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A Thematic Study of Contemporary Poetry in Afghanistan

Sayed Abutaleb Mozaffari has taken an interest in the impact of political events on contemporary Afghan literature. In this article he deals with the relationship between poetry and politics.

Mozaffari is an Afghan poet, journalist and scholar. He lives in Iran and is one of the founders of the Dor Dari Cultural Center in Iran, one of the more active literary centers among Afghans in Iran

Credits By: Sayed Abutaleb Mozaffari Translation: Parwana Fayyaz October 16 2022

The fundamental purpose of this article is to explore contemporary poetry in Afghanistan. On a personal level, I think, in the past few centuries, the dominant theme of poetry in Afghanistan has been political and ideological, and I will try to examine this poetry in depth from that angle. It is not my intention to give an ordinary or general meaning to political poetry. In my opinion, political poetry is a method of expression in encountering the power of politics that rules the country. Now whether it is the poetry in conjuncture with the politics and thus is informed by that power, or a kind of poetry that is shaped by that power, or whether it has been intermixed with the dragon of the politics and the emerald green of our literature, in the last few centuries.

After the fall of the Timurid Dynasty (1370-1507) in Herat, the good fortunes of culture and literature in the region of Greater Khorasan, in today’s Afghanistan, fell into a decline. The Timurid period for some has been recognized as the Eastern Renaissance. In a hyperbolic expression, the ruler Shah Samarqandi said that: “The people, who found the kind of comfort and leisure in the time of Shahrukh’s ruling, had never experienced such, in any given era or timeline, since the time of Adam”. Undoubtedly, one of the factors for such a growth of culture and arts was the number of rulers and viziers as patrons of art and artists in the line of the Timurid empire who apart from being instrumental in their own formation of art and literature, they also were passionate about the works of these groups of artists and performers. After this period of the ruling, this territory has not seen a happy literary day. The clan of culture and literature, each one, found another land to travel to. Some migrated to India, another group to Isfahan, and some to Bukhara. Another era for a culture of intermission had started.

In the aftermath of Nader Afshar’s assassination, Ahmad Shah Abdali claimed the crown in Kandahar. Even though they and their offspring had likings for poetry, such as at times they held literary events at their courts, it is said that they did not believe in a tradition of literary and cultural verve among people. It is said that Ahmad Shah Abdali himself gave instructions to his son, Timur Shah, to prepare a copy of Mirza Abdul Qadir Bidel’s works, and then there was a person called Allah Wardi famous as Hazin Heravi, who brought back some of Bidel’s works from Patiala to Kandahar for his court. It was then that reading circles on Bidel’s poetry, for the first time, became a custom in the court and then among the elitist families in the city, and it became a tradition. With the transfer of the capital city from Kandahar to Kabul, this literary custom was also transported, and whatever the literature of that period was, it was known as the era Bidel, according to some scholars. A very long time passed this way. Reading Bidel, imitating his poetic style, and some scholarship on his poems, were a few preoccupations of the elite groups of the urban society. In those unproductive times, as a matter of fact, this very attempt at poetics and poetry should not be overlooked, but whatever it was, it did not inspire formation (growth) and transformation (change) in poetry. The main form of poetry in this period was Ghazal (lyric poetry), the theme (content) of this poetry mainly remained romance and expression of Sufism—yet both in imitation and not original.

The relatively prolonged reign of Ahmad Shah Durrani and his sons and subordinates can be summed up in three types of wars: first, their military voyages to India to earn wealth, second, the supposedly wanting-independence wars with Britain, and third, domestic wars within the country. The outcome of these three kinds of wars resulted in economical poverty, the distortion of the country, and the shutting down of the windows of connections to the world, as well as the stagnation of thought, culture, and literature in the country. During these centuries, there is no news of any active or lively poetic happenings. In different corners of the country, people wrote poetry anonymously, without having any contact with other poets, or without being informed about the literature of the neighbouring countries.

It is during this period that the wars between Afghanistan and Britain take place, and this is the first opportunity for the appearance of political poetry in the country. This tendency is exhibited in the form of the composition of war letters. In the beginning, there was a person named Hamedullah Kashmiri, who composed a poem called “Akbarnamah”, which got a lot of reactions, especially among the British, and this enforced them to employ people to answer. Another signature work from that period is called, “Jangnameh” by someone named Mawlana Mohammad Ghulam Akhonzada.

These poems, which are composed in the same metre as that of Ferdewsi’s Shahnama, are, indeed, a kind of account or raw history of the war that was written in praising the heroes of the wars. Even though our literary scholars have classified these works as patriotic poems and poetry of the resistance; nonetheless, I understand them as a kind of political poetry and close to power. And as I mentioned before, I consider this the start of political poetry, in its precise meaning, in contemporary literature of Afghanistan, for the purpose is to praise the rulers rather than other matters, and such works are of little value from a literary point of view. The most well-known and suitable form of poetry for social issues in those years was the masnavi form, or long narrative poem. Apart from these famous poems, there were other scattered works written in those years or after. For instance, there is a masnavi by a poet called Mohammad Siddiq Khan, who relates to the events of the war of Maywand, and the late poet Kuhzad has quoted him in the Aryana Magazine issue no. 125.

