early teens and I was complaining to my mom that I felt I didn’t belong. She said if you feel out of place then you have to make yourself a place. Do the dishes.
I do the dishes when I go to my friends’ homes, anywhere in Afghanistan or Philadelphia or Texas. I do the dishes. I love doing other people’s dishes because I feel like I am doing something. I am being useful and it creates a simple intimacy. There is a difference between a guest who sits at the table and leaves and a guest who comes and helps clean the table. In Afghanistan I was living in Mazar-e-Sharif in a house that had 27 other people. Doing the dishes after dinner was very appreciated. I was a major contribution.
People laugh about me and the dishes but it’s great advice. I’m taking it literally and it works. Try it.
Try doing little things that you would do in your parents’ house. In order to be family, you have to act like family. You try and act not as a guest because if you act as a guest, you’ll remain a guest.
MK: Can you talk about the Nautilus article: The Men Who Planted Trees? Was it a conscious decision to touch upon the topic of climate change?
AB: What other topic is there? We are destroying, by neglect, our habitat and our selves. That is the biggest topic. There is no topic bigger than that. You can pretend it is the Israeli- Palestinian conflict or the Russian meddling in Ukraine, but that’s not it. The topic is that we are covering our eyes and sticking out heads into what used to be a river and is now a desert. It is the worst kind of forced ignorance.
There is no story in the world today that is not about how we are fucking up our planet. Everything. Every story. Every conflict is about land and water, which are changing and dwindling at a speed and shape that are unprecedented in the history of humankind. It’s manmade and we are doing it and we aren’t doing anything to change it because of some misplaced and bizarre sense of disconnect between us and most of our world.
Even the conversation about climate change and nature is a conversation of segregation. “It is man who must or must not do something to nature.” It completely dissociates man from nature, which is not a way forward. The way forward is to remember we are a part of nature. That is the most important story. It wasn’t a choice. I wasn’t thinking about it more or less than I think about it every day. I live in the world, I go outside and see what is happening with my trees and my sky and my temperature and my birds. It’s devastating that we can pretend that it’s not important. Every war about resources is a war about climate change. Every war, every conflict, every story of devastation and poverty is a story of climate change.
I really wanted to write the story because I thought: here is a great example of how we can reconnect or at least relearn. There is a Canadian journalist JB MacKinnon, he wrote a book called The Once and Future World. He repackages in a very simple and powerful way what people have been saying for a long time about the need to relearn how we think about our environment. I thought: here is a great example of how people think differently about their environment. They have been thinking about their environment differently because there is no way for them to disconnect the way we have disconnected.
The call-and-response when you live rurally, especially in that belt of devastation that bears most of the brunt of climate change, is so immediate. It’s almost like a fifth-grade physics lab. It’s like you put black ink in water and the water turns dark. It’s instantaneous.
When I came across the Bozo people, they were fisher people. They didn’t plant things. When they do plant things, it’s something like peanuts. Not acacia trees, which don’t bear fruit – well, they do bear fruit but they are not a crop. That was such a great and powerful image of husbanding their environment because they see their river changing and they see their fish dwindling. They know that to change that, they have to change their approach to the land. They step ashore and everybody works for free for three days or five days. Everybody plants, in the middle of Ramadan, in the heat. Everybody is digging and planting and then they go visit the trees that they have planted. It’s a lesson.
MK: What differences or similarities do you find in Afghanistan and Mali? Afghanistan was, of course, a conflict zone, but the climate change debate has a huge impact on life in Mali, and it is, in its own way, a conflict.
AB: The desertification in both places. And I talk about it in The World Is a Carpet as well. I’ve heard that the village of Oqa was founded by transitory nomadic herders, shepherds and goat herders who used to go to this place, where Oqa now is, and they called it the jungle. Not a jungle as we know it in English but a sort of a bush or forested area. So they used to go this area to graze their animals.
Now it’s a desert. There are no trees. There is nothing for the animals to eat. It’s completely deserted and the desert is looming and growing. But 200 years ago it was lush and green and even 60 years ago it was more or less green. That’s why they are still there: because they have this memory of the place being a good place for the sheep. But it’s not. It’s not a good place for anybody. This is the story everywhere in the Global South: that it is unprotected and that it bears the brunt of our hapless treatment of the planet. It is not the focal point of the books, but ignoring it is like ignoring war. Ignoring it is like ignoring…I don’t know….air.
The Fulani migration cycle follows the cows and they follow the cows where there is water and pasture. The pasture cannot be very far from the water in order for the cows to survive. They have to be able to walk to water and walk to pasture and not lose much water walking to pasture. So the nomads, they are constantly chasing rain. They are rain-chasers. They chase green grass and the way the green grass is changing is very quickly. The cyclical droughts that have always plighted the Sahel are becoming closer together. There used to be a tremendously devastating drought every 100 years or so. Starting in the ’40s and ’50s, first deforestation and then desertification changed the landscape and continues to change the landscape.
Now, every other year is a drought. The meteorologists that I have spoken to project that there will be [no time] of no drought. There will be drought all the time. That’s frightening and you can’t ignore that. You have to stare that in the face and acknowledge it.
It is not a side story. It is the story.
MK: We hear so many stories about images and sounds that haunt us when we are in the peace and quiet of our home versus in a war zone. Just the sound of a gunshot can be heart wrenching. Do the memories and sounds of war come back when you sit in the peace and quiet of your home?
AB: Yeah, of course. I live in West Philly, where there is a lot of gunfire and helicopters. It’s like Baghdad at night. Of course, you are referring to post-trauma symptoms. Sure. They remain. It’s unpleasant. It’s part of my landscape. It’s part of my internal landscape. I don’t know. I live with it. I live with it.
MK: There is so much talk about freelancers that come unprepared to these war zones and they practice the "parachute journalism" you were talking about. You’ve been in warzones for almost two decades now. Can you talk about how important it is to gain knowledge about the area?
AB: When I started, I didn’t have any training. I never had any training, but I also had no knowledge and understanding. Who complains about “all these freelancers who come in?” I was once all these freelancers who come in, and even when I wasn’t a freelancer I was fresh and green and didn’t know anything. I still don’t know anything. I don’t think you can know. You can develop certain tools – you learn from other people, you ask – but it’s the kind of knowledge that even if you achieve some of it you can only achieve it by experience. Nobody has experience in the beginning.
I think people who cover conflicts are brave. It’s not about me. It’s brave to believe. It’s not brave to go into a warzone because there are millions of people who live there and have no choice but to live there. It’s not the kind of bravery like walking into a burning house because it presumes some sort of superiority of us as an outsider.
Come on, stop focusing on us and how we go in into conflict zones bravely. But I think it’s very brave to believe that our work can change and bring the world some accountability. That, I think, is very brave and I believe in it. I believe in bringing the world to accountability. I believe in this work and I hail the freelancers who go with little training. I pray that they are safe, I hope that they keep safe and that they learn quickly and that they find mentors and advisors and they aren’t afraid to ask. It’s so important to be telling these stories, parachute or not. It’s so important. Sure it’s dangerous, but I don’t know anybody who does it for money. We are all romantics and idealists in the sense that we believe we can do something to make the world a better place.
Maybe we are misguided, but at least we are trying.
Madiha Kark is a freelance journalist. She was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan and moved to Texas to complete an M.A. in Journalism from the University of North Texas. With a deep interest in migration and refugee experiences, she is researching narratives around the world for a book of nonfiction short stories. She serves as an editorial intern for Narratively and volunteers at the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.