Afghanistan's Future In The Stars

The vivid starlight above poet Partaw Naderi's remote Afghan village was undiminished by city glow. And as a young boy, when he sat by the beautiful river that flowed through the northern province of Badakhshan, his imagination was inspired.

"When I looked to the river, I thought the river was a creature with a soul, that it is alive," says Naderi, who is in residence at the University of Iowa International Writing Program this fall. "And sometimes I thought how nice it would be if I was a wave of this river, to roll to faraway places."

These experiences of nature made such an indelible impression on Naderi that when he became a poet, an heir to the rich, 1,000-year tradition of Persian/ Dari verse, they emerged as recurring images in his reflective, passionate and spiritual work. (Samples of his writing are available for PDF download at

"Day by day, the human being tries to understand everything," observes Naderi, who earned a science degree in college. "And now we know a lot of things. We know about the stars, and the galaxies. But if you compare your understanding to the universal, you've got nothing. The learning of the human being cannot reach to the ultimate."

But the idyllic peace of Naderi's youth was replaced, in his maturity, by decades of violent upheaval in Afghanistan -- a Soviet-backed communist regime opposed by the U.S.-backed Mujahideen, followed by the fundamentalist totalitarianism of the Taliban, and now the bombing, invasion and occupation by the U.S.-led coalition that responded to 9/11. As a result, the natural images that fired his youthful poetic imagination were transformed into symbols of both despair and hope for his country.

"I have spent my life in a very dark age in my country," he says. "When you live in darkness you should talk about the stars, because it means you are not happy with darkness. Stars can also be a symbol for your wishes for your country's future."

Not long after Naderi began writing poetry in the 1970s he was arrested by the Soviet-backed regime and condemned to the notorious Pul-e-Charki prison. "The Party believed in that time that prison was where you re-educated the people," he says with a laugh. "But most of the prison belonged to different jihadi groups, who organized there."

Sentenced to five years as a political prisoner, he was freed after three years as part of a mass prison release ordered as part of a reconciliation initiative by Afghan President Najib.

Back in society, he became a member of the central council of the Afghanistan Writers Association, but the ascendancy of the Taliban put an end to that. Deprived of all income as the nation's literary life was shut down by the religious-fundamentalist rulers, Nadedi remained another year in Kabul, subsisting by selling his books and seeking anonymity behind a beard and turban.

"In that time the Taliban was too busy finding commanders and government officials," he says. "But in the end they started to research about the literary life." So, feeling he would soon come under fundamentalist suspicion, he fled his homeland in 1997 and took a job as a producer with the BBC Persian Section in Peshawar, on the Pakistani frontier, where he remained for five years.
In 2002, after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban, Naderi returned to his homeland, intent not only on reclaiming his own life as a writer, but also on rebuilding Afghanistan's society and resuscitating its culture.

He become the president of the Afghan PEN Association, the international organization that promotes literary freedom, and attended at the 69th Congress of PEN International  in Mexico City. Now he is the editor of Jamea-e-madani ( Civil Society) the magazine of the Afghan Civil Society Forum (ACSF). The Afghan Civil Society Forum, which promotes civil discourse, reconstruction and social activism, is accessible on the Web in English at
Naderi has returned to Afghanistan, but many of the country's intellectual exiles have not -- and may not, as long as there is no prospect of an income -- and he is uncertain about the future, where the promise of democracy has been a disappointment.

"People were very happy because Taliban fell," he explains. "But now the people want electricity, and drinking water and education. Can there be democracy without electricity? In the last four years, there is no economic production in Afghanistan. The people are jobless. The education situation is very bad."

As a result, he says, the Afghan people, who had no previous experience with democracy, are now identifying democracy with the disillusionments and deprivations they have experienced. "The government is not able to defend itself without the assistance of the international community," he observes. "They are just trying to make money for themselves. There is no vision.
"People now think that democracy is bribery, that democracy is corruption, that democracy is weakness."

The people voted enthusiastically in presidential election that elected Hamid Karzai, he says. But by the time of the most recent parliamentary elections, disillusionment had already reduced the voters by half: "After the election the cabinet was the same. There was no important change. The government was weaker than before. In the parliament election, 50 percent didn't vote."

But what, Americans might ask, could poets have to do with reversing these corrosive trends? In America, poets are marginalized, and their readership is a tiny academic and intellectual elite.

Not so in Afghanistan, Naderi asserts. As an article in the Guardian explained when he toured the UK, "In Afghanistan . . . poetry has played a decisive role in recent history. 'The mujahideen sang poems going into battle,' Partaw says. 'The communist government tried it too. Then when the Taliban arrived in Kabul, they were reciting poetry. . . . We say poems are part of our mother's milk and that all of our culture came through poetry.'"

Naderi explains, "In Afghanistan we have big figures in our classic poetry, but few figures in prose. In other words I can say that Persian/Dari has been started by poetry. Short stories started maybe 50 years ago in Afghanistan, but poetry has a long history. Because of our tradition of mysticism, we believe that poetry is a talent that God gives to very few, special of his people. A mother sings poems to her baby in the cradle. Everyone has some poems on the top of their heads. And then when we die, there are some poems on our epitaph."

And journalist Curt Hopkins observed, "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." Whether the new poetry of Afghanistan is a cradlesong or an epitaph is in the balance.

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