A Fort of Nine Towers

The Book of the Week is “A Fort of Nine Towers, An Afghan Family Story” by Qais Akbar Omar, published in 2013.

As is well known, the Russians marched into Afghanistan in 1979. The resistance fighters were called the Mujahedin, the Holy Warriors. The Russians had advanced aerial bombs, while the Warriors had old hunting-guns. The Russians left in 1989, but continued to financially support the government until spring 1992; galloping inflation ensued.

The author and his growing family lived in Kabul, of which the Mujahedin then took control. Omar’s father and grandfather ran a lucrative Oriental carpet business. They lived in a multi-generational household, with large families of uncles, aunts and cousins.

At the time Omar began to experience the hardships of war, he was about eight years old. His elementary school stopped teaching the basics of evolution, and began to teach creationism instead. There was no more fear of stray bullets in the streets, but there was a food shortage. The following year, tribal infighting plagued the Mujahedin; rockets fired from above by the different tribes– all Muslim– started to kill people.

Omar’s grandfather’s resistance to change, anger at having his livelihood, property and material possessions stolen, and love of his homeland were largely responsible for his family’s precarious situation, and their traumatic experiences in the coming decades. He insisted the family stay in Afghanistan– to try to protect what they had. He was stripped of the fruits of his life’s work, anyway. Most of their community fled. Omar’s family obeyed the law of Islam by which the females and children obeyed the oldest male relatives.

As the year 1993 progressed and the violence worsened, schools closed and no one went outside for fear of getting hit by sniper bullets, or a rocket-propelled grenade or other weaponry.

In late spring, the declaration of a cease-fire prompted Omar’s father to temporarily evacuate the family from their home in a northwesterly direction over a mountainside to a more peaceful village. They were the only people in their area who had a car.

About four miles away, the closest family members who could fit in the car, were driven to and stayed at the quiet estate of the author’s father’s fabulously wealthy business partner. Until the war came to that neighborhood.

The author, as the oldest son in his immediate family, on a few occasions in the next few years, was invited to accompany his grandfather or his father in a return to their old property to see how it was doing, and perhaps to dig up the gold they had buried in the garden there before they left. Those were harrowing, emotionally and physically hurtful episodes with gruesome scenes and near-death experiences.

For, the war had turned illiterate young Muslim men into sociopathic sadists with weaponry. The hatred among different tribes knew no bounds. On the streets, ragged, begging children were used as decoys for hidden robbers who might also commit rape if passersby stopped to help.

“Panjshiris and Hazaras were supposed to stop launching the rockets at each other that had come from the Americans to be used by the Mujahedin against the Russians. But the Russians were defeated and long gone.”

In September 1996, a new tribe, the Taliban– supplied with weapons by Pakistan– was wreaking havoc in Kabul. Omar’s grandfather described them thusly: “They capture a village and torture people and club them to death, then afterwards ask the young boys to do the same to their parents. They tell the young boys that this will make a man of them.”

The Taliban held public executions of thieves, prostitutes, murderers and gays. They enforced their own draconian version of observance of Islam. After a while, though, people at least knew what to expect. The trains ran on time.

Read the book to learn how the author and his family survived in this extremely suspenseful, emotionally-charged cautionary tale whose moral is this: early evacuation of a region with a history of civil war, whose violence is flaring up again, is advisable.

How the Post Office Created America / Superpower

The First Book of the Week is “How the Post Office Created America” by Winifred Gallagher, published in 2016. This was a detailed account of the history of the delivery of written communications in what is now the United States.

In the 1630’s, a Boston-area tavern doubled as the first post office. Local politicians and rich businessmen collected their Transatlantic written correspondence there; the latter paid for the privilege. The service was “… primarily designed to advance an imperialistic power’s interests, serve a narrow elite, and produce some revenue for the [British] Crown.”

It was in the interest of Great Britain to improve the roads to distribute the mail in the thirteen colonies (which later became the United States), as she was competing with France to rule the colonies.

