Poets mirror feelings of Afghans caught in conflict

May 22, 2009

    (Hanan Habibzai is an Afghan writer who has reported from  his country for Reuters and the BBC, and has recently moved to  London. Any opinions expressed in this blog are his own.)


    Intellectuals and poets have a commanding presence in Afghan  society. It is the poets who often mirror the feelings of  ordinary people, revealing much about the mindset of Afghans in  the face of occupation and civil war.

    Now, it is the smell of fresh blood rather than the delights  of Afghanistan’s mountains and fields that occupies the poets.  As an Afghan, when I read their works, I am shocked by the state  of my country, and see in that state the failures of my  government and the international community.

    When Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election last  year, many Afghans, intellectuals included, believed the end of  the Bush era meant a let-up in their suffering.

    But after the U.S. bombardments on the western province of  Farah on May 4/5, the latest of many in which scores of  civilians have been killed, most have lost faith.

    Local elders say the strikes took 147 lives. If true, that  makes the strikes the bloodiest since the war began in 2001,  though the U.S. military accuse civilians of inflating the  numbers.

    But focusing on the numbers misses the point. The situation  has devastated Afghans, and perhaps removed the last shred of  faith they may have had in the coalition forces. Farah resident  Hamidullah says: “We got it wrong. Americans came to kill us. We  thought that they were here to make our future better. But no,  they kill children, women, elders and any type of villager as if  they are all Taliban.”

    Another local, Khan Wali, who lost his sister-in-law and  another female relative in the air strike, says: “The American  military is trying to prove itself as a hero back in America by  killing innocents.”

    One Afghan poet, 28-year-old Samiullah Taroon, was born just  after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and grew up between  decades of war. Once famous for pretty verse about valleys in  the Kunar region, he has now, like his fellow artists, turned to  war and oppression, both foreign and domestic, for his subject  matter:


    We have heard these anecdotes

    That control will be again in the hands of the killer

    Some will be chanting the slogans of death

    And some will be chanting the slogans of life

    The white and sacred pages of the history

    Remind one of some people

    In white clothes, they are the snakes in the sleeves

    They capture Kabul and they capture Baghdad.


    Taroon says the government is a puppet of foreign powers,  and in thrall to warlords and corruption:

    A fraud with the name of reconstruction

    Takes power and gold from me


    As a popular poet, reciting his poetry at rallies where  thousands gather, he is a threat to those in power, and those  who want it. Taroon says he is being followed by an Afghan  intelligence agency, which opened a file on him last year, and  fears for his life.

    So what does the government or the Taliban have to fear from  a poet? In Afghanistan, poetry is often recited or sung, and is  hugely accessible to ordinary people, despite high illiteracy.  Poetry contests are attended by thousands.

    Poetry has for centuries reflected traditions, history and  the mood of the moment in Afghanistan.

    At the Battle of Maiwand in 1880, legend has it that a young  girl named Malalai inspired Afghan fighters to defeat the  British army. When the soldiers grew disheartened and the  British looked like winning, Malalai, tending wounded troops,  recited poetry: 


    Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,

    By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!


    The Afghans turned the tables and drove the British all the  way back to Kandahar. True or not, many Afghans believe the  tale.

    Pashtun poets have a long history of protest. According to  Afghan historian Habibullah Rafi, 19th-century editor Alama  Mahmood Tarzi infuriated the British with protest poems that  were read throughout the Pashtu speaking world.

    When the Russians arrived in 1979, the poetry once again  changed with the fortunes of the people. Ishaq Nangyal’s poems,  written during the 80s and 90s, are a good example of the  resilience shown by Afghans towards their oppressors, be they  foreign invaders or religious extremists:


    Even if my head is cut down from my body

    If my heart is taken out of my cage with the hands

    For the honour of the country I accept all these

    I am an Afghan, I fulfil my intentions.


    When international forces defeated the Taliban in 2001, many  poets reflected hopes that they would finally bring peace and  prosperity after years of suffering under the Soviet-backed  communist government, the Mujahadeen and the Taliban.

    But the suffering of ordinary Afghans continued: poverty  grew, corruption grew and the government’s actions began to wear  down its people. The poets became angry and directed their anger  at the coalition forces.

