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