Literature in the Course of Politics in Afghanistan

Translated by: Dr.S. Siasang

The purpose of this statement is to present an overview of Afghan literature during the 20+plus political years of conflict and neglect between 1978 and 2001.

The presenter, Partaw Naderi, does not claim this to be an in-depth analytical research project, but can promise to develop it as such in the future, if needs be.

Afghanistan has mainly been a highly politicized country. Early efforts and experiences of combining poetry and political opinion root their origin in 1963 – 1973, also known as "Decade of Democracy" in Afghanistan.

Major highlights in the Decade of Democracy indicate two significant political trends:

1) Left: Communism-oriented wave of intellectuals, who in turn underwent a major breakdown:

            a) Pro-Soviets: Following the then Moscow-sponsored movements
b) Pro-Chinese: Following the then doctrine of "Mao-Tse Tung thought",
also known as Neo-democratic Movement.

2) Right: Political Islam inspired by the well-known Egypt-based scholars and religious leaders

Each trend had its own poets and writers, who gradually tried to enrich the poetical process with remarkable elements of politics one way or another.

Literature in Afghanistan continued to be over-dependent to the socio-political structure of the soviet-installed government in the period of Soviet invasion 1991 – 1979. As a result, Afghan literature not only converted a to a typical appendage, but become highly politicized to act no better than a simple tool in the hands of the then ruling party known as Peoples' Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).

The government which emerged out of a coup d'eta of 1978 in Afghanistan, was a full-scale ideological apparatus being remote-controlled by the former Soviet Union. Such an authority had no choice but to have a "rouge" vision, in which "red" was the only super phenomenon to identify the color of revolution. All other colors were dismissed, because according to them they belonged to non-revolutionary reactionary powers!

The aforesaid puppet government systematically maneuvered to initially institutionalize and utilize poetry, music, and any major aspect of art and culture for the benefit of its own political stance.

Afghan mass media, were over-shadowed by the ruling PDPA and its high-ranking members. The ruling party outspokenly claimed that there is no "reality" except for Marxism-Leninism.

It was ordered that both culture in general and literature in particular can serve but only to channel the voice of the ruling party.

Indeed, initiator and implements of such politicization were no other than the PDPA key figures, such as party member poets and party member writers. The situation got further deteriorated when the authorities demarcated a bold borderline and announce that "you are either with us or against us."

Such a harsh policy announcement was considered as an obvious attack on a range of Afghan intellectuals, poets, writers, journalists, scholars and experts of any walk of life.

Undoubted, there was no room for negotiation. No other promising alternative blinked in the prospect. At the very beginning, of course, crossing the borders and getting out of the situation was not as practical as became later after years.

In order to survive, a number of poets, writers, journalists and scholars had no choice but to join the system and rely on the governmental resources. They had to compromise and compose their literary and artistic products as per the demand of the "revolutionary" government.

Afghan vocalists were assigned to publicly sing "revolutionary songs" in crowded public places, ie parks, playgrounds, stadiums, military campus and/or bases, to please the folks!

To quit the responsibility in those tough situation was a clear equivalent of risking one's own head. The punishment was obviously fatal.

Poet and Poetry
As for as the poetry trends under the shadow of politics are concerned, they shaped two main categories:

1) Highly political/ideological poems
2) Simple lyric poems (mainly composed by non-political and mystical poets

On one hand poetry maintained its ancient mystic profile, and continued to reflect  inner experiences, state of consciousness that is beyond the usual awareness of human beings and onward to glimpse of higher world; on the other hands terminologies such as socialism, tanks, bomb, factory, workers hammer, farmers' sickles, gun, and even Vladimir Lenin's complexion increasingly appeared in poetry.

Socialism used to be the only utopia for these bunch of poets, whose believe did not allow them to think out of the box. According to them Socialism was considered the paradise in this world, where roses would seem redder, leaves greener, and justice as practically accessible as running water in the nearby stream!

To their eyes, socialism was seen as not only a supreme vision and objective of human beings, but inevitable destiny as well. Such a destiny would require a massive social revolution, and the revolution was to be irrigated with humans' blood to remain evergreen. For instance:

"Our land is asking for a revolution. That is it.
The revolution requires immense bloodshed. That is it."