    Following a U.S. military air strike last summer in the  Shindand district of the Herat province, 47-year-old Nader Jan  lost his faith. “We voted for the kingdom of Hamid Karzai to  have a peaceful life,” he says. “Instead we got death. I saw how  Nawabad village came under American attack and more than 100  civilians died, 70 of them children and women. Are the children  also fighting against America? No. I ask, what did they do  wrong?”

    A veteran Afghan poet, Pir Muhammad Karwan, mourns a bride  and groom killed at a wedding party that was bombed.


    Here the girls with the language of bangles

    Brought the songs of wedding to the ceremony

    With the rockets of America

    The songs of the hearts were holed  


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For years I had an impression that the Afghan people were born to be fighters. Now I feel bewildered. Is it true that the poets have some influence in the Afghan society?

Posted by nguyen | Report as abusive

Not only is it true that poets have a large influence in my country but I should also bring to your attention that one of the greatest poets in the history of mankind was born and raised in my beloved province of Balkh. Unfortunately, with the coming of the Mongol hordes, in the 13th century, he had to flee to modern day Turkey. He is known as Rumi in the western world and to this day his poetry, vision and love touches people of all racee, religions and ethnicities. One of his main messages was that love of life, humanity, nature and God transcends above any differences we may have. You may be surprised but this man, who’s words echo through the ages, grew up in the same ancient kingdom from which the ‘doctor of doctors” was born: Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the west). His medical innovations, theories and manuals inspired the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and brought about the European Awakening. His greatest medical journal, The Qanun, served as the chief guide to Medical Science in the world from the 10th-17th century. So to answer your question bluntly, no, the people who reside in what is called Afghanistan today are not born to be fighters but only have to defend their land and honor when forced to do so. It is only recently that my country has downgraded to a failed state due to malicious colonialism and the horrendous leadership in the past three centuries.

Posted by Qais Osmani | Report as abusive

Afghans life is stepping ahead at the hard time but they still love poetry.I completely agree with content of the article. Current Afghan government harshly wounded the public feelings and the people of war shattered country will no more tolerate the bloody violence, injustice and cruelty.Afghanistan has only one chance ahead; the next presidential election. They should choose a right person who can lead nation to right path. Current government don’t have a strategic plan to won the heart of its people who are swimming in the bloods and poverty.When injustice replacing peace every one trying to find his/her feelings in the poems. That’s true.

Posted by Khyal Momand | Report as abusive

I would like to Thanks Hanan Habibzai that he is working very hard he is one of the best Journalists in Afghanistan ,PeaceSadan Popal

Posted by Sadan Popal | Report as abusive

@ Qais Osmani, Khyal Momand: your information is very interesting.

Posted by nguyen | Report as abusive

I have one more question. Obviously, there are many different peoples living in the land of Afghanistan. So have they got a unique national spirit which pervaded all tribes, all nationalities, and persisted for centuries, or just a mix of all kinds of tribal ideals that constantly changed from land to land, and from time to time? I ask this because the poems normally represent the spirit of a nation.

Posted by nguyen | Report as abusive

Free Iraq, Free Afghanistan.

Posted by Aron | Report as abusive

Everyone knows from UN to US and NATO that Afghans supported and welcomed the overthrow of Taliban regime. We voted Hameed Karzai with a hope that every Afghan has for decades to have peace, rule of law, have a job and their kids go to school and the country ruined infrastructures system get reconstructed, but what did we got in return?Bombardment of innocent women and children using white phosphorus, a highly corrupted government officials, empowering of warlords, acid attacks on schoolgirls, beheading of innocent people on spy charges, increase in drug cultivation and trafficking, poisoning of schoolgirl, suffocation to death in containers in search of job, kid girls sold for family survival due to high level of poverty etc. In this situation the only way to take out your frustration is through saying poems but there is no one to hear our voice.Thanks to Hanan Habibzai, a sensitive and good writer for a nice article.

