In Search of My Father's Afghanistan

By Saira Shah
Sunday, September 10, 2006


For the first 21 years of my life, all I knew about Afghanistan came from the books I read and the stories my father shared. A writer on Sufi Islamic philosophy, he would tell tales that centered around the beautiful orchards and fountains of Paghman, just outside the capital, where my family is from and to which I longed to return. Other stories featured my great-great-great grandfather Jan Fishan Khan, a warlord who sang fragments of a wild Afghan song, dating to the British invasion of the late 1830s:

"Oh foreigners -- do not attack Kabul. Attacking Kabul is my job!"

All this time I was living in Britain, where the newspapers were telling me of a country under continual attack, devastated by years of war beginning with the Soviet occupation in 1979 and then by the Taliban's oppressive regime. But it was literature and legend that prompted me to begin traveling to Afghanistan 20 years ago -- first as a freelance journalist, then as a documentary filmmaker. It was my father's stories that allowed me to see the beauty of a place that was even then descending into anarchy.

Any introduction to Afghan culture should, of course, start at the top -- with the giant of Persian literature, the Sufi philosopher Jalaluddin Rumi, who hailed from Balkh, which is today in northern Afghanistan, and whose great poetical work, " The Masnavi, " is still quoted verbatim by any Afghans you are likely to meet, be they bus drivers or university professors.

But Afghan culture is hardly stuck in the 13th century. Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the artistic energies the regime suppressed have exploded, sometimes in unexpected forms. So now we have Afghanistan's first and only rap star, a diminutive 28-year-old called DJ Besho. He raps in Dari Persian, quotes verses from the Koran and doesn't curse -- but he remains too racy, too Western, for many in a country still reeling from the Taliban's ban on music. And even the 2005 Miss England is, well, Afghan. Hammasa Kohistani, who fled the war in Afghanistan, has scored an elegant victory over the Taliban's repression of women while using her public platform to condemn Western stereotypes of Muslims.

The Afghan film industry suffered intolerable state censorship during the Soviet era, followed by a total ban under the Taliban. One Afghan film editor recalled watching the Taliban methodically destroy an irreplaceable film archive, and when I was undercover in Kabul during that era, one of the spookiest sights that met my eyes was of film and videotape strewn like ticker tape from lampposts and telephone poles.

Now, however, a new Afghan film industry has risen from the wreckage. The first full-length feature film to be made by an Afghan in the Taliban-era -- Siddik Barmak's " Osama " -- won a Golden Globe award in 2004, and deservedly so. Apart from its stunning cinematography, the film is memorable for the performance by Marina Golbahari, the child-heroine, who was discovered by the director while she was begging on the streets. This spontaneous quality is shared by two Iranian-made films about Afghanistan that also make use of non-professional actors: Mohsen Makhmalbaf's " Kandahar " and Marzieh Meshkini's " Stray Dogs. "

Two books by Afghan writers, translated into English, stand out as true literature forged from more than 20 years of war. In addition to Khaled Hosseini's acclaimed " The Kite Runner, " which captures an Afghanistan brutalized by Soviet occupiers, U.S.-sponsored warlords and the repressive yet furtively sexualized Taliban, look to the lesser-known but almost unbearably gripping " Earth and Ashes " by Atiq Rahimi, an Afghan political exile in Paris. In a mere 60 pages, Rahimi tells the story of an Afghan village's destruction by a Russian bomb through the eyes of its sole survivors, an old man and his grandson. Novel, short story, call it what you will -- the prose always hovers on the edge of poetry.

For it is poetry that has always been closest to Afghan hearts. Sadly, much of it echoes Afghanistan's bleak history of war. From Rudyard Kipling's classic 19th-century vision in " The Young British Soldie r " --

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.

-- to the yearning of Afghanistan's late poet laureate, Khalilullah Khalili, while a refugee from the Soviet occupation:

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