Restoring Poetry to Afghanistan

As Iraqis prepare to go to the polls, commentator Steve Coll reflects on Afghanistan, which held elections for the first time a few months ago. In part because of the success of those elections, Coll says, Afghanistan once again has room for much more than war and politics. One Afghan, Masood Khalili, has used the return to democracy as an opportunity to revive his country's poetic tradition.

About Steve Coll

Steve Coll is the author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.

About the Poetry in This Commentary

Khalilullah Khalili's Poetry

Below is a sample poem from An Assembly of Moths, a new collection of works by Afghan poet Khalilullah Khalili:

"Way to Reedbed"

A Cry is locked
In my heart.
Where's my reed flute?
Home's become a cage.
Which way to the desert?
First suffering occupied me by day,
Then grief from evening to dawn.
Where is your face like a flower, Saaqi?
Where are the cries of the drunks?

For more information on An Assembly of Moths, please address inquiries to Sayhoon22@yahoo.com.

On Sept. 9, 2001, Masood Khalili was sitting beside legendary Afghan guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud when two al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists detonated themselves. Massoud was killed, and Khalili was severely injured. As Khalili recovered, his country did also, and as elections approached, he began work on a collection of poems written by his father, Khalilullah Khalili, a former Afghan poet laureate. Those poems appear in a new collection titled An Assembly of Moths, which is being published in India. An excerpt from the introduction to that work appears below:

Book Excerpt: From the Introduction to An Assembly of Moths

Great poets speak to universals. Their words resonate beyond specifics of time and space. And yet their day-to-day lives, like all of ours, occur within three dimensions: culture, current history, and their own singular sensibilities.

For Khalilullah Khalili (1905-1987) this interplay involved deep cross-currents. His culture — the venerable, word-resonant, Persian-speaking culture of Central Asia —foregrounds poetry among all art forms. Nowhere on earth are poets more honored. But Khalili's historical circumstances — the turmoil of 20th century, Afghanistan's struggle for self definition — turned life for all Afghans, Khalili included, into unpredictable series of fortune swings. Assassinations, regime changes, wholesale emigration, utter devastation: These were the bookends that encompassed his life.

How to be a poet in the midst of chaos?....

Afghanistan remains mostly illiterate, overwhelmingly so outside the cities. Rather than read, people store material in memory and, if literary, recite it by heart. And poetry, because of rhyme and rhythm, is much easier to memorize than prose… Many Afghans internalize segments off the great Persian classical poets, philosopher-mystics whose verse rises above daily hustle and bustle.

The result is something no longer valued in the modern, literate West: a memorized reservoir of poetic wisdom. Inherited from the great poets and internalized from early childhood onwards, this material serves Afghans as psycho-spiritual ballast — a buffer against misfortune, and a reminder, when times are good, the luck seldom lasts…

The importance of shared poetic legacy is evident in day-to-day conversations across Afghanistan. People use the prefix 'Sha'er mega' ("The poet says") to substantiate argument. An Afghan provided this example: "If you go to a strange village and say, 'Two plus two equals four,' the villagers will challenge your authority. But tell them that 'The poet says' that two plus two equals five, and they'll accept what you say immediately."

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