I Use My Demons as Fuel to Write: A Question with Qais Akbar Omar

AGNI: The story you tell in your piece “In the Ring” (AGNI 85) is singularly powerful. The way you tell it, when you were younger, you poured the horror of your wartime experiences into boxing. Now, though, you’re pouring those experiences into writing. How is it different (and how is it the same), turning to writing the way you once turned to boxing?

(Note to the reader: Omar’s answer includes necessarily graphic depictions of violence)

Omar: I feel two types of pain: physical and psychological. I can easily deal with the first kind. I either take a pill, or I bear it and tell myself to tough it out. As for the psychological pain, I have been grappling with it since I was ten. Most of it is related to the memories of the years of civil war and the Taliban, when thousands of rockets and bombs started raining all over the country.

The civil war in Afghanistan started in 1992. I was ten years old when the first rocket landed in our neighborhood and killed my friends who were playing on the street in front of our house. An hour earlier I had been playing with them, shooting marbles and flying kites. All that remained of them were some pieces of flesh clinging from the tree branches and their blood smeared on the road and walls. I wish my parents had stopped me from seeing all those things. But even if they had, how could they prevent what was to come in the next five years?

Human life was cheap. I saw hundreds of dead bodies, body parts, and men being killed in front of me in many ways: being pushed from a ten-story building, bitten by a man who acted like a dog, and shot by a sniper perched on top of tall buildings and mountains. I was also forced to watch women being raped and giving birth in front of me.

In 1996, when the Taliban took over Kabul, I was forced—along with my classmates—to witness the hands and legs of alleged thieves being amputated in the middle of a roundabout near our house. The next week, they forced us to watch how they toppled a wall on a gay man and shot a woman for infidelity.

At the time, when these horrors were happening in front of my eyes, I didn’t think about them twice. I was too busy struggling to survive, pummeling the punching bag for hours every day to get rid of those images in my head. After 9/11, when the Americans intervened and kicked the Taliban out of the picture, we had a few years of peace, and I did not have to worry about my survival every minute of the day. But my past started to catch up with me.

The memories of the years of war haunted me through nightmares, and other times they attacked me at unexpected moments. For instance, I could be having a nice conversation with some friends about movies, gardening, or something completely unrelated to war. Suddenly, a single word would trigger some of those horrible memories and bring them to the surface. I would feel hot and sweaty as though I had run for miles. Then I would get agitated, and my hands and body gestures would no longer be in my control. Immediately afterwards, I would feel a traveling contraction in certain parts of my body. Now it was in my legs, the next minute in my arms, or neck, or temples. Suddenly, I would feel an intense pain in my guts. I had to lie down.

Now let me tell you how I dealt with them. For about ten years I used boxing as a tool to get rid of the memories. Almost every day, I pummeled the punching bag for hours and exhausted my body so that I did not have any energy left for thinking and pondering over the past. Sometimes when I didn’t have the chance to do that, I turned to prayer and meditations. Other times I sat in a corner and pinched my legs or my arms, or I took a nail and poked it into my thighs, arms, and chest. Sometimes I read, or I watched a pleasant movie, or I listened to upbeat music. They all helped, but nothing had a lasting effect.

When I turned twenty-three, I started to write as a form of therapy. At the time, I was living in Kabul with my family, and there was no psychiatrist in Kabul. Even today, there are only a few psychiatrists in Afghanistan. Many people there don’t believe in mental health treatment, though almost everyone needs it.

Writing about the past was not easy at first. I cried writing. Sometimes tears rolled out of my eyes and blurred my vision, but I didn’t stop. After years of boxing, I knew how it felt to win a boxing match in the ring when hundreds of people cheered for me. Every boxer lives for those few minutes of thrill. While I was grappling with those memories and pouring them onto the page, I felt as though I was in a ring, not fighting my opponent but my demons, and the spectators were cheering. However, there were times that despair leaked into my heart and I felt I was losing because the intensity of mental pain was too high. While a boxing match in the ring can last for more or less than an hour, this new fight lasted for months. “How long can I go on fighting with my inner demons?” I have asked myself a hundred times. There were moments that I doubted myself. “Instead of rethinking those memories, I better push them to the far back of my mind,” I have told myself a dozen times. But my will did not let me stop and retreat.

The battle went on for almost three months, during which I lost about forty pounds from a lack of eating and sleeping, but every day I noticed that I was about to win because I could see the pile of papers building in front of me. I stopped when I reached page 750, and nearly half of all the major events from my past were recorded in those pages.

From that day onward, I felt as though my past no longer belonged to me anymore. It was contained in those papers. But my past is my past, and it will always be with me to the day I die. They still haunt me in my sleep, but not as much as they used to.

Years later, I shared those pages with some friends, and they encouraged me to publish them as a book. I did, and I called it A Fort of Nine Towers, which has now been translated into over twenty languages.

An engine needs fuel to run. Now I use my memories as a fuel for writing and telling stories of my countrymen and women. Sometimes they make me run so hard and fast, I crash for a few days or even weeks, and I can’t produce a single word. But over time, I believe, I will learn how to control the demons inside of me.

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IMG_3422 BIO Qais Akbar Omar is the author of A Fort of Nine Towers, which has been published in over twenty languages, and the co-author of A Night in the Emperor’s Garden. Omar has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Sunday Times, The Globe and Mail, and The Southern Review, among other publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. In 2014-15, he was a Scholars at Risk Fellow at Harvard University. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

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