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Poetry | Daughters of Afghanistan: Literary Voices of Change


28 Mar 2012 16:34Comments


Every one calls you to his own / I call you only to yourself


[ region ] Classical Persian verse constantly evokes Afghanistan and its glorious history. Poets such as Rumi (from Balkh), Sanai (from Ghazni), and Jami (from Ghor) are still celebrated today. In the province of Balkh alone, there are several literary groups that serve poets and poetry enthusiasts alike, including the Partow Cultural Foundation, the Poets and Writers Organization of Balkh, and the Parwaz Literary Association. Zuzanna Olszewska, a translator of contemporary Afghan verse, writes that "poetry composition and recitation has been and continues to be the most highly prized and widely practiced art form among Afghans of all walks of life, both literate and illiterate." Honoring and emulating the traditions of their culture, young Afghans are establishing their own distinct voices.

Contemporary Afghan poetry reflects the country's sociopolitical circumstances. It echoes the anxieties and realities of a postwar society and the ambitions and aspirations of a generation that attempts to follow the world in the midst of a long, violent struggle colored by religious fanaticism and foreign occupation. Verse after verse, the quest for human dignity and long-enduring peace is heartfelt.

The Afghan youth have closely followed the literary and cultural trends of Persian literature in Iran and Central Asia and keenly observed the developments of world literature at large. From unrequited love, the most common convention in classical verse, they have turned to more idiosyncratic themes, as well as the poetry of social criticism. From strict schemes of rhyme and meter, they have turned to free verse, as well as the classical ghazal. Mystic dialogues with God have been replaced by social conversations, interpersonal dialogues. Afghan poetry is currently going through a phase of mourning, and many poets employ a melodramatic tone to convey traumas witnessed by Afghanistan. Melodramatic or not, their poetry appropriates a social space for national and international dialogue; it heralds a new era marked by voices cognizant of their time and courageous enough to reflect profoundly personal sentiments and challenge the status quo.

Women writers, at the forefront of this movement, continue to struggle for basic liberties, one of which is the attainment of the "room of one's own" essential to the pursuit of the arts, as Virginia Woolf declared. More importantly, there is a fundamental need for self-directed movement, the "freedom to leave [the room] and return to it at will," writes Farzaneh Milani, professor of women's studies at the University of Virginia. Access to the freedom of movement required to pursue writing remains a daily challenge for Afghan women. The streets and bazaars of Afghanistan are not the only arena where women's physical mobility is obstructed and their presence obscured by patriarchal conventions; Afghan women writers are venturing in a male-centric literary tradition that spans over two millennia. Creating their own cultural space alongside male writers, their voices reveal their identities, bring renewed attention to the legacy of women as oral storytellers and poets, redefine conventional boundaries of poetic content, and reinforce their place in the Afghan literary tradition.

The liberating impact of self-expression, in particular in a country where people are nurtured on poetry from a young age, is demonstrated by the range of active educational and literary. They cultivate hope among the victims of war and abuse and empower them to engage in the country's pressing sociopolitical dialogues. One such example is the Afghan Women's Writing Project, founded in 2009. Through writing workshops, AWWP encourages women to narrate their stories. Most classes are taught in English, which helps writers experiment with the power of public expression in a language other than their native tongue. Roya, one of the participants, writes, "I took the pen and I wrote and everything changed. I learned that if I stand, everyone will stand, other women in my country will stand." Their courage has inspired other women not only in Afghanistan, but worldwide. Stories of AWWP writers have been performed by artists across the United States.

There is also Young Women for Change, founded by Anita Haidary and Noorjahan Akbar. YWC is a Kabul-based women's advocacy group that strives to create a safe, social environment for women. While street harassment is a daily reality for many women, it is often deemed "trivial and minor violence" and is not treated as a form of repression in a gender-segregated society. Through workshops, art exhibitions and educational posters around Kabul, YWC hopes to eliminate the culture of misogyny. The group's interactive Facebook fan page, in Persian, Pashto, and English, has become a platform for social advocates worldwide who tackle controversial issues such as sexual abuse head on. Earlier this year, Anita Haidary screened her documentary This is My City Too, which activists hope will ignite a national dialogue on the obstacles facing women's full participation in society.

