The Dilemma of an “Afghan” Literature

Nile Green, co-editor of ‘Afghanistan in Ink’ explores the diverse nature and history of ‘Afghan’ literature.

In 2010, the Afghan Ministry of Education published a series of new textbooks for students taking compulsory classes in Dari-Persian literature in the new high schools being funded through international aid. In the message from the education minister included at the beginning of each copy, the aim of the textbooks was outlined as being to educate a new generation in the values of individualism, Islam and national unity “for the purpose of achieving the supreme goals of the nation”. Like the curriculum and schools to which they were related, the textbooks formed part of a larger project of national reconstruction: their express aim was to bring literature to the service of nation-building. In itself, there was little uniquely Afghan about such an agenda, for language and literature have helped lay the basis for nationalisms and nation-building in numerous other contexts. What was specific to Afghanistan was the extraordinary difficulty of framing a literature that was clearly “national” in its remit, a dilemma seen repeatedly in the school books’ contents. For while a small number of self-consciously “Afghan” writers, such as the nationalist Dari-Persian poet Khalilullah Khalili (1907–87), did appear in the textbooks, far more common were “classical” poets who belonged to a pre-national Persian literary culture that stretched from Istanbul to Delhi. This literary transnationalism was not limited in the textbooks to the likes of North Indian poets such as Amir Khusrow (d.1325) and Bedil (d.1720), and rubbing shoulders with these premodern Muslim poets were seventeenth century French fables by Jean de la Fontaine, an account of industrial progress from Victorian Britain and a translated excerpt from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Nor was such transnationalism limited to the textbooks’ contents. It was writ through their very existence by the funding of their publication by international aid donors and the location of their printing in distant Indonesia.

In drawing on so wide a flow of literary traffic in their attempt to forge a new citizenry that was both Muslim and modern, loyal to both the nation state and the international community of nations, the textbooks echoed a dilemma that reverberated to the foundation of the Afghan nation in the late nineteenth century. That dilemma was one of containing and channelling towards national ends a literary culture that has at every step outreached the spatial and ideological confines of the Afghan nation state. Phrased differently, it was a dilemma of the slippage between a geographically immobile state and the mobile (and often diasporic) writers who at different moments have alternatively aided or undermined the state-building efforts of Afghan governments over the past century. For if Afghanistan is often considered to be a country until recently cut off from the wider world — a country whose problems were born from too little exposure to “modern” ideas developed in other regions of the globe — then the essays in Afghanistan in Ink reveal how since the early twentieth century, literary travellers, exiles and diasporas have used their writings to import to Afghanistan a bewildering and ultimately competing array of ideologies sourced from every corner of the planet. Whether formed by liberal modernism or civic patriotism, by communist or Islamist internationalism, the ideologically varied literatures that Afghans have produced in the twentieth century have been integral to the attempts, erstwhile successes and outright failures to build a nation state in Afghanistan, whether envisioned as a liberal or absolute monarchy, a socialist republic, an emirate or (that most transnational of all political hybrids) an Islamic republic.

Afghanistan in Ink aims to unravel the complex and obscure history of these many literary movements, with “movements” conceived here in both the figurative sense of associations of writers and the more literal sense of imported literary traffic. The story of the many literary movements traced in this book therefore points to the dilemma of a fragile emergent state challenged by the smuggling of ideologies through its borders in the saddlebags of literature. It also points to the obverse dilemma of writers who, when not rewarded for loyal service to the government of the day, have been killed, imprisoned or exiled for their disloyalty. Whether through textbooks designed to educate an expanding population or exile novels on the human impact of war, in the modern era Afghan literature has never been far from the project of nation-building, albeit viewed in different texts as an ascendant or failed project. Yet through the exile of Afghan writers, the importing of non-Afghan genres or the production of Afghan books beyond the borders of the nation, this close and frequently estranged relationship between literature and nation has often been one of physical distance. What emerges from this volume’s focus on literature is an altogether less familiar Afghanistan whose tragedies have resulted less from the medieval parochialism of its citizenry than from the relentless internationalism of their search for a state and society that could be presented as both modern and loyal to the fractious cultural traditions that have been marshalled to create a collective Afghan identity.

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