Posted by Farahi | Report as abusive

As Afghans prepare to go to the polls in August, 2009 freelance writer and poet Hanan Habibzai reflects on impacts of current conflict on life of common man through poems in Afghanistan. Hanan Habibzai, who as a poet has made attempts to revive his country’s poetic tradition after the set up of new addministration, in part due to the rise in sufferings of common man, he says, Afghanistan has room for much more than war and politics.he, clearly, made his point that the Afghan poets and words of their poems on the plight of his people resonate beyond specifics of time and space. And yet their day-to-day lives, like all of ours, occur within the dimensions of current history, culture and their own singular sensibilities.

Posted by Hassan Sobman | Report as abusive

It is truly inspiring that a people exploited by the war machine of empire for so long still do what they can to keep their hopes for a brighter future alive.What better way to express themselves honestly and freely under such oppressive conditions than with poetry readings.What is sad, and every time I see it a little more depressing, is how susceptible people are to propaganda. How often I hear of these crushed expectations..Do people know nothing of the world? Of history? of the USA? Isnt it the medias job to educate people on these things when they are deeply relevant to current events, or do they only serve the needs of private enterprise?Instead of the Afghanis or Iraqis hearing of liberation and reconstruction why did they not hear of the true and documented history of the catastrophic record the US has invading foreign countries?Almost everything they have touched in the last 50 years has turned to dust yet when they speak of their next “freedom” mission people actually treat them with a trust, or maybe just resignation, that I simply cant find a word to describe…They have without a doubt the worst record of criminal and aggressive behavior, militarily and in economic imperialism, in modern history and have clearly shown that the rules that they would threaten other countries to abide by do not apply to themselves. The core morals of their culture are fabrications of truth, intellectually bankrupt catch phrases like ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ that if actually defined could no longer be used as war cries.Do we really have hope they can change? What could this be based on other than resignation when considering the appalling state and direction of their culture?Or do we simply agree with them because we are too afraid to stand against them?Afraid they will destroy our beloved country and sacred culture like so many others before.We should not be supporting them economically, but first we should not be surprised when lies turn out to be lies. We really need to shake off the denial that makes it possible to trust such a destructive force in the first place..

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

[…] poetry death, roger hollander, Taliban, war poetry trackback Published on Monday, May 25, 2009 by Reuters by Hanan […]

Posted by Poets Mirror Feelings of Afghans Caught in Conflict « roger hollander | Report as abusive

As an Afghan i love to read and listen to poems in Pashto, as Hanan said it really expresses the pain and sorrow in wich the Afghans are caught. And lately the poems are telling the story of corruption by goverment officials and misbehavings by international troops in Afghanistan.

Posted by Samie Khan | Report as abusive

I don’t think one can accurately measure the historical effectiveness of a Afghanistan the way Hanan Habibzai always does in his Poems and articles, but He does know, of course, that Poem influence individuals like me and others living in sitution, and some although they are part of large economic and social processes, influence history. If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, USA, NATO better leave the Afghanistan, literly they are failed.

Posted by Haroon Ahmad Khan | Report as abusive

Salamoona this the best article well the poems are good but the question is how we are gona get ride of these sold slave and corrupt politicians and how can we afghan stand up for our own rights

Posted by Lawany Khan | Report as abusive

Habib Zai has put fingures on some realities in Afghanistan.Unfortunatelly, Afghan government is a part of problem.Most of the high ranking governmetnal officials are involved in rubbery and are war lords.A strong ruler will be able to defend Afghans.

Posted by Archiwal | Report as abusive

Excellent article…I told you that we pashtuns are always worriors or hard people but do have a soft side as well and the writer has shown it very nicely

Posted by Amanullah Maseed | Report as abusive

I really encourage Mr.Habibzai sahib for raising a very important role of Peots in the history of Afghanistan..they have really played a vital role in awakening and establishing resistance against any brutility,invasion and injust.Ahamd Shah Baba was a peot, Khoshaal Khan Khatak was a poet, and many other dignities who played vital rules in organizing public and steering publics to wards changes in the country..once more poets are playing a very dominent role in awakening Afghans and warning foreigners to organize themselves,plan thier activities and interventions otherwise..it is not late that a national upraisal will be awakened.Jamal Ghamjan !