The following poetry selection -- co-translated with Adeeba Talukder -- draws from two generations of Afghan women writers. Leyla Serahat Roshani (1959-2005), Bahar Saeed (b. 1953), Nadia Fazl (b. 1966), Parwin Pajwak (b. 1967), and Faegha Jawad Mohajer (b. 1976) have all been forced into exile and currently reside in Europe and North America. With more access to resources and civil liberties, they have been widely read, critiqued, and anthologized in Afghanistan, Iran, and the Persian-speaking diaspora. Mainly practitioners of sher-e sepid ("white," or free, verse), their poetry is characterized by penetrating sentiments, a sincere tone, and colloquial phraseology. They have been unequivocal, direct, and passionate in condemning the rule of violence and religious dogma in their homeland. Depicting Afghanistan's dark days that led to their dispossession, they echo their generation's heartfelt quest for peace and human dignity while insisting on the presences of lost lives. Their profound regret for the destruction of a cultural past is accompanied by genuine hope and devotion to the reconstruction of a more free and just Afghanistan. The beauty and glory of Balkh, Kabul, and Herat, though mourned in their verse time and again, lives on in the new voices of Afghan writers.

The second generation, if somewhat lesser known, all the same consists of potent voices. Nadia Anjuman (1980-2005), a student of journalism at the Herat University School of Literature, was tragically murdered at the age of 25. Many of her peers believe that Nadia was killed by her husband, who strictly and openly forbade her from attending literary events. Narrated in the first person, Nadia's poem lets us into a world of repression and resilience, mobility and immobility, passive silence and deafening rage. Gol-e Dudi (Black Flower) is her sole published collection of poetry. Through her poetry, Nadia achieved fame and mobility, traditionally deemed male prerogatives, thus violating long-unchallenged cultural boundaries.

Khaledah Forugh (b. 1972) is professor of Persian language and literature at Kabul University and a member of PEN Afghanistan Center. Hailed as one of the most promising poets of her generation, six volumes of her poetry have been published to date. She evokes elements of Persian mythology to create a dialogue between Afghanistan's past and its present and to challenge the status of women in contemporary society. Forugh also works in the field of literary criticism. Farangiz Sowgand, another young poet, is an emerging voice in the literary community of Mazar-e Sharif. Her ghazal included in this selection challenges the conservative viewpoint towards prostitutes; sympathetic to their suffering, she dedicates her poem to them, the "pure women" of Afghanistan. She does not mourn her lost "chastity" or "innocence," but rather grieves her lost opportunity to narrate her story fully, recite her song, "sound [her] faghan."

Portrayed as helpless victims in the West, prisoners awaiting their Western liberators, the poetry of Afghan women places their historical suffering in its fuller context, alongside their rejection of and resistance to misogynistic efforts to veil their bodies and silence their voices. Following decades of the "privatization of the female voice in the realm of home and family," as Farzaneh Milani puts it, Afghan women writers strive to document their voices by mastering the art of the written word. In a land deeply scarred by war, their writings create a living monument, as tangible as a skyscraper, where one can recall the presences of all who have lost their lives to violence. Their poems directly challenge the forced loss of identity and create a social space in which traditions are no longer practiced with unquestioned devotion.

