Wednesday 19 November 2008

A culture in exile

Contratulations to Atiq Rahimi, an Afghan-born writer and filmmaker, who has just won the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize. His book Syngue Sabour (Stone of Patience) is about the thoughts of a woman as she sits besides the bed of her wounded husband, "somewhere in Afghanistan or somewhere else".
"At first, she prays to bring her husband back to life, but she begins to talk about herself, her suffering and her secrets and little by little, she trasforms her husband into this stone of patience," he said recently in a French TV interview.
The novel was Rahimi's first novel in French, having always previously written in Dari, his own language. His novel Earth and Ashes, written in Dari, was subsequently turned into a film that won a prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Born in 1962, Rahimi fled his native country in 1984 and lived in Pakistan for a year before obtaining political asylum in France, where he now lives.
An interesting, if slightly dated, interview with him can be found here.
Rahimi is only the latest literary exile from Afghanistan to make an impression in the West. Khaled Hosseini, whose novels The Kiterunner and A Thousand Splendid Suns have sold in their hundreds of thousands and have both been made into successful films, is probably the most famous. His novels bring out the uniqueness of Afghanistan and its people and remind us all of the extent to which we have let down this remarkable country.
Rahimi and Hosseini were part of an enormous humanitarian catastrophe, when almost a third of the country's population were forced to flee during the Soviet occupation of the country. At one point there were 6.5 million Afghans living in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran alone. Tens of thousands more were in Central Asian, India and Western Europe.
At least 100,000 Afghans arrived in Germany, with more than a quarter of them living in Hamburg. More than 300,000 Afghans ended up in the United States, , with 40,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area alone.
Even the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989 did not end the enforced exile. Terrible drought, followed by years of internecine fighting between the Afghan warlords and then the arrival of the Taliban in the mid 1990s ensured that the camps were always full. Writers and artists in particular faced persecution.
One of my strongest memories whilst in Kabul in 2002 was a visit to the National Art Gallery. Most figurative paintings had been destroyed and the wreckage had been gathered together in a heap as a kind of makeshift exhibit to illustrate the barbarism of the Taliban. Other paintings had been temporarily painted over by museum staff to hide 'offending' human figures from the zealots.
After the Taliban government fell in 2001 a number of programmes began to encourage Afghans to return to their homeland. For example, the International Organisation for Migration runs a Return of Qualifed Afghans Program and The Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund also runs an Expatriate Services Program. These initiatives offer financial incentives to Afghans who agree to go home.
Many other Afghans have had little choice in the matter. Iran, in particular, has thrown out hundreds of thousands of Afghans, many of them Shia Hazaras. And Pakistan has also closed down many of the camps that had become almost permanent fixtures on the outskirts of Peshawar.
But still there are many thousands of Afghans who consider it is still too difficult or dangerous for them to return. Artists and musicians in particular are reluctant to return to a country where they know the Taliban would once again persecute them if it had the opportunity.
They include the great rubab player Khaled Arman and his father Mohammad Hossein Arman, both of whom live in Switzerland; the writer Spojmai Zariab (La Plaine de Cain and Ces murs qui nous ecoutes) and her writer husband Rahnaward Zariab who live in Paris; the writer Fateh Emam, who lives in Lausanne and is the author of Au-dela des mers salee and Un desir de liberte and many others too numerous to mention.
Afghanistan has great traditions of art and music. The poetry of Rumi, who was born in Balkh, and of the great Pashto mystic poets such as Khushal Khan and Abdur Rahman, is rightly regarded as amongst the greatest in any language. We all long for the day that Afghan poets feel safe once again in this land of poets.

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