This time, I shall bring a story, listen
about the new king, the chief of the world.
That renowned figure is Ayub, the victorious,
the father is Shir Ali Khan, and thus he is the crowned king.

But we can consider the poetry of the last century in Afghanistan as political poetry in its very specific meaning. What it means is that the poets of this period were very keenly involved with the politics of their time. It was at the start of this century that the tone changed. A miracle happened, and the tyrannical old tree that had nurtured its plague inwardly provided an opportunity in the name of constitutionalism. Several enlightened figures, ironically mostly poets, took advantage of this opportunity and added a new plot to the world. Some of these figures were Mohammad Sarwar Wasef, Hadi Davi Parishan, Abdul Ali Mostaghani, Mahmoud Tarzi and Degan.

Along with their other liberal aspirations, these poets also had opinions about the climate of literature. They believed that since the world had changed its nature, our literature, too, should change its form. This desire is palpable in the criticisms of Mahmoud Tarzi, who was one of the pioneers of this style. Whenever he wrote his manifesto of poetry on his contemporary, he mocked two main tendencies established before him - mysticism and lyric poetry. For instance, in one of his pieces, Tarzi rhymes (ʻirfān) mysticism with (ḥirmān wa but̤lān) disappointment and vanity, and he suggests that this is the time of (ʻalm) science and (hunar) art. Elsewhere, he criticizes the kind of poetry that entails works of charms and magic. Mohammad Sarwar Wasif, another great poet of this time, in his long qasida poem says that there is not anything as despicable among mortals as vile poets. The central signifier of the literature of this century is politically charged content and the ideas of progression. The poetry of this period, therefore, lacks the essence of mysticism and lyricism, as something is devoid of colour and scent. Yet in any case, it is a new way and thus opens a new method in the literature.

However, this progress came to an end with the consolidation of Al Yahya's government. During their reign, Nadir Khan (1930-1933) and his brothers destroyed the pulse of the living. Given this situation, the poets’ inclinations to politics diminished for some time, since despotism in its entirety become politics. These poets had learned from their predecessors and their bloody fates and thus tried their best to keep themselves safe from the sharp razor of power. It is then that, for a while, poetry returns to its conventional focus, that is, (pand wa andarz) advice and counsel, (tag̠ẖazl wa hakmat) lyric and wisdom, and (ʻirfān) mysticism. Poets, such as Qari Abdullah, Abdulhaq Betab, Shayeq Jamal, Nadem Qaisari, Ghulam Nabi Ishaqri, Khalilullah Khalili, Zia Qarizada, and many more wrote personal poetry, traversing the valley of the self. Except for Master Khalili, who returned to political poetry at the end of his life. Most of the poems produced during this time usually fall into two major trends, mysticism, and lyric poetry.

The heart due to the love of the beautiful ones became an enemy to us,
that honest friend turned out like this, to us.

(Shayeq Jamal, 1275) or 1353/1974

In the early 1940s, several political parties started to operate in Afghanistan, some of which were left leaning. With the advent of these parties, new political literature came to life. If the slogan of the poets of the constitutional period was mainly on fighting against the absolute power of the king and advocating for progress and freedom, the ideological poets of this period relied on economic justice based on the Marxist school and advocated for the distribution of bread, clothes, and home to the people, who had suffered national and ethnic oppression. It is worth mentioning that this is indeed the time when Nima Yooshij’s poetry arrives in Afghanistan from Iran, and the poets in Afghanistan got access to new forms next to the already two existent and familiar forms of poetry. Some of the prominent poets of this period are such as Sulaiman Layeqh, Bariqh Shafe’i, Asadullah Habib, Wasif Bakhtari, and a few others. This group of poets were mostly graduates of the university, and a few of them had their hands in politics and the state, and several of them had even reached the rank of ministry.

The peasant and the soil have been the shadow of one another,
the wheat, in a way, is a piece of the peasant.
He respires in the memories of the soil,
the lament appears in the throat of the wheat.
And the colour of the wheat comes from the burning pain in the chest of the peasant.

(Asadullah Habib, 1941)

Among the active parties in Afghanistan that rose against the dynasty and the monarchy was the People’s Democratic Party with both Islamic and Marxist tendencies, which was a pro-Soviet branch led by Noor Mohammad Taraki and his allies, who came to power in a bloody coup in 1973. But they soon clashed with their rival parties, both left and right. The poets supporting this party were among the poets of Afghanistan who were regarding both politics and power. This was a unique situation, as this was not so prevalent in other periods of poetry.