Regretfully, the colorful dream of that certain poet came true. Our land experienced bloodshed to the extent that the country became no bitter than a small boat sailing in a blood pool. We are still eye-witness of the unabated bloodshed. Only Lord knows when and where will the agony cease to extend.

Ways prescribed to reach justice and social well-being were announced as follows:

"E' hammers!
E' Sickles!
Get together! Get together!
Climb on the Fifth Tower of the history
Move one, Move on, E 'hammers! E' sickles!"

In the above lines, Hammer and sickle is symbolizing the so-called proletariat working class, and peasants, who must unit to reach the Fifth Tower. History's Fifth Tower is a metaphor depicting Socialism. The image is a derivative of the theory of Historical Materialism in the light of which, there are 5 socio-economical formations: Primitive Communalism, Slavery, Feudalism, Capitalism and Socialism.

Left wing poets were of the opinion that poetry is no more than a weapon, which should not be put down. In other words, poem will continue to be a mere tool to reach a higher goal.

Revolutionary Wording and Structures
The following are major wordings with a higher frequency of usage in the political/ideological poems: folks, laborer, peasant, servant, hammer, sickle, hatred, anger, fire, thunder, storm, revolution, struggle, chain-breaker, comrade, co-chained comrade, eagle, hawk, black, green, red, fight, fellow-fighter, shout, pine, pineland, flame, conflict, collision, reactionary elements, darkness, bleakness, star, sun, light, despotism, confinement, guerilla, mountain, summit, tomorrow, and such like.

It is safe to say that parts of these set of terminologies did exist in the Afghan poetry prior to 1978, but not as overused as after that year.

Moreover, it was wrongly believed that the ideology of working or proletariat class (a social class  that did not physically exist in Afghanistan) not only has the right to rule various aspects of social, political, cultural and all other dimension of life, but to steer art, literature and creativity as well. Thus, Socialist Realism got proverbial position and Maxim Gorky became the only icon of literature.

All of the said affairs originated from a certain "Knowledge and Culture Department" under a major "Propaganda and Agitation Commission" directly supervised by the Central Committee of the ruling (PDPA).

In 1980, there was another state-sponsored reformation, which further worsened the situation: establishment of the "Creative Intellectuals' Union". This newly set-up network in fact was a rather larger apparatus comprised of different smaller unites, such as associations of Writers, Journalists, artists.

The prime objective of the latter was to harmonize the art and literature with governmental policies and politics. The motto was: A Revolutionary Afghanistan requires revolutionary art and revolutionary artists. Full stop.

This is why both AK-47 Klashinkove machine gun and pen appeared in the logo of Association of Afghan Writers.

Poetic Subjects and Themes
Common poetic subjects covered the following themes: praising Lenin and the Great October Revolution of 1917, Soviets and Afghan-Soviet Friendship, Proletariat Internationalism, workers-Farmers Unity, Irreversible Afghan April Revolution and its achievements, Our Internationalist Brotherhood, Victorious Advancement of Afghan Revolutionary Military.

Besides, there were used to be a special section called "Military/Patriotic Literature Branch" within the framework of Association of Afghan Writers. Members of the mentioned branch was assigned to go to military posts to recite poems to motivate the gunmen's moral. A few sample are as follows:

Bravo! Being part of the ruling Party
Hooray! Being part of the April Revolution

For the safeguard of our land
The folk army carries two torches:
One of the April and the other of the October revolutions

Inspired by Lenin's teachings
Encouraged by stormy-tempered revolution
Smash your chains into pieces
Smash the slavery system into parts

E' you my lovely Klashinkove
You are my melodious nightingale in the battlefield

Overall, the Association was able to send a minimum of 270 title literary books up until the collapse of the communist regime. A remarkable percentage of these books were no better than simple government statements and announcements.

Jail, Assassination and Exile
In the years of Soviet invasion/ occupation a number of poets and writers were sent to jails. Most of the prisoners never came home alive, while some spend from months to a decade there.

