By Hanan Habibzai
Intellectuals and poets have a commanding presence in Afghan society. It is the poets who often mirror the feelings of ordinary people, revealing much about the mindset of Afghans in the face of occupation and civil war.
Now, it is the smell of fresh blood rather than the delights of Afghanistan’s mountains and fields that occupies the poets. As an Afghan, when I read their works, I am shocked by the state of my country, and see in that state the failures of my government and the international community.
When Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election last year, many Afghans, intellectuals included, believed the end of the Bush era meant a let-up in their suffering.
But after the U.S. bombardments on the western province of Farah on May 4/5, the latest of many in which scores of civilians have been killed, most have lost faith.
Local elders say the strikes took 147 lives. If true, that makes the strikes the bloodiest since the war began in 2001, though the U.S. military accuse civilians of inflating the numbers.
But focusing on the numbers misses the point. The situation has devastated Afghans, and perhaps removed the last shred of faith they may have had in the coalition forces. Farah resident Hamidullah says: “We got it wrong. Americans came to kill us. We thought that they were here to make our future better. But no, they kill children, women, elders and any type of villager as if they are all Taliban.”
Another local, Khan Wali, who lost his sister-in-law and another female relative in the air strike, says: “The American military is trying to prove itself as a hero back in America by killing innocents.”
One Afghan poet, 28-year-old Samiullah Taroon, was born just after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and grew up between decades of war. Once famous for pretty verse about valleys in the Kunar region, he has now, like his fellow artists, turned to war and oppression, both foreign and domestic, for his subject matter:
We have heard these anecdotes
That control will be again in the hands of the killer
Some will be chanting the slogans of death
And some will be chanting the slogans of life
The white and sacred pages of the history
Remind one of some people
In white clothes, they are the snakes in the sleeves
They capture Kabul and they capture Baghdad.
Taroon says the government is a puppet of foreign powers, and in thrall to warlords and corruption:
A fraud with the name of reconstruction
Takes power and gold from me
As a popular poet, reciting his poetry at rallies where thousands gather, he is a threat to those in power, and those who want it. Taroon says he is being followed by an Afghan intelligence agency, which opened a file on him last year, and fears for his life.
So what does the government or the Taliban have to fear from a poet? In Afghanistan, poetry is often recited or sung, and is hugely accessible to ordinary people, despite high illiteracy. Poetry contests are attended by thousands.
Poetry has for centuries reflected traditions, history and the mood of the moment in Afghanistan.
At the Battle of Maiwand in 1880, legend has it that a young girl named Malalai inspired Afghan fighters to defeat the British army. When the soldiers grew disheartened and the British looked like winning, Malalai, tending wounded troops, recited poetry:
Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,
By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!
The Afghans turned the tables and drove the British all the way back to Kandahar. True or not, many Afghans believe the tale.
Pashtun poets have a long history of protest. According to Afghan historian Habibullah Rafi, 19th-century editor Alama Mahmood Tarzi infuriated the British with protest poems that were read throughout the Pashtu speaking world.
When the Russians arrived in 1979, the poetry once again changed with the fortunes of the people. Ishaq Nangyal’s poems, written during the 80s and 90s, are a good example of the resilience shown by Afghans towards their oppressors, be they foreign invaders or religious extremists.
Even if my head is cut down from my body
If my heart is taken out of my cage with the hands
For the honour of the country I accept all these
I am an Afghan, I fulfil my intentions.
When international forces defeated the Taliban in 2001, many poets reflected hopes that they would finally bring peace and prosperity after years of suffering under the Soviet-backed communist government, the Mujahadeen and the Taliban.
But the suffering of ordinary Afghans continued: poverty grew, corruption grew and the government’s actions began to wear down its people. The poets became angry and directed their anger at the coalition forces.
Following a U.S. military air strike last summer in the Shindand district of the Herat province, 47-year-old Nader Jan lost his faith. “We voted for the kingdom of Hamid Karzai to have a peaceful life,” he says. “Instead we got death. I saw how Nawabad village came under American attack and more than 100 civilians died, 70 of them children and women. Are the children also fighting against America? No. I ask, what did they do wrong?”
A veteran Afghan poet, Pir Muhammad Karwan, mourns a bride and groom killed at a wedding party that was bombed.
Here the girls with the language of bangles
Brought the songs of wedding to the ceremony
With the rockets of America
The songs of the hearts were holed