Posted by Jamal Gham Jan | Report as abusive

I have found a full reality about the on going situation in this essay. My country needs only peace. Afghans are plighting far from the peace. they need to reach to a peaceful life then would be able to find food by themselves.Invaders should think about peace not to spread bloodsheds. In the one hand they are talking about peace, economy and reconstruction; the other side they using guns and power against people.I would like to respond Amunullah Maseed’s comment that war always imposed on Afghans and they are always forced to defend themselves in the history.Pashtuns are courageous and honourable people on the earth. They don’t have enmity with other nations but they have been always targeted for their patriotism.

Posted by Abdulwakil Sulamal | Report as abusive

Inspiring and stimulating a nation by poetry is one of the inherent attitude of our Afghans, especialy common among our Afghan (Pashtoon)women. our Afghan women are the most modest , brave and tolerable creature among the world’s nations.they are mostly targeted and have been the victims of many harsh situations, but they have patience as a man. from our past history we have had the brave role model among the women , in around 1880 a brave young lady called Malalai Maywandai who fought the British aggression and bravely called upon his fiancé in a typical Afghani style poem which is called(Landai) she said “(If you do not taste the martyrdom today on this field of Maiwand, By God I am afraid you’ll lead an ignominious life forever more )”, this clearly shows bravery of an Afghan women and a self sustainable independency and awaken sense. Once again luckily our poets and poetesses have long focused on our past and present time and like always they grant us sense of sovereignty and courage.I wish the international community could focus on the peace and stability in our country instead focusing on giving support to the warlords and mafia alliance.

Posted by Ahmed Mujeeb Biabani | Report as abusive

Afghanistan remains mostly illiterate, overwhelmingly so outside the cities. Rather than read, people store material in memory and, if literary, recite it by heart. And poetry, because of rhyme and rhythm, is much easier to memorize than prose… Many Afghans internalize segments off the classical poets, philosopher-mystics whose verse rises above daily hustle and bustle.The importance of shared poetic legacy is evident in day-to-day conversations across Afghanistan. People use the prefix ‘Sha’er wiy’ee (“The poet says”) to substantiate argument. An Afghan provided this example: “If you go to a strange village and say, ‘Two plus two equals four,’ the villagers will challenge your authority. But tell them that ‘The poet says’ that two plus two equals five, and they’ll accept what you say immediately.”

Posted by Hassan Sobman | Report as abusive

Thanks for the great job, Mr. Habibzai.One of the much unexplored areas of Afghan culture has been revealed to the world, with a truly amazing touch.Keep the good work up.Cheers,Bari

Posted by Bari Barac | Report as abusive

very well written Hanan jana! i have always been a strong believer of non-violant protests, and to actually raise your voice via the novice method of poetry is very encouraging. it proves that Afghans are not only good warriors, but also men of finer touch and elegance in dealing with testing times.

Posted by Mansoor Baha | Report as abusive

Honest words to know about the Afghan Societies, I have been asked several times,” How did your country came to this stage? the civilization and times of Rumi, Rahman Baba,… and all famous poets of the east to the stage of destruction, illiteracy, War and poverty.The country has a strong culture, an poetry has been playing a big rule, specially in getting people to a cause.Afghan people find their happiness and pain in the verses of their poets.I just want to thank you Mr.Hanan Habibzai for the good work.Thank you.Hemmat

Posted by Hemmat | Report as abusive

Well, there is no doubt that Afghan intellectuals have suffered badly from the war in Afghanistan. Along with ordinary people, our professional, especially journalists, writers and poets have been targeted for decades. Coalition Forces, Afghan troops and Taliban insurgents have jailed, injured and even killed those who have spoken against them. Some of our professionals are forced to stay back in exile. They can’t go to the country and contribute to the rebuilding of their homeland because of the threats they are facing. However, they are brave enough that they have not been silenced. I love the fact that our intellectuals have never given up and have always raised the concerns of our people in one or another shape and form.

Posted by Bashir Gwakh | Report as abusive

Hi. Mr.habib zai. You report is just like our thinks as in pashto says ( Zama da Zara Khabare de Kari da )Keep it up brother ALLAH and we are with you because of your honesty and nowadys the situition of peshawar is also so bad all the schools are closed especialy the schools of Hayatabad (TOWN THREE)Brother Allah Keeps you safe and we will pray for your longlife.