No reliable statistic is available to show the counts of assassinated ones, still some famous names are as follows: Rounaq Naderi, Payeez Hanifi, Daud Sarmad, Ali Haidar Laheeb, Sarshaar Roushani, Sayed Motaqqi Zimni, Sayed Saaabet, Rasool Jur'at, Anis Azad, and many more whose names I do not recall at the moment.

A few names of the jailed ones are as follows: Mahmood Farani, Latif Nazemi, Wasef Bakhtari, Rahnaward Zariyab, Amin Afghanpoor, Professor Ali Ahmad Zohma, Dr Saboor Siasang, Azrakhsh Hafizi, Dr Assadullah Shour, Assadullah Walwaliji, Dehzad, Beheshti, Afsar Rahbeen,  Sakhi Ghairat, Abbas Khurooshan, Dr Sina Deliri, and more.

Afghan literature has been faced with the exodus of poets and writers in these years. Most of them left the country in three specific periods:

1) During the invasion and the dictate of the puppet communist government
2) During the rule of Mujaheddin (Holy Warriors) and their inter-factional wars
3) During the rule of Taliban

Most poets and writers have mainly taken refuge in Iran, Pakistan and Western countries and, as a result, several circles of Afghan poetry have been established outside the country.

Room for Compromise
In 1986 after a decade of brutality and an era of political and cultural dictatorship, the Afghan communist government began a policy of dialogue with the opposition and, apparently, displayed a willingness to share power with Mujaheddin groups.

A new constitution was initiated and a parliament, though under the government’s heavy influence, was established.

Such a situation, created an opportunity for non-governmental publications to become active.  This can be considered as preliminary  experiences of free press during the rule of communist governments in Afghanistan.

In order to harmonize their  cultural activities, non-party poets and writers established a series of independent cultural institutions such as the Centre for Pro-Mulana Jalaluddin Mohammad Balkhi, Hakim Naser Khosrow Balkhi Cultural Society, Ancient Herat Cultural Society, Hakim Sanaie Ghaznavwi Cultural Assciation, Amir Ali Shir Nawaie Society, Khoshal Cultural Centre, and Seyed Jamaluddin Afghan Cultural Society.

The mentioned societies/associations started their activities by convening meetings of poetry and story reading and sessions to commemorate classical and contemporary cultural figures. In other words, they were attempting to prepare the grounds for those poets and writers opposed to the policies and literature of the government, to present their literary achievements to their audience.

Some of these societies, therefore, were instrumental in the formation of the Poetry of Resistance inside the country.

Afghanistan Writers Association
At the same time, one of the non-party writers and a pioneer of contemporary writings, Rahnaward Zariyab, was elected as the head of Association of  Afghanistan's Writers Union in a secret and direct ballot. The Union of Writers changed its name to the Afghanistan Writers Association and the figure of a gun was omitted from its logo.

This Association had two literary publications: Zhowandoon (Livelihood) quarterly and Qalam (Pen) weekly. 

During these years the presence of non-party poets and writes, both publications started the process of reflecting poetry and articles with critical and anti-government tones from time to time.

Eventually, the Afghanistan Writers Association came out of the monopoly of state-backed and party-linked writers.

That was a great victory for the then non-party writers. In the framework of the Afghanistan Writers Association, the Centre for Young Writers was established. Later under the leadership of this centre, various cultural centers were set up in educational centers for both genders.

The establishment of cultural centers in schools and universities created a new generation of poets and writers with a substantial number of females amongst them.

That generation was inclined to write more anti-government and anti-party materials. 

Poetry: Expanded Atmosphere
In the period of 1980s the poetry inside Afghanistan could be categorized as follows:

1) Ideological/political and government-favored poetry
2) Anti-government poetry that can be interpreted as indoor resistance poetry
3) Lyric/romantic poetry

During those years, the presence of women in poetry and story writing was more widespread than any other former amount of time. A great deal of anti-government and lyric poetry and similar literary products were composed and published  by women.

