The first gift I remember receiving was a carpet. I was living in Peshawar, maybe three years old, and a boy I shared French fries with at recess gave me a carpet before I moved. The thing about a carpet is that it’s never really new. Even when it’s fresh off the loom, it’s old. The wool is on the sheep for years, and it sometimes takes just as long to weave the carpet. I knew this when I was given my first carpet, as I tried to breathe the past through the threads, only to come up coughing from the dust. A new carpet is never really new.
We filled our house with those carpets. My father bought most of them in Afghanistan when we were living in Peshawar in the ‘90s. He would go away for a week or so and come back with the white Pajero packed full of these carpets. Before he even entered the house, he would spread them all out over the lawn, and I would stand on a wooden fruit crate and peer at them. From my fruit crate, the lawn looked like it had been set on fire with red wool.
On the weekends, we would drag all of the carpets onto the grass again and hose the dust off of them. The Peshawar heat would dry the beasts off within a few hours. And when there were parties, we would spread the carpets all over the lawn so that people could walk on them. We had carpets in the house, carpets on the grass, carpets on the long driveway. I never thought much of it, but that’s just the way life was. Carpeted.
But when my family returned to America—to Washington D.C.—for the first time in thirteen years, I started to think more about the carpets. The first time I went over to a friend’s house, I stood at the threshold of her house, barely able to move because I was so in awe of her hardwood floors. I couldn’t remember having ever seen a house with only hardwood floors before. But, more than shocked, I was embarrassed. I thought back to my home, the layers of old carpets that hid our possibly beautiful wood floors, and wondered if I would ever have the balls to show my friends what I had suddenly become so ashamed of. I ran home that night to tell my parents about the wood floors I had seen. Before they even got home from work, I started rolling up all of the carpets in my bedroom to discover gleaming maple wood underneath all the heavy Afghan wool. I dragged my carpets into the basement, and then my floor was bare. It was the only room in the house without a carpet in it.
The nemesis to my bedroom was a room on the first floor that had no furniture in it—only carpets. We just didn’t own enough furniture to put any- thing other than carpets in it. The room was wall-to-wall with red carpets and reminded me of the streets in Peshawar during Eid, after all of the animals had been slaughtered and blood would floor the street gutters. I avoided that room for the three years we lived in that house. And for three years I had nightly dreams about wood floors, only to wake to a house strangling itself with Central Asian textiles.
The carpets were a collector’s dream, for sure. They were my father’s dream, and I knew that even then. But it was my life too, goddamnit. “Our house looks like a fucking yurt,” I snapped at my father from across the living room. He glanced up from his book and sent my twelve-year-old interior-designer ass up to my carpetless room to evaluate my middle-class privilege.
But my connection to the carpets still lasted up to a certain point. That’s what love is—it lasts up to a certain point. After all, I had grown up with the carpets; they had grown up with me, fraying with age from years of play and parties. The last thread that connected me to the carpets snapped when we stopped dragging them out to the driveway to wash them. Americans didn’t wash carpets on driveways. Americans vacuumed. We got a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner one day at Sears and went to town on the carpets; that’s when the bottom fell out.
I was thirteen; that’s when we left America, the land of hardwood floors, and moved to Jordan, the land of marble floors. Our house in Amman had these cold marble floors that I was crazy about. All year round, the house could have been an ice skating rink—it was that cold. And marble floor became the new hardwood floor, if you get what I’m saying. If I had had it my way, the whole house would’ve been left with those freezing floors. But we brought the carpets inside, hung them on the walls, put them on the floor, and I knew I didn’t love ‘em anymore.
The carpets got older, I got older, my family got older. Three years after arriving in Amman, we were all looking pretty battered and bruised— especially the carpets. I felt pity for us all—for how rough the years had been, and how the cigarette ashes and late nights had done such a number on our health.
But I moved past this pity, and moved directly into a single room in a boarding school without any carpets. My room was, by far, the emptiest room in the entire school. I had a tile floor, and only a tile floor, which I worshipped the way I worshipped God when I was young. Each Friday, my Muslim friends would go to the prayer, and my atheist friends would come up with an excuse for not going to the prayer and then smoke cigarettes in the laundry room. Once everyone left the area, I’d take out my clean- ing supplies, get down on my knees, and scrub the floor until my knuckles went white. And then I’d join the atheists in the laundry room. I kept the routine up every week during my final year of high school.
I continued to boycott car- pets during my first year at Princeton. On orientation day, I hauled myself up four flights of stairs to my new room, only to discover navy floor-to-floor war rations that had been there for probably a decade. I promptly kicked a pot of coffee onto the floor and left a brown mark that was probably a foot wide. I repeated the process a few more times over the course of the year for the hell of it, but left the room in May without a fine.
This past summer in Vienna, I rented a room with the beautiful wood floor that I had dreamt of as a child. But the levee broke for some reason. The levee broke, the floor started to look empty, and I began to hate the wood. During the day, I’d take my comforter off the bed and spread it over the floor, just to give the room some padding – like a suicide watch cell or something. I would lie on the comforter and think back to Peshawar, when my father would appear in the white pajero packed with carpets, trip after trip. And lying in Vienna, I wondered what my parents had been padding their house with all those carpets for.
For Thanksgiving Break this fall, I went home to Washington, the place where I first came to despise our carpets seven years ago. The night I got back, I went and sat alone in the first-floor room that doesn’t have any furniture in it—just carpets. Because there still wasn’t any furniture in it, I collapsed onto a pile of folded carpets and muttered, “What the fuck am I doing here,” before giving up on reason. It was the first time that I had ever wanted to be in that room, though. I looked down at the floor, coated with years of red and blue carpets. The thing about a carpet is that it’s never really new. I covered my face with one and tried to breathe in the past, the way I had done when I was a child. But because of the new vacuum, I didn’t breathe in any dust—only this image of someone I loved, who drove across a godless border in a white Pajero to create a home with what he picked up on the other side. So I guess that’s what the padding was for.