Posted by Abdul Rahman Zadran | Report as abusive

mr Hanan Habibzai the articles like this will bring the truth infront of the world i hope that u will continue writing articles because you know that how our people feel when they lost their child,husban,father or any of their relatives…

Posted by A.ILYAS JALALZAI | Report as abusive

Dear hanan habizaiI wish you all the best ! I’m reading your all the article you are a honest journalist and writer I like your work keep it up.In this article your focus is the actual picture of afghan struggle and shows our problems and demands from others for peace with honor and dignity.Long life habibzai

Posted by Nangialai Yosufzai | Report as abusive

Thanks Mr. Habibzai for the beautiful piece.There is no doubt in my mind that the poets and literary figure of every time has played a significant role in putting the authorities in the spotlight and contributing to the much needed change. It is a petty that the Afghan nation, in my mind, does not raise against the cruelties of authorities and put into practice the Pashto saying ” People’s force is God’s force”.

Posted by Jawaid Kotwal | Report as abusive

Pity those that lead ignore the pain of the poem. Good article Hanan.

Posted by filosofee | Report as abusive

I am glad that someone is speaking for the people, the truth must be told and I thank you for bringing the facts out to the western world. The democratic system does not work in Afghanistan because of weak and corrupt government. The victims of this democracy are the Afghan people. The Afghans are paying the price of democracy with their blood. I thank you Mr. Hanan and Reuter for bringing the truth to the World.

Posted by James Smith | Report as abusive

This article enfolds significant information about the situation in Afghanistan. Very captivating. Wish you all the best!Nisa Nouri

Posted by Nisa | Report as abusive

This is only the tip of iceberg, we might read the articles that mirror the the feelings of Afghans and then forget about it, which is quite natural, but Afghans have to live with this pain.It is our duty to support Afghans all the way through,and listen to their voice, respect their decision and help them choose their own destiny.We have to follow the example of letting the world know about the real situation in Afghanistan that Mr Habibzai and others like him have sat

Posted by Yama Bariz | Report as abusive

Great job, Hanan sb.That’s interesting to read and know, plz keep it up.all the best.Fazl

Posted by Fazlullah Akhtar | Report as abusive

People should just realize that they need to look at Bactria (aka Afghanistan) as whole sum of its lengthy history. I mean, G. Washington only defeated the red coats not more than a few hundred years…while some of my ancestors were grinding wheat and grains in Khorasan using wind power in 900 AD or irrigating fields while Europeans were still figuring out who’s a Cro-Magnon and who’s a Neanderthal. And Balkh can actually be traced back as a direct source of the so called “European Renaissance” because without the innovations in medicine, science, literature, poetry, mysticism, and the overall evolution of humanity’s awareness of it’s worth amongst the cosmos; there would be no one to teach Michelangelo or Da Vinci how to hold a brush or create a new invention. All it takes is a little acknowledgement and respect and the current western world could be easily forgiven for its past evils and the direct annihilation of tens of millions of fellow human beings. Because, those who cannot see beyond the color of another’s skin have yet to evolve into modern man. And please hold your applause, because I’m sure I will have a lot of questions to answer being that I have to teach so many.

Posted by qais | Report as abusive

This is a great article! very well thought. well done! muwafaq bashin.

Posted by Noorjahan Akbar | Report as abusive

I hope Hanan jan have success in strong and best commincation for our so 3o years ware closeupI am glad that someone is speaking for the people, the truth must be told and I thank you for bringing the facts out to the western world. The democratic system does not work in Afghanistan because of weak and corrupt government. The victims of this democracy are the Afghan people. The Afghans are paying the price of democracy with their blood. I thank you Mr. Hanan and Reuters for bringing the truth to the World.best wishes

Posted by Assadullah | Report as abusive

Dear Hanan!This is absolutely amazing, accurate, beautiful and inspiring. Thanks for writing. keep the great work up. i will share this with friends, with your permission.Allah Hafiz wa madadgar.

Posted by Noorjahan | Report as abusive