Meanwhile, outdoor poetry of Afghanistan, widely known as "poetry in exile" was formed in three geographical areas:

1) Pakistan, mainly in the city of Peshawar onward to some other major cities
2) Iran, mainly in the city of Meshad, and onward to Tehran the capital and its environs
3) Western countries

The out-country Afghan poetry in Pakistan can be generally termed as a religion-politics-oriented poetry with remarkable spiritual elements in it.

In this kind of poetry, Afghans of every walk of life were called upon to resist the invasion by the Soviet Union and its puppet government. However the language used sounded more crude and open and sometimes mixed with hatred and damnation, and therefore aesthetically not-so-interesting.

The mentioned products were mostly composed by poets, who belonged to this or that Mujahedin groups or otherwise sympathized with them.

Regarding their presenting format, structure and language, Pakistan-based Afghan poetry tend to remain more conservative. While, on the other end, in-country poetry was widely developed in various categories. 

Two famous Afghan poets, Khalilullah Khalili and Abdul Rahman Pezhwak used to live in Peshawar during the years of invasion. Their poetry can be considered as the greatest advantage of Afghan poetry in exile.

Khalili is, rightly, one of the summits of Afghan contemporary poetry. He can be termed as the founder and leader of Afghan poetry of resistance in Pakistan.

Interestingly, however the poets belonging to Mujahedin groups have always insisted that their poetry should be called "Poetry of Jihad" (Holy War), not resistance, because to them “resistance” had a slight communist connotation!

It sounded quite an irony when the leaders and representatives of the Mujahedin debated for days in the Great Constitutional Council to include the word "resistance" in the introduction to the Constitution.

In Iran, a new generation of Afghan refugee poets emerged. For the first time, they began the discussion of the poetry of resistance in out-country Afghan press.

They continually published poetry under the name of the poetry of resistance and dispatched them into Afghanistan.

The contents of Afghan poetry in Iran were a combination of religious stories, myths and concepts and can be considered as an advanced religious-political type of poetry. Of course, the language, literary touch, aesthetics and humanitarian concept of it in the foregoing poetry were way more interesting and admirable, and undoubted incomparable with that of Pakistan.

These spectrum of poetry, in turn, used to invite people to resistance, hope and victory. In other words, it is a painful description of nostalgia being away from one's country and the deep feeling of homelessness.

Afghanistan's literature in the West is widely scattered and almost impossible to be termed as a well-defined category. Due mainly to its non-centralized nature, it does need separate discussion and research.

Poem and Taliban

Afghan poetry during the Taliban regime has a bloodier and more sorrowful story. As early as the first week after their victory, Taliban banned all cultural, journalistic and artistic societies and closed down cinemas and television system in Kabul. Their 'cultural' catastrophe started at that point and reached its summit after the destruction of Buddha statues..

Taliban burned down many movies in front of the Zeinab Cinema in the heart of Kabul. They cut off the throat of music and let the painting stay half alive. Paintings of living objects and nature was forbidden under the Taliban's Sharia law.

They not only destroyed the possibility of all cultural activities in Afghanistan, but also kept all artist, poets and writers in a constant fear.

As a result, the Taliban forced the remaining poets and writers to flee the country and move to Iran and Pakistan. Hence, cultural activities got once more flourished in Iran and Pakistan during the rule of Taliban.

During Taliban, not even one book of literature was published in Afghanistan. Mujaheddin had at least the advantage that during their rule, the Afghanistan Writers Association, had published a selective poetry collection. 

Taliban did not like music and lyrics and considered it against the Sharia law. Once a poem about love was printed in the exclusive Taliban publication, Shariat. The authorities dismissed the literary editor of the publication, imprisoned him for a while and possibly subjected him to lashes in jail.

Taliban tolerated poetry up to the point that it was about praising God and Prophet Mohammad, and their military victories. There were a skeleton number of naïve poets amongst Taliban who wrote war poetry for them. They were reciting these poems with rhythms to improve the moral of their colleagues.

Finally it must be said that Afghan contemporary poetry, with all its ups and downs and all its homelessness, is like a wounded throat that have always cried, and is still weeping, the endless tragedies of the people.

Tragically, all these bloody cries have not yet found its deserved echo in the world.

Partaw Naderi
Iowa City, USA
September 21, 2006