The View from Within: An Introduction to New Afghan Literature

In a discussion at the House of Culture in Stockholm just over a week ago, the Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi, having summarized the last three decades of Afghan history, concluded laconically  that the present state was: “un chaos total”—a total chaos. Rahimi is far from alone in his assessment, but he is unusual in that he speaks to the situation as an Afghan, rather than an outside observer. It is the “chaos” this issue has tried to put in words—this time voiced from within.

From within I say, and this is important. Much of what is said and written about Afghanistan in the West today is still tainted by an outside perspective on the situation—a narrative that keeps repeating and reformulating earlier misconceptions and generalizations. With regard to the ongoing conflict, it is completely incomprehensible to me, even as a layman in the field, that policy-makers on Afghanistan have failed so utterly in understanding this country after a decade of interference. No one seems to listen to the people. No one seems to hear what they are saying or read what they are writing.

Contemporary Afghan literature rests upon a rich heritage of both oral and written traditions. The two major languages of Afghanistan, Pashto and Dari, with approximately sixty million speakers altogether (including those outside Afghanistan), possess a wealth of literature, unfortunately mostly unstudied, marginalized, and known to few. Hopefully, this issue on Afghan writing will help to introduce its treasures to a broader public.

Talking about Afghan literature, you are often forced into a discussion on politics. In a “poeticized community” such as Afghanistan, much of what is written, especially poetry, is in one way or another related to politics; not necessarily being political or ideological, but politicized to various degrees. This will be seen clearly in the texts selected for this issue. Much of the country’s history is channeled through literature; in both written and oral literature, in the canonical as well as in the noncanonical, in the past and in the present. When one considering the nature of poetry and fiction produced over the last three decades of war and conflict this becomes clear. What is also interesting and can be said to epitomize Afghan literature of today, is its high degree of responsiveness and immediacy—in many other literatures a national trauma often demands some sort of “incubation period” before the topic can be processed; in Afghanistan, traumas are attacked by the pen simultaneously as they occur. “The Idol’s Dust” by Zalmay Babakohi, as an example, was written only a month after the destruction of the Bamiyan statues in March 2001.

Already in 1886, the French scholar James Darmesteter said perspicaciously, “if we want to know what an Afghan is, let us put all books aside and receive his own unconscious confession from the lips of his favorite poets,” an argument which seems even more true today. Poetry and fiction may serve as an entrance to our understanding of the ongoing conflict. Take the very short story “The Field” (1988) by the Pashto writer Sher Zaman Taizi (1931–2009) as an example. In only three sentences, Taizi manages to develop an equation which says much more about the roots of today’s crisis than many books on Afghanistan do.

پټی

 

سلطان باچه اووژلی شو. ميرباچه ته د عمر قيد سزا واؤرولیشوه.

او هغه پټی چه د دواړو رونړو پرې لانجهوه، نورو خلقو اوخوړو.

Sultan Bacha was killed. Mir Bacha was sentenced to transportation for life. And that field for which the two brothers were fighting was taken by others ("The Field" (پټی), Taizi’s translation).

 

And if we look at the poetry of the Taliban—and yes, they do write poetry—there is a lot to add to our understanding. In their poetry, at times, language transforms from formal Islamic terminology and rhetoric, into a near sensual and pragmatic voice, where emotion seems to shine through reason. Much of their incentives and motivations are to be found here. To reflect what has been said above, I have consciously selected from different generations of writers, all of whom are represented by writings from the mid-1990s to the present.

The immediacy and responsiveness I mention is clearly reflected in both Zalmay Babakohi’s poetic short story “The Idol’s Dust” and in the very physical “Dasht-e Laili” by Mohammad Hossein Mohammadi. Here, two national traumas are dealt with: the Destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001, and the Dasht-e Laili Massacre in December later the same year.

From Asef Soltanzadeh, who I predict will become the next great storyteller of Afghanistan, I have selected the introspective “To Arrive,” a narrative that mediates between a past—at home in Afghanistan—and the present moment—in exile in Denmark. The stories by Parwin Faiz Zadah Malal and Khan Mohammad Sind are narrated in a context of exile—this time in Pakistan, exploring another aspect of modern Afghan life.

From the latest short-story collection of Pir Mohammad Karwan, a writer probably best known for his three collections of Pashto poetry, but also a great storyteller, I have selected “The Man Who Went into the Hills.” Karwan’s unmistakable prose style, written with the pen of a poet, adds to the musicality of the text and creates a mood of denseness, frustration, and resignation. Hopefully some of this comes through in the English translation.

Representing a new generation of young Pashto writers, Mahmud Marhun takes on questions of guilt, justification, and morality, giving voice to the spirit of a martyr in the story “Embraced by the Grave.”

Lastly, many thanks to Susan Harris and Rohan Kamicheril for their editorial work on this issue, and also to Judy Routamaa and Saboor Siasang for their comments on my translations.