Afghanistan’s New PEN Group

“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

besides.”

— 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.

In Defense of Irresponsible Journalism

Irresponsible Journalism is any journalism that is not “responsible,” that is, it does not merely lie passively until it responds or reacts to outside stimuli, and it is not stroke mag material for a “demographic”; it does not preach to the choir.

To write contrary to accepted conventions is the very marrow of ‘crazy talk,’ whether that’s indicting the consolidation of media companies and the goose-stepping commandants in Congress that have made it possible, dunning liberals for employment of empty rhetoric in the service of self-aggrandizement, writing a 23,000 word article on avocados that only uses no other noun but “lozenge,” freely mixing made-up quotes and manufactured statistics with “real” reporting, mixing satire and eulogy without “proper” attribution, taking poetry seriously and publishing it alongside political analysis, fiction, news articles and so on, or whatever else defies the conventions that put random facts and predetermined “truths” before the discovery of what actually is or what is most likely given a sincere attempt by smart people to understand, regardless of how the conclusion might clash with their cherished fictions.

Picture the new New Criterion. You’re soaking in it. (Now With More Homosexual Communism!)

In other words, the time has come again to pick up that old adolescent hammer and enrage the adults. With irresponsibility. People cherish their fictions and the only fictions they have are those that make them feel good about how they have yielded to their fears. Let’s take a hammer to these fictions. And this time, because we are adults and the hammer is bigger, we can swing it harder.

All during this terrorism at the towers and the wars, I have had a growing feeling that art has had some role to play but no one was filling it. They were all being responsible and thinking deep thoughts and finding politics relevant. Look at the “art” that responds to the current state of things: Those jaw-flappin’ Muppets with their anti-war poetry? Shit, that didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Without indulging in self-aggrandizement myself, perhaps I can assert that Crazy Talk, because it is, in essence, ‘art’ and not politics, has a chance at least of denting a helmet or two. Match up insightful, clean analysis with subversive potty-mouth gibberish and present it as a mainstream publication, with no concessions to clarity, and, voila!… Well, probably nothing. But it sounds like fun.

When responsible journalism to the center and right, which gives lip service to objectivity and accuracy and then produces the NYT’s coverage of the Sandanistas in the 80s and Jayson Blair in the 90s/00s, when responsible journalism to the left produces alarmist conspiracy screeds crediting right-wing think tanks with omnipotence and omniscience, when the responsible research that responsible journalists rely on to do their work produce two identical sets of economists none of which are capable of definitively proving that FTAs are good or bad, when responsible journalism responds to the dictates of the boardroom, the business office or the politburo, instead of the bordello, then it is the duty of any thinking person to take up irresponsible journalism and use it to tell lies, make light of serious matters, rebuke, sedately consider and make fart noises in the church where everyone worships and no one believes; for the sake of Almighty God, amen.

To wit:

With friends like responsible journalism, who needs enemies?

If responsible journalism ‘tells it like it is’ how can we ignore our responsibility to lie?

When the entire context in which responsible journalists in the center, responsible journalists on the left and responsible journalists on right ply their trade is a faulty presumption, how can we continue to operate within that context?

I’m not talking about just ‘news’, I’m also talking about ‘analysis’ — from Kagan to Nye.

They’ve all agreed to disagree. I have agreed to no such thing.

“I have learned nothing but that something remains.”

My responsibility is to that which remains. Not to professional standards — shorthand for legerdemain — not to the truth — code for whatever my prejudices, fears, weaknesses, preconceptions, conventions and bosses allow me to think.

The most important journalist alive is not Kristol and not Cockburn, it is Steiger, the same Rod Steiger who heretofore has written only quote-copy for Bob Folder. Steiger is the future, Steiger is salvation and we are his midwives.