DaughtersofAfghanistan2.jpgOne may argue that writing on the poetry of "Afghan women" downgrades their works to a subgroup separate from literature at large. Literature is neither male nor female, this argument goes, hence categorizing it based on gender is arbitrary and absurd. "Literature is not a stage where one can be a man or woman, it is a stage that belongs to words, not gender," writes novelist Homeira Ghaderi. The literary realm continues to be male-centric. The young poet Zahra Hosseinzadah, a young Afghan poet, writes, "In the past few years I've tried to write poetry as a woman, rather than as a person who could be of either gender. The differences are not great, because all humans have common emotions. But a woman lives with a certain loneliness and certain restrictions on her rights, and is always seeking to speak out: to say my rights have been taken from me, to say that I'm not just a mother, I am also a human being who can be in society just like a man and have rights -- and it's not just the kitchen that belongs to me, all of society belongs to me." Indeed, examining the works of women writers through frameworks that foreground gender sheds much needed light on the nature and function of Afghan verse. It treats their poetry as part of a tradition that has challenged patriarchal conventions and striven for a more gender-egalitarian society and, by extension, a gender-egalitarian literary tradition.

Anders Widmark, a Swedish scholar and translator of Afghan literature, writes, "Much of what is said and written about Afghanistan in the West today is still tainted by an outside perspective on the situation -- a narrative that keeps repeating and reformulating earlier misconceptions and generalizations." Nushin Arbabzadah, the editor of Afghanistan in Ink: Literatures between Diaspora and Nation, writes, "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." It is of tremendous importance to disrupt patterns of long-distance observation and begin listening to Afghan voices. But why through poetry in particular, one may ask?

Sarah Maguire, founder of the Poetry Translation Centre, writes, "Those of us lucky enough to live in comfort in the West can often think that poetry is irrelevant and pointless, a minority pursuit for the educated elite. Yet in many parts of the world, including Afghanistan, poetry is the most important art form." It is exciting to observe the role poetry is playing in the social development of Afghanistan, a nation in the process of rewriting a history carved out of human causalities with the peace-embracing vision that has become a hallmark of Afghan literature. Overlooked as yet in the West, the voices and tales of contemporary Afghan poets will be an inseparable part of the fabric of social change. Rejecting the popularized image of prisoners awaiting liberation, "silent victims" effaced by the monochrome blue of chaddori, new Afghan voices have expanded the realm of the possible with their bravery and resilience, adding myriad nuances to our understanding of their plight, shedding light on our own. They have given the world a new greeting. How will we respond?


Nadia Anjuman

Daughter of Afghanistan

I've no desire to open my mouth. What will I recite?

I who will remain despised by my age, whether or not I recite

How will I sing of honey? It's turned to poison on my tongue --

curses upon the fist of the tyrant who crushed my mouth

Bless this world with no one to share my grief

whether I weep or laugh, whether I live or die

I and this prison: my longing cornered to nothing.

I was borne of futility, born only to be silenced.

Heart! I know Spring has passed, and its joy too

but how could I fly with these ripped-off wings?

Though silent all this time, I've listened closely:

my heart still whispers her songs, births new ones for her every moment

One day I'll smash this cage, its very solitude

I'll drink the wine of joy, sing the way a bird should in springtime.

Though a delicate-limbed tree, I won't shudder with every breeze

I am a daughter of Afghan -- I'll sound my faghan,* weave it to eternity

* A faghan is a cry, an expression of regret and pain, retained in the English translation to reflect the wordplay in the original.


Parwin Pajwak

Death of the Sun (excerpt)


right there,

Sun turned cold.*

stars fell, scattered

upon the earth

burning deep chasms

chasms resounding


its anguished cries.

And now:


leaves of hope fallen apart

with the wind

talents gone


birds slaughtered


piles of books

smoldered to ash

just to keep homes


Here, gentle trees were uprooted, their thin limbs

turned to beating-sticks for children

here, thoughts dared not leave

the mind's secluded



You who have not plucked

a single leaf from the tree of hope:

will you ever

from the ocean of darkness

build a bridge to light?

Oh you prisoners of the world of your self,

will you ever, will you ever

rush towards light?

* From "Earthly Verses," by Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967)


Khaledah Forugh

Five in the Evening (excerpt)

Our time

has always been five in the evening

never five in the morning.

