Afghan Poets Tackle Scars of War

April 30, 2009 by  


By Dawood Azami, BBC Pashto Service

Female poet Zarlasht Hafeez speaks of the “grief-stricken Pashtuns”

The violence in Afghanistan and the Pashtun-inhabited parts of Pakistan is making itself felt on the cultural and social life of the Pashtuns.

New themes and terms, such as suicide attack, missile and helicopter have entered Pashto literature, especially poetry, reflecting the destructive nature of the insurgency and counter-insurgency operations.

Pashtuns (also known as Pathans, Pakhtuns or Afghans) are increasingly writing poems about the “ill fate” of their nation and the new dynamics of violence in their homeland.

Young poets in Kabul, such as Muhammad Numan Dost, tell of mourning children lying on the graves of their dead parents after a suicide bomber “in exchange for heaven, cut to pieces a few lives now lying on the street”.

It is powerful language, and reflects a strong poetic tradition in a culture that is evolving with the times.

“Poets are inspired by what is happening in the outside world. Their imagination absorbs it,” says veteran Pashto poet in Peshawar, Rahmat Shah Sael.

“That is why Pashto poets are writing about violence in one way or another.”

Poetry has always been a powerful vehicle for expressing and preserving the national identity and cultural values of Pashtuns.

The Pashtun warrior poet, Khushhal Khan Khattak (1613 – 1689) and mystic Rahman Baba (1653-1711) are the two giants of Pashto poetry and literature and are still popular and a great source of inspiration.

Even today gatherings are held regularly throughout the region where poets present their work in front of a large audience.

Afghan tradition

Pashtuns are famous for their proud warrior tradition, but suicide attacks have never been part of it.

The phenomenon was imported by Arab fighters, particularly from Iraq, and is now being perfected in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I’ll ask you in the presence of God,
That in order to go to heaven
Why did you orphan my children?
Why did you widow a sick woman?
Why did you kill the son of an old lady?
Why did you kill the only brother of a weak girl?
Ahmad Fawad Lamay

The first suicide attack in Afghanistan, by Arabs, occurred in 2001 but the tactic remained rare until 2005.

The tactic targets officials and national and international security forces. However, their victims are overwhelmingly civilians.

Suicide attackers are often motivated by religious rewards and duty.

Most are young and uneducated and are said to be mobilised by grievances such as the occupation of Afghanistan, anger over civilian casualties and what they see as the affront to their honour and dignity.

They are reportedly brainwashed during their training and told they will go to heaven and enjoy eternal peace and pleasure.

This theme of violence is playing out in other genres in Pashto, such as short stories. But it is more visible in poetry.

“It is not the poets’ choice to write about war and violence, they are compelled to do so – to express their reaction and hatred to bloodshed,” says Darwesh Durrani, a popular Pashto poet and professor of literature in Quetta.

One young poet, Ahmad Fawad Lamay, has a poem called To A Suicide Attacker, in which a victim of a suicide attack challenges the bomber.

Then there is Zarlasht Hafeez, a female Pashto poet who has published a collection called Waiting for Peace. Her lines read:

“The sorrow and grief, these black evenings,
Eyes full of tears and times full of sadness,
These burnt hearts, the killing of youths,
These unfulfilled expectations and unmet hopes of brides,
With a hatred for war, I call time and again,
I wait for peace for the grief-stricken Pashtuns”

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