“My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack of what is found there.
Hear me out
for I too am concerned and every man
who wants to die at peace in his bed
— William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”
Poetry is like a weed: the last plant to die, the first to grow again after a fire. It unfurls in garden and forest alike, indiscriminant, sprouting in the cracks of broken sidewalks and pushing up to light through fields of rubble and minefields. When it finally flowers it is as good a sign as any that a society has retained or recovered some part of its vitality. In Afghanistan, with poetic traditions stretching back to the 6th century BC and peaking in the 14th AD, the sturdy weed of poetry is growing again.
Last year, a group of Afghani poets, journalists, critics and novelists opened the first Afghan office of the international writers organization, PEN International. With the help of the chairman of PEN International’s Writers in Prison program, the Norwegian novelist Eugene Schoulgin, and fellow Norwegian PEN member and professor, Elizabeth Eide, an Afghan PEN Centre was sanctioned and a house in Kabul secured and designated the Afghan Writers House. This house, Schoulgin said, will provide writers with a library, rooms for writers from other parts of the country to stay in while visiting the capital, writing and meeting space, kitchen, rooms for a nascent publishing house and bookstore, and a garden for readings.
Last March, Schoulgin and Eide, with the help of a translator, visited the capital of Kabul, with its Pasto-language literary traditions, and the western city of Herat, the old Persia-facing capital of the Timurid dynasty and a city of venerable literary history. In Kabul, with only two hours notice, one of their Afghani contacts was able to convene a meeting with a group of 49 writers, ranging in age from an 18-year-old woman to an 82-year-old man.
“It was one of the big moments in my life,” said Schoulgin. “I have never been in a country where writers have touched my heart in such a profound way.”
This group represented most major ethnic groups in the country and included 8 women. The mission of PEN, including its utility as a window into the work and lives of writers in other countries, was enthusiastically embraced and a preliminary board was elected.
“It is the only good news that we have in the field of literature in last two years,” said Partaw Naderi, a poet and the president of PEN Afghan Centre. Naderi is a poet who operates within, and against, the Dari (Afghan Persian) poetic traditions of western Afghanistan. “We hope we could establish good, friendly relationships to international cultural communities via PEN International. I think the PEN Centre in Kabul should be such a open window that we can see through the world.”
During the Soviet, Mujahadeen and Taliban years, writers were routinely censured, beaten, tortured and imprisoned. Naderi was able to list 15 poets and writers who had been murdered by the regimes and another 21 who had been held in the notorious Pul-e-Charhi prison, including himself.
Although fiction and critical writing are part of Afghan life, the heart of the country’s literary sensibility is poetry. “Ask anyone, ask the shoeshine boy, he will know poetry by heart,” said Schoulgin. “Poets are highly regarded in Afghanistan.”
Under the Taliban, writing was considered not merely a seditions act, as it had been intermittently throughout Afghanistan’s history depending on who was in power, but a sinful one as well. As mixed as the reaction has been to the US invasion of the country, and the continued presence of US and UN soldiery, there is no conflict regarding what the end of the Taliban has meant for writing. But the current situation is not a sea-change. In some areas, especially under the warlord Ismail Khan in Herat, writers have been occasionally threatened and their publications shut down, allowed to reopen, shut down again.
“Most of the high ranking officers in the government and warlords are still not ready to accept any criticism,” said Naderi. “Writers don’t have their own association; there is not any agency to protect the right of writers.” Perhaps the Afghan Centre will act as a catalyst for the development of further organizations for writers. Naderi said that the lack of publishing houses, the scattering of poets and publishers over the last three decades and the disconnection from the larger world of readers has had a debilitating effect on the writing life of the country.
But the visit by the PEN Afghan Centre delegation to the international meeting of PEN in Mexico City in November may have been a further step back into a worldwide literary community. Afghanistan has always been at the crossroads of cultures, between Central Asia and Persia, between the Greek and the Asian, the horseman and cultivators. For thousands of years Afghanistan has been a spice market of culture. The last 30 years of isolation have been an anomalous alternation in its long history. If the peace can be kept, it is possible that this will be a fertile period in Afghani cultural life; that rude weed turned flower.
Due to continued violence, in May Afghanistan canceled the first international writers’ conference held there in modern times. To have been hosted by Afghan PEN and sponsored by the arts group Forum 2004, Writing in War: Coming Out of Isolation was to have welcomed 20 featured writers from around the world. Afghani writers from Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Kandahar as well as Kabul; expatriate writers from Toronto, Iran and Kyrgyzstan in addition to Kyrgyzi and Irani writers, and writers from Denmark, Australia and the U.S. were to have given readings and lectures and take part in round-table discussions. Perhaps the elections there will help to calm things and the conference will be able to be rescheduled.
A project that has not been cancelled is the publication of an anthology of Afghan writers. The anthology of 18 writers, 8 women and 10 men, will be another step out into the world for Afghan writers. The anthology will be translated first into Norwegian and Swedish, then into English and German.
“Poetry in Afghanistan today looks like an orphan,” said Naderi.
If that is true, perhaps the Afghan PEN Centre is its orphanage. Naderi said expatriate Afghani publishers who fled the country for Pakistan and Europe are starting to return. Over the last several years expatriate writers have returned from Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and elsewhere. Perhaps together they can adopt and care for Naderi’s orphan.
Since I first wrote this article, Schoulgin and his associate, Elizabeth Eide, have published a book of 18 interviews with Afghani writers. The book, titled “Bitre mandler” or “Bitter Almonds,” has hit the number two position on the Norwegian best-seller list. It is available from the publisher, Aschehougs forlag. Schoulgin and Eide are heading back to Kabul on November 31 for 10 days to survey the progress of the Afghan PEN chapter.