Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

Afghan Lord Uses His Real Name

In Afghanistan on April 14, 2007 at 3:59 pm

Nasim Fekrat
Nasim Fekrat

A very interesting blogger in Afghanistan has chosen to start using his real name. Blogging in English as Afghan Lord, Nasim Fekrat has covered the chaos and struggle in Afghanistan for years. He says his pseudonym has been hijacked by Taliban supporters, opponents of Ahmad Shah Masoud and elsewhere. He figures his real identity is more proof against this than his pseudonym. I hope he’s right. And we wish him good fortune. It’s brave at least.


Sunday Driver at the Friday Mosque, The Road to Oxiana Revisited: A Book Proposal

In Afghanistan, Book proposal, Writers, Writing on January 29, 2005 at 9:39 pm

“Five men left a West-end hotel last night on a secret expedition. It may prove to be the most romantic expedition ever undertaken.” — Daily Express, London, 1934

Sunday Driver at the Friday Mosque is an article that will document my travels from Jerusalem to Mazar-i-Sherif, Afghanistan, passing through Syria, Iraq and Iran. This journey is the re-tracing of a journey originally undertaken in 1934 by Robert Byron and Christopher Sykes. That journey resulted in the travel classic, “The Road To Oxiana.”

This trip will providing an exciting travel narrative through countries that have become extraordinarily important in the last years, including information on how the Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s religious revolution, Iraq’s invasion by the U.S., Afghanistan’s fight to expel the Soviets and its subsequent internecine struggles and invasion by the U.S. have effected the people involved, the United States, and some of the most important historical remains in the Middle East.

The original journey was supposed to have been taken in an experimental charcoal-burning motor car. Unfortunately, the car did not show up in time due to mechanical problems. The present-day travelers will attempt to approximate the spirit of the intended journey by traveling in the 21st century equivalent of the charcoal-burner, a DaimlerChrysler Necar 5 hydrogen fuel cell car.

Although the account of the new journey will comment on the historical and literary ground covered in “The Road To Oxiana”, it will, in fact, be a totally different journey, in a different time, undertaken by different people. Current issues and concerns will be the core of the article. It will provide an opportunity for a big picture of the Middle East. What precisely is happening in each of the areas? How do the people involved deal with their circumstances? What is the human story? The military and strategic story? The cultural one?

This is a journey in which the hardships and potential for discovery equal, perhaps surpass, the original. The current journey will pass through still-uneasy Lebanon, with its Syrian, Druze, native Christian and Muslim combatants still in occasional conflict, into Iraq, where the war and occupation are keeping the citizens of this ancient place on edge, into a newly reawakening and newly threatened Iran and into the still active theatre of Afghanistan. Each place ancient and modern, fascinating in its ruins and its ruination, its history and its history-in-the-making.

In addition to a modern geopolitical survey, the scientific and cultural value of the mission will be a painstaking cataloguing — both written and photographic — of the ruins originally commented on by Byron. What is still standing? What condition are they in? Where, exactly, are they located? The last question will be answered more exactly than previously possible using a global positioning system (GPS).

Enclosed is a detailed itinerary that indicates the scope and vision of Sunday Driver at the Friday Mosque.


This itinerary describes the intended journey. It may not be possible or desirable to stop at each location. The conditions of conflict and the political situation may occasion changes of route. At other times circumstances my require us to stop at places not on the itinerary for food, supplies or rest. However, this document is as faithful a guide as possible to our intended route.




Beirut (Beyrouth)

Baalbek – Six Columns, etc. [Heliopolis]


Damascus (Dimashq) – Ummayad Mosque


Baghdad – Ur, Arch of Ctesiphon

Khanikin (Hanaqin)


Kasr-I-Shirin (Qasr-e Sirin)

Karind (Karend)

Kirmanshah (Bakhtaran)

Tak-I-Bostan (Taq-e Bostan) – grottoes

Bisitun (Bisotun) – cuneiform inscription

Kangovar (Kangavar) – Gumbad-I-Alaviyan Seljuk mausoleum [tombs of Esther and Avicenna]


Tehran — Gulistan

Ray (Reyy) – grave tower

Veramin (Varamin) – grave tower, mosque

Gulhek (Galanduk?)



