I have a particular liking for travel reportage, and Christopher Kremmer’s The Carpet Wars is very enjoyable, though unsatisfying in several important ways.
The subtitle on the image I have posted (“Ten Years in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq”) differs from the one on my copy (“A journey across the Islamic Heartlands”), and I think this demonstrates how much the packaging and meta-textual aspects of a book can affect one’s reading of it. The Carpet Wars is not limited to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at all, covering Tajikistan, Kashmir, a little bit of Delhi, and Iran as well. These latter places are not insignificant in Kremmer’s narrative, so why leave them out of the subtitle? I suspect the subtitle on this cover image is motivated by an attempt to tap into that lucrative market of books on the Middle East, post-9/11. This warps the real purpose of the book, and obscures the fact that this really is a travel account spanning the Middle East, Central and South Asia.
Keeping with my meta-textual criticisms, I found the title a bit misleading, too. Christopher Kremmer is a carpet collector, and on his various trips to these countries spent much time buying, researching and discussing carpets. Yet I don’t feel that I have finished this book knowing much more about carpets than I did before I started. Kremmer is a print and broadcast journalist, and visited most of these places on work assignments over a long span of time–the carpet business was fitted in whenever he had some personal time. Of course it’s fairly smart to combine work and pleasure, but I felt that the depth of the discussion about carpets was lacking because of the primary purposes of his travels. Basically, I think this would have been a richer book if Kremmer had set out to research carpets alone. Most of the discussion of carpets consists of him talking to sellers in their shops, and though the conversations he has are interesting, they didn’t seem all that different from the kinds of conversations anyone shopping in South Asia enters into as a matter of course. The combination of geo-political commentary, gained through Kremmer’s experience as a journalist, with a specific focus on a cultural symbol in the form of the carpet could have worked, but it didn’t quite. The geo-political aspects tended to dominate, which was a bit of a shame, as there are plenty of other books around doing the same thing.
As a travel account I found it very enjoyable, particularly the chapter on Tajikistan, a country I really know little about. Kremmer’s portrait of the Tajik capital Dushanbe made it sound quite sinister, with a little charm, and I must admit reading it and thinking how I should add Dushanbe to my list of places to avoid (though I do remember reading Simon Winchester’s Calcutta many years ago and being completely put off the city, which is now one of my favourite places in India, testament to the importance of keeping an open mind. And a recent conversation with some cousins who traveled through Tajikistan last year renewed my fledgling interest in the place!). An indication of the lawlessness and political instability of the country was the nickname given to the president Rahmonov: “Mayor of Dushanbe.” Kremmer’s descriptions contain a black, desolate humour, as is befitting of many (ex)Soviet places:
“The Hotel Tajikistan embodied the unique ennui of the socialist service establishment. Finding the particular restaurant serving your particular meal on a particular day was a treasureless hunt. Breakfast was in the basement bar, sometimes. Requiring a coupon, it consisted of yoghurt and sour blinchikis served on a genuine imitation snakeskin tablecloth. Dinner was on the ground floor near the lobby bar; I never found lunch. The horsemeat sausages were vile, the waiters refused to put meals on the room bill and were plagued by a mysterious lack of change, and one morning no one seemed to know where the coffee had gone. Yet there was something remarkably homely about the place, a sort of ‘We’re not trying anymore’ bonhomie. The floor lady happily listened to my execrable Russian, handled my laundry and made endless samovars of chai. The hotel’s rooms had balconies overlooking the snowcapped mountains to the south or, like mine, looked across Lenin Park, in which stood a statue of Vladimir Ilyich, eyes fixed on a future nobody else could see.” (p. 245)
(The conversation with the cousin backed up these descriptions of the food- he actually made it sound far worse!)
However, I think a real test of good travel writing is to read about a place you are familiar with and see whether it holds–Michael Palin’s accounts of New Zealand are completely cringe-worthy, for example; Paul Theroux’s observations of Dunedin are completely at odds with mine. Though I have not been to Kashmir, I have read a lot about it, and I ultimately found Kremmer’s account unsatisfying–it was repetitive of a lot of other writing on Kashmir and didn’t really add many new insights, aside from his experiences at carpet-making factories. I read his descriptions of the Dal Lake houseboats and the impoverishment of their owners in the past couple of decades, and had a strong sense of deja vu, wondering whether I had read this passage elsewhere, in a collection of writings on Kashmir. I don’t think I have, but this says a lot about the chapter, and the book as a whole, I think.
But I don’t mean to sound completely negative. It was an interesting and readable book, the type to read while travelling, perhaps. I have Kremmer’s Inhaling the Mahatma stashed away for this purpose.