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The City and the Writer: In Kabul with Bashir Sakharwaz

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Kabul as you feel/see it?

Kabul is its history—an old city with Jews, Armenians, Hindus, Russians, and Chinese. I imagine Charchata, the grand bazaar of Kabul, bigger than the grand bazaar of Istanbul. I imagine the area skirting the mountain, Karte Parwan, where I grew up, filling my lungs with the fresh air of spring. The air mixed with the smell of earth after the rain, and the sight of the first tulips growing on the mountain.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

It was not easy to leave Kabul. The day that I left, I knew I was not going to return for a long time. When I did go back—after twenty-five years—Kabul as I knew it, had gone.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Not many people know that this city has a history that goes back 5,000 years. At the top of Shirdarwaza Mountain is an ancient wall. The wall was built to keep invaders away, some 1,000 years ago. Kabul was surrounded by walls. The mountains themselves serve as walls but they never managed to keep invaders away.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

The best writer from this country is King Babur—Zahir al Din Mohammad Babur. This Turk adopted Kabul as his capital. No one has written as passionately about Kabul as he has. Anyone who goes to Kabul should go to Bagh-e Babur, where he is buried. Actually, he died in India, but asked that his remains be buried in this garden that he built.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I will always return to Bagh-e Babur. From this Bagh (or “garden”) on a hilltop, I see the Kabul that Babur saw.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Again Bagh-e Babur, the poetry there will touch your heart.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Old Kabul has mystery in it. It was here that the British were defeated. It was here that the musicians from India came to entertain the king. It has stories within stories.

Where does passion live here?

Passion, now? When there is war generation after generation, there is no passion.

What is the title of one of your poems about Kabul and what inspired it exactly?

The title of my poem is “Kabul Behind My Window.”

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Kabul does an outside exist?”

I am always outside of Kabul even when I am there. My Kabul has gone.


Bashir Sakhawarz is a poet from Afghanistan. He left Afghanistan after his country was invaded by the Soviet Union and lived in Europe and worked in many African, Asian, and Central American countries. He has published three volumes of poetry, a novel, and five books on the history, literature, and culture of India and Afghanistan.


NH's Discovery of the Month:

Kabul starts as a poem. Its mountains are songs. And I can’t stop listening. I write: Broken noise, an echo about to vanish, a hum breaking a heart. To see the mountain, meditate around it. To feel its heart, believe it exists, even when it is absent. To hear its voice, allow the wind to rest inside of you. Here, everything hides in what you don’t see. Here, words build universes.

I don’t know why or recollect when I wrote these lines, but that happens a lot while I’m in Kabul—it’s as if I am not meant to know, just undergo.

Afghanistan has known so many wars that the level of literacy is low but it is a place with a long literary tradition. Storytelling continues to be popular. Its practice, like in most Asian and Middle Eastern countries, is elegantly and intricately developed, combining music and poetry with folkloric elements. During these literary gatherings, there is great festivity and great stillness. The past and the present conversing. This oral tradition is an important form of entertainment as well as how beliefs, morals, and customs are transmitted.

Today, when Afghani literature is mentioned, most think of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. But the list of Afghani writers throughout history is long. Among contemporary novelists, there is Atiq Rahimi, not well-known to American readers but who won the Prix Goncourt in France for his book The Patience Stone (now translated into English). Some of the poets (writing in Dari and Pashto) I discovered while co-editing Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (W.W. Norton) and before I went to Afghanistan are: Nadia Anjuman, Noozar Elias, Asadullah Habib, Abdul Bari Jahani (Pashto), Mohammad Kazem Kazemi, Ustad Khalili, Partaw Naderi and Latif Nazemi.

I met more writers during the trip, some are featured in the short film by Ram Devineni, POSTCARDS FROM KABUL: NATHALIE HANDAL, BOMB Magazine. The film and trip were sponsored by the Iowa International Writing Program and the U.S. State Department—Christopher Merrill, director of the program, Ram Devineni, and the novelist Joshua Ferris and I travelled together.

Everyone I encountered, especially the youth, kept saying:We want to live. We don’t want Taliban. Kept asking: Will you tell Americans we have a rich culture, that we are peaceful. That Afghanistan is beautiful. Despite the hard reality in Kabul, I also saw light swirling around their desires. A force stronger than what keeps them alive. An indescribable will growing even when all is dry, when thirst doesn’t allow sleep, when fear robs youth, when beauty is wounded.

Their faces keep everything—what has collapsed and what can’t be discovered—the mysteries of a city and a people whose breath weaves and steals simultaneously.

I don’t remember leaving but I remember arriving very vividly. Joshua and I looked out the airplane window. I looked at him, then at the sign that read “Kabul International Airport,” and heard a song slowly widening my world. As we drove into the city, I saw a cloud of dust, and as it settled, a rose. Roses—orange, yellow, red, mauve—grow everywhere like tiny planets witnessing history and insisting on saying: if you chose only to see ruins, you will miss the never ending colors of this city.

Published Dec 1, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nathalie Handal

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