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Writers in exile, scholars keep Afghan literature alive

In the tumult of the past three decades, Afghan writers have created a body of "almost a homeless literature" produced largely in exile, noted a visiting scholar at UCLA and organizer of the first daylong international conference of its kind on the work of his countrymen.
Nevertheless, in the ninth year of U.S.-led occupation of the country, showcasing Afghan writers and their work has special meaning, said Nushin Arbabzadah, who put together the event,  "Afghanistan in Ink: Literatures of Nation, War, and Exile," in Royce Hall on Jan. 14.
map."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 Arbabzadah. 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.

Afghan literature hails from much older Persian and Pashto traditions, but contemporary Afghan writers, the focus of the conference, often reflect paradoxes of culture and location. 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.
The conference, focused on works written or recorded in the past three decades, featured six presenters who looked at proverbs and aphorisms, poetry, novels, short stories, and, in UC Berkeley's Wali 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.
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").

Inside Afghanistan, according to panelist Margaret Mills, a folklorist from 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. 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 Afghan, 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.

A UCLA alumnus who is now a professor at UC Berkeley, Wali Ahmadi told conferees that the stark ethnic divisions that have surfaced in recent years in Afghanistan are not inherent in its culture.
Ahmadi, who earned his doctorate at UCLA, 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. Ahmadi described Majruh as profoundly skeptical of Marxism as well as the ideologies of armed resistance to the Soviet army.

During a Q&A, 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.

There are signs that Afghans living in the country and nearby will begin to market their books more widely, according to Arbabzadah. 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."

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."
A version of this story appears in the International Institute website. Audio podcasts of the conference presentations are available from CNES.
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