UC Berkeley's Wali Ahmadi has attended gatherings that devoted as much as a panel discussion to Afghan writers. But the international conference held in Royce Hall on Jan. 14 was the first day-long affair of its kind, according to participants. It came during the ninth year of a U.S.-led occupation of the country, and as the Obama administration is sending additional soldiers there.
"Since the U.S. is investing in Afghanistan, both in terms of troops' deployment and financial aid, a more profound understanding of Afghanistan beyond the images of burqa-clad women and bearded gunmen is necessary," said Nushin Arbabzadah, a visiting scholar at UCLA and the conference organizer. The event was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) and cosponsored by the Central Asia Initiative and the Center for India and South Asia.
The conference, "Afghanistan in Ink: Literatures of Nation, War, and Exile," focused on works written or recorded in the tumult of the past three decades. Although Afghan literature hails from much older Persian and Pashto traditions, this contemporary emphasis did not really narrow the day's discussion. Six presenters looked at proverbs and aphorisms, poetry, novels, short stories, and, in Ahmadi's case, a four-volume philosophical allegory in prose. These works were composed in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Denmark and the United States, in Persian, English and French. Pashto language scholars invited to the event were not able to attend.
Arbabzadah commented on some paradoxes of what is "almost a homeless literature" produced largely in exile. From Tehran, a young émigré, Homira Qaderi, writes stories about Herat province for her mostly non-Afghan audience, but in the province's variant of Dari, as Persian dialects are known collectively in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Khaled Hosseini, who lives in northern California, is more famous abroad than in Afghanistan, said Arbabzadah, and the film adaptation of his first novel, "The Kite Runner," was banned by the Kabul government in 2008 over its depictions of rape and ethnic conflict.
Inside of Afghanistan, according to Margaret Mills of Ohio State University, literary sensibilities are irrepressible even in everyday speech. From April to June of last year, Mills and a collaborator interviewed about 60 Afghans in the cities of Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i Sharif on current conditions in their country and their hopes for the near future.
"This was not tell-me-your-proverbs," said Mills, a folklorist. However, interviewees of all educational backgrounds repeatedly offered proverbs and aphorisms, some with evident literary sources, to describe life amid war.
"Stones wound temporarily. Words wound permanently," said one, reversing a common English schoolyard taunt. Another described a local resistance leader, aligned neither with the Taliban nor the government, as "a man on foot between two donkeys who can't ride on either one of them." Among other features of this kind of discourse, Mills noted that harsh commentary may be wrapped in a lovely, ornamental phrase that works "like the coating on a pill."
Other speakers covered works published by Afghans who were forced abroad at some stage of their lives or born to expatriates. Zuzanna Olszewska of St. John's College, Oxford University, looked at the plain, intimate styles of today's second-generation Afghan poets living in Iran, which contrast sharply with the epic verses written by the previous generation.
Ahmadi, the UC Berkeley professor, offered an allegorical reading of Azhdaha-i Khudi ("The Ego Monster") by Sayyed B. Majruh, a Kabul University philosopher and publisher-in-exile of an Afghan news bulletin during the Soviet occupation. He described Majruh as profoundly skeptical of Marxism as well as the ideologies of armed resistance to the Soviet army.
During a question period, Ahmadi observed that stark ethnic divisions in Afghanistan are a recent phenomenon, "not inherent in the culture" and not pressing for Majruh, who was murdered in Pakistan in 1988. "I don't really see a problem with a person of Pashtun background writing in Persian," said Ahmadi.
Dr. Mir Hekmatullah Sadat, an independent scholar, considered the work of an exile in Denmark named Muhammad Asef Soltanzadeh, and Shafiq Shamel of Stanford University also discussed writers living in the West. Afghan national literature is often identified abroad with such exiles, including Hosseini and Atiq Rahimi, who in 2008 won France's premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for his first novel in French (recently translated into English as "The Patience Stone").
According to Arbabzadah, there are signs that Afghans living in the country and nearby will begin to market their books more widely. A writer like Homira Qaderi, she said, "represents a new age of Afghan writers who are very much aware of the literary trends around the world as well as how to place themselves."
Qaderi's short stories, Arbabzadah said, are a response to the former rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where they are set, but can also be seen as a calculated response to a "thirst for radical women's writing to come from Afghanistan." Narrators of Qaderi's stories include a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to watch men in peace, a woman who kills her husband, another who is angry about her pregnancy, and so on.
Arbabzadah said she hopes the conference will encourage more outsiders to listen to Afghan voices.
"There is freedom of speech in Afghanistan and intellectuals, academics and writers regularly discuss U.S. policies in Afghanistan on TV and in newspapers," she said. "So engagement with and awareness of this public intellectual sphere is not only necessary for the U.S. but also helps it to carry out its policies in a more efficient manner."
Audio podcasts of the conference presentations are available from CNES.