The Carpet Wars, by Christopher Kremmer

I usually am not fond of travel writing, but I found Christopher Kremmer’s work more interesting than some others of that genre that I have encountered. Kremmer’s wry wit accounts for at least part of the entertainment value of The Carpet Wars, even eliciting a few chuckles, a somewhat rare occurrence. (Don’t analyze that last statement–it isn’t meant to indicate anything except my appreciation of Kremmer’s humor.) For example, Kremmer (who does not otherwise give any indication of being particularly religious) relates an incident in which he became exceedingly frustrated with an Afghan taxi driver:

My hand was lifting, drawn up by the power of a psychotic urge to batter him, when suddenly a loud voice rent the sky above the stranded car:
‘Leave him to me!’ cried the voice of the Almighty. ‘For he is a driver and they are a stiff-necked people.’
So I heeded the word of the Lord and let him be (346).

Then there is the dry quote from an unidentified “long-forgotten Arab poet”:

Oh Allah, seeing thou hast created Baluchistan,
What need was there of conceiving Hell?
(350)

This quote is probably more amusing if you have visited Baluchistan, as I have. (I cried.) However, I quote these lines with reservations, because Kremmer, the Arab poet, and I were all just that–visiting. Perhaps Baluchis find their desert captivating. Kremmer’s accounts of the places he describes–Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Tajikistan, Iraq, Iran–while more informed than those of the average tourist, still come to us through the lens of a Western journalist, not a native of these lands.

I also felt Kremmer’s decision to deliver the English speech of his Central Asian acquaintances verbatim, grammatical errors and all, made his interlocutors sound uneducated and ignorant. In reality, the majority of them probably speak more languages fluently than most Americans. We don’t expect them to speak perfect English, of course, and such an approach may be appropriate in some instances. But I would be surprised if Kremmer’s notes were comprehensive enough that he was able to reconstruct all these conversations with complete accuracy. I thus questioned his motivation in rendering the speech of Pakistanis and Afghans, for example, in a sort of pidgin, when he probably could have conveyed the sense of the conversation with equal accuracy using standard English for all parties. I understand it is a difficult call, though.

On the positive side, Kremmer’s historical insertions are informative. His status as a journalist has gained him access to places and personages the average tourist would never encounter, such as the mountain hideout of the renowned Afghan general Ahmad Shah Massoud. I also appreciated Kremmer’s efforts to tie the narrative together by pointing out the historical links between the various regions in question–what, for example, a school in Pakistan has to do with the war in Afghanistan.

A further effective unifying device is the inclusion of individuals (mostly carpet sellers, not surprisingly) with whom Kremmer had repeated, if intermittent, contact. Their stories also add a deeper dimension to our understanding of the conflicts and culture of the region.

The carpet motif was more relevant and less strained than I initially anticipated. Kremmer successfully employed the rise and fall of the carpet trade–both in terms of economics and craftsmanship–to illustrate the vagaries of fortune in the various regions. For example, in a section dealing primarily with Kashmir and its famous shawls, Kremmer mentions that during the British Raj, the carpet industry in India suffered, as it no longer enjoyed the patronage of the Moghul court. In the final years of England’s rule, however, demand for Indian carpets rose in the West, creating a wild scramble to capitalize on this new market but at the same time lowering the standard of carpet craftsmanship (288).

We don’t recommend it for in-depth knowledge of the region, but The Carpet Wars is a good choice for travel literature fans looking for an introduction to Afghanistan, Iran, and some of the surrounding countries without being overwhelmed by a deluge of historical facts. And while it certainly isn’t a textbook on the carpet trade, those with a budding interest in the craft will enjoy an extra bonus.

Visit Christopher Kremmer’s Web site here: www.christopherkremmer.com

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Carpet Wars, by Christopher Kremmer

  1. Dear Birds,

    Thanks for a thoughtful review of my book, ‘The Carpet Wars’, but one point of clarification, if i may: The lengthy conversations with carpet dealers in the book are verbatim accounts recorded in notebooks and tape. They are accurate renditions of the patois of English, Urdu, and other languages spoken by the people of South Central Asia. I love the way people use English in that area–it’s so innovative and creative, and I wanted to capture it. The view that this somehow depicts people as ignorant really is in the mind of the reviewer. But whatever one’s opinion, this is the way people speak, and certainly the way my Afghan friends spoke to me (and we’re still friends, I’m happy to say).

    Congratulations on your website.

    Christopher Kremmer

  2. jamela

    Dear Mr. Kremmer,

    Thank you for the clarification. I am impressed at your copious and meticulous note taking during years of travel.

    You are right–my choice of words was unfortunate, particularly as I am not, in general, a linguistic prescriptivist. I think, however, that reading printed dialogue makes a different impact than engaging in conversation or even hearing a recording. When speaking directly with people, I am more likely to concentrate on comprehension than on speech style and may not even notice dialect differences. In addition, colloquialisms and regional pronunciations are often neutralized in favor of standard English in print media. If the author chooses to render an individual’s speech in dialect, it is often for effect, i.e. to call attention to location or to some quality of the speaker.

    This is an interesting point to consider for writers and translators. I recently listened to an excellent audio recording of Margaret Sayers Peden’s English translation of Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende. Blair Brown was the reader, and her interpretation of the various voices and accents of the characters impressed me greatly. I did wonder occasionally whether some renditions might be taken as a caricature of, say, Chilean English. But in the main, I interpreted the dialect speech as realistic elements that added color and texture to the novel. I wonder if I would have had the same reaction to the print version. I am also not sure to what extent the effect produced was the result of grammar and vocabulary or merely accent. It would be interesting to compare the original Spanish text, though I am not sure my language abilities would be advanced enough to identify dialect differences.

    Thank you again for taking the time to read and respond to our review. Best wishes!

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