Postal carriers had to deal with unforgiving land, mountains, rivers and hostile Native Americans in making their appointed rounds. A month might elapse, what with uncertain weather, before mail went from Boston, MA to Richmond, VA. The literate read letters aloud to update their fellow community members of goings-on in places far away.

Ben Franklin was a prominent figure in the mid- to late 1700’s due to his numerous, various contributions to humanity. Between and among the colonies– Canada and Britain– in the mid-1750’s, he served as one of two Postmasters General.

The colonists were demographically and geographically fragmented even after they became Americans. There were Puritans in Massachusetts, Dutch traders in New York, elitist slave owners in the South, and pioneers in the Midwest. But they all agreed that there should be a nationwide free exchange of ideas.

Read the book to learn how mail delivery quickened with more advanced forms of transportation and mail-sorting, what the “Pony Express” really was, and the controversies over: a) postage rates for different regions; b) which entity should authorize mail delivery– the federal or state governments, or private companies; c) whether the Post Office should stray from its core business of delivering only written communications, including newspapers and magazines (rather than electronic, or packages), and more.

In the United States, delivery of written communications evolved into a public-private partnership, as has the distribution of electric power. The two have become interconnected because communications have increasingly required electric power. Government regulates the two because they are the trappings of an industrialized society and massive disruption of them might cause significant economic and social (not to mention political) harm to the nation.

Some Americans are pushing to significantly reduce pollution by sourcing electric power from wind and sun. That activity, which is growing in popularity, was described in the Second Book of the Week– “Superpower, One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy” by Russell Gold, published in 2019. This was the career biography of Michael Skelly, renewable-energy entrepreneur.

As is well known, what to do about environmental pollution has been a political football for the last few decades. In the late 1970’s, when Minnesota farmers used weaponry and sabotage to protest the building of power towers on their land, a Minnesota state trooper commented, “Whenever there is progress, there is change and change does not benefit everyone. Change is hard for some people to accept.”

In the Obama administration years, the U.S. Energy Department funded a study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory outside Denver.

Researchers used a supercomputer to analyze hypothetical scenarios in 2026 in which wind and solar power would account for thirty percent of the power generation of the Eastern Interconnection (infrastructure that would transmit energy across states and provinces between eastern New Mexico and Quebec, Canada); electric power would go back and forth, depending on need. The results were promising. Once infrastructure was in place, costs wouldn’t be significantly higher than fossil fuels or nuclear energy.

For, wind and sun are free of charge. Fossil fuels’ prices fluctuate. True, wind and sun aren’t available 24/7, but a giant network spanning thousands of miles would allow energy to be transferred across time zones wherever needed, when wind and sun aren’t available.

Skelly was a doer. He didn’t waste time in “Twitter feuds or policy battles.” In the early 1990’s, after acquiring life experience in the Peace Corps and Harvard business school, he supervised the construction of an unprecedented tourist attraction in Costa Rica: an open-air gondola / tram from which travelers could view flora and fauna from the rain-forest-canopy.

Then Skelly got into wind farms. Building them involves an extremely expensive, years-long series of steps to get cooperation from numerous stakeholders such as investors and local: residents, governments and utilities, not to mention the federal government. The company building the turbines sees nary a penny of revenue until it sells the energy. It must get a slew of regulatory approvals, and fend off angry opposition and lawsuits.

Interesting factoid: by 2007, Texas had surpassed California in renewable energy generation.

Bankruptcy is always hanging over the head of the project initiator. In 2005, Skelly and his fellow executives were able to sell to Goldman Sachs a 90% interest in their company. Getting the investment bank involved enabled them to purchase a few billion dollars’ worth of turbines from Europe. Goldman got a major tax break for building the wind energy project.

Skelly was a conscientious individual. Federal law required a different, later venture of his– Clean Line– to have one public meeting with the locals. Clean Line had fourteen meetings. Skelly spent eight years involved with another project, Plains and Eastern. “It would be a $9.5 billion private investment, generating thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs and using enough steel for four aircraft carriers.”

Read the book to learn all the details of Skelly’s trials and tribulations in supervising renewable-energy projects.