Q&A : The poet of Kandahar

Abdul Bari Jahani, the voice of southern Afghanistan, a historic region now engulfed in violence, speaks to Al Jazeera.

Kandahar old days
Jahani's poetry, while depicting Kandahar's turmoil, is reminiscent of its peaceful days [Z. Miraki/AJE]

If one voice could embody the glory, paradox and misfortune of greater Kandahar, Afghanistan’s historic southern region, it would be the celebrated poet Abdul Bari Jahani.

His seven collections of Pashto poetry, what remains of more than four decades of writing, speak eloquently of a proud region, with a rich history, now engulfed in decades of perpetual violence and which remains the hotbed of the Taliban insurgency.

Jahani, pictured in Peshawar

“The talk of Bari Jahani’s popularity has gone beyond Afghanistan’s borders, settling on the ears of thousands of literature lovers in our region,” says Akram Usman, a renowned Afghan novelist.

Usman describes Jahani as “one of a kind, who will not be repeated”.

Jahani’s reliance on characters and images from an aggressive period in Afghanistan’s past, when Kandahar was the epicentre of a power that repeatedly invaded India, has drawn criticism from some.

“I request… he leaves his blood-dripping sword of Kandahar in the museum of Gandhara [ancient name for the city] and, in the 21st century, do not ask his fellow artists to recite eulogies to sword masters,” Saboorullah Siasang, an Afghan writer and critic, wrote.

Siasang’s critque is unjustified, others say, for Jahani often uses the historic imagery with a twist, debunking the belief in such glorious past by contrasting it with harsh present realities.

“Fluency and creativity are the hallmarks of his poetry… [that] rebels against traditions. His poems, undoubtedly, are the cries made for the awakening of the Afghan nation,” the late Abdul Shukoor Reshad, Afghan critic and member of the academy of arts and sciences, wrote.

We caught up with Jahani, asking him about Kandahar, Pashto poetry and more. Below is a translated and edited transcript of the conversation as well as the audio in the original Pashto.

What is the first image of Kandahar that you recall, from your childhood?

The place where one crawls in as a child one loves most, and that place doesn’t have to be too beautiful or too peaceful. There would be prettier places, prettier scenes, but it is in our nature that the place we first get to know, we first open our eyes to, we love more than anywhere else. The place feels like the mother’s embrace, like the cradle. 

Kandahar was one of the greenest cities of Afghanistan, surrounded by water canals and gardens – of grapes, pomegranates and more. Play at school, in the streets, in the gardens, all this adds to a knot of love that I remember. My early days were in the city of Kandahar. Later, when I was 12, we left the street – Ahmad Shahyee Kandahar – where I was born. We did not move too far from there. I once wrote a poem about those streets called Child’s Love, and I painted a picture of those days, where I had beaten someone on those streets, or they had beaten me. 

Do you remember the first poem you wrote?

I actually don’t, and the reason for it is that I was brought up in a family that really did not have much interest in poetry, literature, or even literacy. I did not have elders who were literate or well-read. I might have been 11 or 12. I do remember that, naturally, I never had a problem with rhythm and flow. I never had a teacher in poetry. I mean, I wrote flowing poetry.  I wrote a lot of poetry in 7th grade and then 9th grade, but would you believe that not even a single word of those poems remain? I did not know its value – whether poetry was supposed to be good or bad. Other youth wrote poems and I followed.

My father had good penmanship and wrote beautifully, but his level of literacy wasn’t that useful to me. He tried to teach me, and he had lot of interest in school, but perhaps he just didn’t know how to… I always tell my friends had I got a trainer in those days, if someone had mentored me, I probably would have had many more books of poetry today and, as some would say, I probably would have been a big poet. But I never had a trainer and no one mentored me until I finished university and the late Mohamed Sediq Rohi looked into my poetry. He encouraged me to attend seminars and gatherings. He was the only trainer I have ever had in my life.

Was your early poetry oral, like when young men in villages gather to sing and recite? Or did you actually sit down with pen and paper to compose?

 Helmand, how calm you flow


Sitting on the banks of the Helmand,
swept by thoughts,
I watch as time flows in its currents.
It bends and twists to the embrace of centuries,
holding in its chest an eternity of stories.

I ask you in the language of the heart:
Do you recall the cruelties of your time?
You know well what’s happened at your edges.
You listened as angry skies grumbled
and death rained down with bullets.
You watched blood flow with your waves
as hangmen discarded martyred bodies.
And you witnessed those who looted
the nomad girls’ nose rings:
All in the name of the great lord.

I cradle a world of dreams on my wings.
Hold me so tight
that I can flow with your drops, like a story
that I can turn with your waves, like pages.
And as I release myself in your swing of dreams
the rotting blood of love reawakens in my veins.
I have spread my wings above your skies.
Please let them be
so that you don’t awaken the world of my dream-angels…

Click here to read the translated poem in full

Yes, I would sit down with pen and paper, but like all youth, I was doing a kind of imitation. I imitated poets who wrote lyrics for musicians. I was very interested in music, a love that remains until today. So the poets of Kandahar wrote for musicians and in imitating them, I would write a thing or two as well.