My memory's clear waters

won't forget:

movement is the unforgivable sin

of our time.

Smell of dusk, grief-scented.

A mountain carving

takes form within me

and as I wail

long into the night

every night

it breaks.

The city's a rusty cry


our house of reeds

its words fold into themselves

and prod the walls awake

though they, too,

are drifting in slumber.

This time, the rain

blows in the whirlwind

and mindlessly

throws the hands of trees



One must play

the lone reed


Nadia Fazl


do you feel the silence of birds?

do you see

their gaze?

shooting from behind bars

and into the night-dark

heart of night

arrow after



Faeghah Jawad Mohajer

For Kabul

My warm, skyless city

I am filled with love,

filled with moonlight

may the night fill

your wasteland of calm

and may your night fill

all of eternity

your knees

drained of vigor

your anguish, burning

burns me

My exalted love,

I know you --

you are all my worth.

Give me your hard, calloused hand,

give me your hand, my love

now come, come



Bahar Saeed

This veil cannot conceal me, as my hair --

its mere sight -- will not paint me bare.

I am Sun. I glimmer through curtain's cloth.

It can't eclipse my light, not the darkest dark.

The pious man wouldn't urge me to veil

if he weren't so godly, so godly, so frail.

O you people of the Land of The Way!

Tell me, how does my hair lead you astray?

I see no sense in the wisdom you sell:

you who've wronged me, why will I burn in hell?

I refuse to be chastened, to lower my head

bend for the sake of your own feeble legs

You men of God! Cast your eyes from my face.

go and hide your weakness of self --

veil, veil your withering faith


Leyla Serahat Roshani

Sign for Eternity

In me you

are a mirror

vast as existence,

fresh and limpid as Spring.

I plant my eyes

in the mirror

so that a sign

small and green

may emerge, proclaim

the eternity of Spring.


Farangiz Sowgand

Just to herself, she laughs for an hour

the passing breath of a prostitute

Then, shivering, she screams out loud

the frightened grief of a prostitute.

For a moment she gazes in the mirror:

she isn't there. And then she is

hidden in dust

dust of the world of a prostitute.

Every night, every day, every hour

held in sturdy arms

she weeps the tears of a prostitute.

Turns into a scorpion,

stings herself, cries

then imagines a cure for a prostitute

Death, busy

playing somewhere in the city

laughs in the wet eyes of a prostitute

With autumn's passing, another story

remains unspoken:

I've spent my birthday

spent with the grief of a prostitute.

All of the translations are by Adeeba Talukder and Aria Fani. Adeeba Talukder lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works as a script translator at Sesame Workshop. She has translated and performed work by Pakistan's progressive poets and writes poetry in her spare time. Read the Persian originals of the selection here.


Sources (poems):
Jabbari, Behrouz (2009). Hamzabani va Hamdeli (Selected Works of Contemporary Afghan Poets). Canada.
Mirshahi, Masoud (2000). Sher-e Zanan-e Afghanistan (Poetry of Afghan Women). Khavaran Publications.
Zanan-e Sokhansara dar Puye-ye Adab-e Dari (Women Poets in Persian Literature). Atta (1986).

Sources (quotations in narrative):
Milani, Farzaneh (2011). Words Not Swords. Syracuse University Press.
Olszewska, Zuzanna (2007). "'A Desolate Voice': Poetry and Identity among Young Afghan Refugees in Iran," Iranian Studies 40:2, 203-24.
Olszewska, Zuzanna (September 2004). "Stealing the Show: Women Writers at an Afghan Literary Festival in Tehran," Bad Jens. (Zahra Hosseinzadah quotation)

Comments af@ariafani.com.

Top photo by Lorenzo Tugnoli. Second photo by Cheney Orr: Jessica DeBruin rehearsing "The Traffic Policewoman of Herat" by Zahra M.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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