[Bandar-e Anzali]


Kazvin (Qazvin)

Sultaniya (Soltaniye) – mosque

Zinjan (Zanjan)

Miana (Miyane)

Tabriz – bazaars, Blue Mosque, the Ark / the Citadel

Maragha (Marage) – grave of the Mother of Hulagu

Tasr Kand (?, a few miles from Maragha) – Rasatkhana, 12th century tower

Saoma (?, on towards Miana)

Kala Julk (?, further on)

Saraskand (?, further)

Dash Bulagh (?, further)

Ak Bulagh or (?, near Miana)

Miana (Miyane)

Zinjan (Zanjan)


Ayn Varzan (Sarbandan?)

Firuzkuh / Amiriya

Samnan (Semnan)

Damghan (Damgan) – grave towers, Tarikgh Khana mosque

Shahrud (Sahrud)

Gumbad-I-Kabus (Gondbad-e Qabus) – tower of Kabus, “Alexander’s Wall”


Sabzevar – minaret of Khosrugird

Nishapur (Nesapur) – [home of Omar Khayam]

Kadam Gah (Qadamgah) – shrine of the Imam Riza

Meshed (Mashad) – tombs of Harun Al Rashid and Imam Riza

Sengbest (Sangbast) – mausoleum and minaret

Tus – mausoleum

Turbat-I-Sheikh Jam (Turbat-e Gam)



Tayabad (Tayebad)


Islamkillah (Eslam Qale)

Herat – Musalla minarets and mausoleum, Citadel of Ikhtiar-ad-Din, Gazar Gah resort, Takht-I-Safar gardens, Friday mosque

Karokh (Karuh)

Pala Piri – tomb of Seikh-al-Islam

Laman (?, A76 north between Karohk and “Morgab”)

Kala Nao (Morgab?)


Bala Murghab (Morgab)

Maimena (Maimana)

Faizabad (?, on the road to Andkhoi)

Andkhoi (Andhoy)

Khoja Duka (?, on road to Akcha) – Shibargan castle

Akcha (Aqce)

Balkh (Balh) – ruins

Mazar-I-Sherif (Mazar-e Sarif)- shrine of Ali

Tashkurgan (Hulm / Tasqorgan)

Khanabad (?, on road to Kunduz, Hanabad?)


[Sir Han – Oxus River / Amu Darya / Jihun – Hazrat Imam, hot springs at Chayab, Chitral road through the Durah pass]


Bamian (Bamyan) – Buddhas in cliff gallery

Shibar (Sibar)

Charikar (Carikar)

Kabul – Dar-al-Aman & Paghman

Ghazni (Gazni) – Towers of Victory, tomb of Sultan Mahmud

Kabul [from here Byron & Sykes are out via the Khyber and Peshwar]




[Meshed to Tehran on highway #6]

Kum (Qom) – shrine

Delijan (Deligan)

Isfahan (Esfahan) – Chihil Sutun, Maidan, Friday mosque

Julfa (across river from Isfahan) – Armenian cathedral

Abadeh (Abade)

Yezd (Yazd) – Friday mosque

{Kirman (Kerman), Jabal-I-Sang, Friday mosque, College of Ganj-I-Ali Khan, Kuba-I-Sabz}

{Mahun (Mahan) – Shrine of Niamatullah}

Abadeh (Abade)

Pasargadae (Pasargad) – Cyrus’ palace

Tahr-e Garnsid – Persepolis

Shiraz (Siraaz) -Friday mosque, College, Khatum, Hafiz & Saadi gardens with poets tomb


Firuzabad – Kala-I-Dukhtar & Kala-I-Pisa, Ardeshir’s palace, Sassanian tower



Shiraz (Siraaz)

Kazerun – Shapur

Bahramabad (?, on road)

[Return route through – Cenar-e Sahigan; Masiri; Ahvaz; Dezful; Pol-e Dahtar; Eslamabad-e Garb; Sar-e Pol-e Zahab; Qasr-e Sirin]


[Return route through Baquba; Bagdad; Ramadi / Dulaim; Rutba]


[Return route through Dumayr; Damascus (Dimashq); Dimas]


[Return route through Chtaura; Beirut (Beyrouth)]

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Afghanistan’s New PEN Group

In Afghanistan, Journalism, Poetry on November 20, 2004 at 9:45 pm

“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

despised poems.

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.