But I never had the courage to give my compositions to an artist, to the folk singers, so they could sing it. 

How was Kandahar’s cultural atmosphere those days? Were there poetry recitals and encouragement for young poets?

There definitely were opportunities those days for young poets… there were literary conferences in schools, where students recited poetry and read essays that their uncles or they themselves had written, or copied from some magazine or paper. That kind of opportunities. Other gatherings were very private, held by elders, on a very small scale. They would gather in homes or in restaurants. And these small gatherings were not exclusively literary: it was a mix academic, literary and political conversation.

I have heard that Kandahar was a place where spirituality, religion, and leftism all co-existed without much tension. What do you remember about their intersections?

The tensions only started when the leftists began to actively take action. They started demonstrations, strikes or gave speeches in the bazars. Before that, yes Kandahar had great poets and intellectuals in spirituality and religion. 

So, on the one hand, we had intellectuals, on the other hand, we had spiritual and religious leaders. In the middle of it all, the leftists began demonstrations and strikes, and their activities brought about a kind of clash in ideas.

Even today, that clash remains, and people have not forgotten those memories.

Where did you go to university? In Kabul or Kandahar?

There was no university in Kandahar those days. There was only one university and it was in Kabul. I studied history and geography at Kabul University. There was only one other university in Afghansitan, in Nangrahar, but that too only taught medicine those days.

One theme that is often associated with your poetry is that of rebellion and uprising. Did the theme surface in your poetry early, or is it a later development?

I really don’t know and it’s a very interesting subject for me. One time in Kandahar, the mullahs [the clergy] were demonstrating. I remember,  I was probably 12 years old. I did not know why the mullahs were protesting, but I wished their protests would succeed. And if it had, they probably would have closed down our school and the girls school. [He smiles] I did not know then. So it seems like I had interest in uprisings naturally and it has found its way into my poetry.

It’s common that all poets have themes that are not necessarily of their choice, but rather as if they are destined for them. For example, if you look at Bedil [17th century India], more than anything, he used mirrors, and that’s why they call him the poet of mirrors. If you look at Hafez [14th century Iran], it is wine and the tavern. For Khayam [11th century Iran], it is living in the moment. Similarly, if you look at my poetry, there is a lot of flame, rebellion, shaikh and cupbearer… these are the words that I play with. It’s not that I deliberately want to mention them in specific areas, it happens unconsciously.

What was your relation with the communist revolution of 1978? Were you linked to their movement in any way?

I was against them. I was against the communist factions, Khalq and Parcham. When Parcham took power, I could bear them for one year and in 1981, I left for Pakistan. If I had got an opportunity earlier, I probably would have left then itself.

When they took power, they started premature moves and issued orders that clashed with people’s beliefs and traditions. Everything became one-party: only they could speak logic and no one else could be listened to. As if authority was only their right.

After you left Afghanistan in 1981 for Peshawar in Pakistan, did you side with the Mujahideen operating out there? Or were you against their ideology too?

There, the problem wasn’t ideology. I did not leave the country with the plan of continuing to Europe of the US. I crossed the border into Pakistan only for jihad. I wanted to see if I could help in any way with my pen, or with my understanding of Urdu and English. I wanted to see if I could use those skills to help in the media and fight for the struggle.

Jahani, at a poetry reading in Germany

But there, I found the situation just like Kabul and actually, worse and more dangerous. The Parcham [sect of communists] in Kabul had slowly bettered their behaviour. At least, they had gone to school and studied abroad and understood arguments. Those in Peshawar just did not get it. They were mostly a crowd of Mullahs in mosques. For them, every teacher was a kaafir [infidel], for them every military officer was a kaafir. For them, the entire Afghanistan, particularly Kabul, was a battlefield, and they openly said all this. They were such narrow-minded people, that I completely avoided their offices and camps, and rented a house for myself away from it all, until I got depressed and left for Europe. In 1983, I moved to the US.

To come back to Pashto poetry – some people say that during the years of war, poetry was devoid of creativity – that it did not grow as an art, but remained only an expression of pain and sorrow. Where do you think Pashto poetry has reached, or where it has remained?

Poetry is composed by poets, and they live among the people. It’s a common formula that when funerals are proceeding, poets can’t start dancing. And when people are dancing in a place, poets cannot start crying. It’s natural that in a place where there is laughter and peace, poets have free compositions, like in the West. They write poems to trains, to birds, to the waves, to a promise. But when there is war, it is natural that tanks, bullets, death, fire, displacement and tears are reflected more in poems. Your conclusion is true if you pick up the poems of 20 or 30 years ago; it will be mostly about bombs and tanks.

But more recently, particularly in the past 10-12 years, as I have followed Pashto poetry, I have always said I am proud. I thank God every time I mention the names of the young poets, because their poetry is imbued with new compositions, new words. 

Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter @MujMash

Source: Al Jazeera