As mentioned elsewhere, in the same years, alongside the left parties, several young Muslims also started to form parties, such as (Hazb-e Wahdat) the Islamic Unity Party. It is believed that Seyed Suliman Balkhi was the founder of this party. Whether this claim is true or not, Balkhi is certainly one of the founders of political poetry in Afghanistan. He himself had lived a political and revolutionary life and spent an important part of his life in prison. He strongly linked Afghanistan’s poetry with politics. It was Balkhi, who looked eye to eye with the dragon of politics and paid the price with his own life, like the poets of the first constitution. The difference between Balkhi’s political poetry with others had to do with his disinterest in involving in power. He always lived with a power, not for the power. While, in contrast, many other poets writing political or critical poetry often preached for a kind of power. Another remarkable point in the work of Balkhi is that his criticism was not only regarding politics but that he also advocated for social reform. Balkhi wanted ethnic and religious differences in Afghanistan to be a serious deterrent, and he complained about the illiteracy of the people, which was a tool of abuse by the rulers.

As the people started their resistance against the government supported by the Soviet Union in Kabul (1978), the poetry of Afghanistan also became fragmented. Some of the governmental poets, some of whom are named in this essay, and wrote poems in support of the leftist regime, turned to a kind of propaganda poetry. Some of these poets became refugees in neighbouring countries and kept writing resistance poetry in Pakistan and Iran, and others remained in Kabul and continued their literary work independent of these two streams. Nonetheless, the common denominator of these three streams was the tendency towards political poetry, either in support of the ruling power or in opposition to it. Ideological pursuit became a distinct characteristic of the poetry of this time. The most well-known members of this group were often the students of Master Wasif Bakhtari. Individuals like Homaira Nakhat Dastgirzada, Qahar Asi, Partoi Nadri, and Laila Sarahat Roshan were the leaders of the army in resistance poetry under the command of Master Khalilullah Khalili and Saadatmaluk Tabesh. Each of these streams later saw the arrival of newness. Of these three streams, only the circle of Master Bakhtari remained faithful to the nature of poetry and literary scale, and the two others, due to the nature of resistance poetry, suffered from the rhetoric and explicit ideologies of the left.

In the meantime, the stream of resistance poetry in Iran due to its familiarity and a closer connection to Iran’s new poetry movement experienced more growth and expansion. Young poets, who wrote poetry in Iran, gradually and at different ages enjoyed new achievements in form and content. In the first generation, there were Seyed Fazalullah Qudsi, Mohammad Kazimi Kazimi, Mohammad Sharif Sa’di and Qanbar Ali Tabesh, in the second, we had Seyed Reza Mohammadi and Sayed Zia Qasemi, Rafai Junid and Zahra Husainzada, and Alyas Ulwi, and many other, from the third generation, were those who later composed the poetry of migration.

After the event of 9/11 and the formation of Hamed Karzai's government, the establishment of literary centres concentrated mainly in three cities of Afghanistan, each with its own poetic forms and styles. Among these centres, Mazar-e-Sharif appeared more vibrant. This progress was due to the city having a more prepared field with the presence of several poets from the previous generation, these were poets such as Sami Hamed and Sediq Asien. The next generation of poets from this city were Abdul Wahab Mujir, Abrahim Amini, and a few others, who did well in the field of Ghazal, lyric poetry.

Kabul also had good literary achievements as one of the centres of this period, and young poets like Kawa Gibran, Mujib Mehdad, Hadi Hazara, and Mahtab Sahel are the few people to name here. These poets leaned toward more radical forms. Another place that was not devoid of achievement during these years was the city of Herat. In this city, there have been young and talented poets such as Rohulamin Amini, Naqebullah Badghasi, Nadia Anjuman, and Muzhgan Farames. It is not my contention to say anything about what and how was poetry in these three centres. However, the common theme in all these centres is the political and social demands on the matters of freedom, and other intellectual pursuits, far removed from ideological ones, especially its religious form.

The poetry of Afghanistan, over the past twenty years, moved from the usual discourse to focus on the ruling power on the matters related to the inter-ethnic conflict that has been one of the dominant discussions of the country in recent decades. The ethnic conflict in this country gradually turned into a cultural, linguistic, and regional dispute. A reflection on this situation is yet another political poetry of our time. It is in this sphere when several young people, who comprehended the matters of civilization and language in a sensitive manner, returned to the old civilization and have re-introduced the idea of ​​Iran or the Greater Khorasan in their poetry. This trend, though, first appears in the poems of Ustad Wasef Bakhtari, but poets such as Mohammad Kazem Kazemi and Ramin Mazhar, Naheeb Barwar and Tahmasebi Khorasani are among the famous poets of this style. It must be said that this tendency with its cultural appearance, yet in a distinct way, is political poetry.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the politicization of the literature of Afghanistan has another aspect, and that is the poets’ approach to the system of power and their ownership of the low and high-power ranks. It felt as getting closer to power was a kind of magic that attracted poets. This in its own form is, yet a kind of going back to the tradition of court poetry that our poets, even those with intellectual capabilities, consider that retaining power is the only way to achieve their aspirations. There are many talented poets who, by taking positions in the governments of their time, crawled away from the continuation of their literary and cultural careers. From this group, we can mention Abdul Rahman Pazhwak (1919-1995), who was Afghanistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ustad Khalili, an ambassador, and Suliman Layeqh, the minister of Foreign Affairs during the People’s Democratic Party.

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