Saturday, April 16, 2005


Poetic dos

Mazar has been fun since I arrived this time. In the last week, I have been to two functions at which both the most famous living Afghan writer and the govenor of Balkh appeared, and have done several sightseeing trips – and all in the name of work.

The govenor of Balkh is a former mujahid by the name of Ustad Ata Muhammad Nur, one of the northern alliance commanders who seems to have made a successful transition to power in the current set-up, and has got his hands on Mazar, the most important northern town, and a centre of manufacturing and trade from Central Asia. Though I am not sure how long the current set-up will last. If he is sensible, and, indeed, if it is possible, Karzai will avoid any local commanders becoming too entrenched in any position. Clearly the disarmament in the north, which was declared complete some months before, has been only partial. One assumes that it is not only small-time bandits who have managed to hang on to their guns. The question for Karzai is whether he will rely on strong allies who can retain there local power bases, or whether he will try and play the trickier game of keeping direct power over the regions by rotating his elite (a game that seems to have been played with great success in Tajikistan by Rahmonov since the end of the civil war).

As for Ustad Ata, he came across rather well from the podium. The first occasion I witnessed him in action was an opening of a new newspaper in Balkh the other day, which he hosted from the regional govenorate. He was wearing a dapper black suit and stripey tie and his hair an beard were close-cropped which gave him the appearance of a teddy-bear mafioso. He spoke quite eloquently about the necessity of an independent media and the revitalisation of Afghan cultural life – all good stuff. I wonder how long it would last if the independent press in Balkh started publishing serious criticisms of him. But they don’t seem likely to at the moment, not so much because he is exerting force, but because the cultural elite here seem to genuinely like him, and feel indebted to his patronage. It is good to see though, that the intelligentsia is being supported. The opening of a new newspaper is a pretty significant gamble anywhere, and in a country with literacy rates as low as here, a daily newspaper seems almost an impossible venture from a commercial point of view.

The high point of this function for me though, was the little old man in a Karakul hat who came to sit next to me to keep me company. He was about half my size and had little droopy cheeks, and was almost constantly laughing when he spoke to me. He told me that he was a poet, and I asked him what the important themes of literature in Afghanistan were now. Without blinking, he told me ‘encouraging the youngsters’ and later pulled out a recent poem which did just that. I wish I could remember some lines to quote, but basically it was addressed directly to the young of Afghanistan and carried the sentiment that for the older generation, all hope and happiness is pinned upon them.

The very next day was another function for the local cultural elite – the inauguration ceremony for the ‘Maulana house’ – a kind of museum dedicated to the memory of the medieval mystical poet Maulana Jalaladdin Balkhi – more familiar to the western reader as Rumi. (Rum is Anatolia, where he spent most of his life, and Balkh is the ancient city just next to Mazar where he was born and spent his early childhood – so it is essentially a matter of choice whether you call him Rumi or Balkhi – though I have to say that the latter does seem a little more logical to me). The occasion was a series of speeches, poetry readings and settings of Jalaladdin’s poems to music. I loved it. The poetry is not easy by any means, and I constantly felt myself wishing that I had printed versions of the poems to follow. But it has a rhythmical intensity and colourful variation that lends itself extremely well to reading out loud and setting to music (both of which would have been the dominant forms in which the poetry would have originally be received). Most of the readings, it is true, were in a reverent monotone which no doubt was good in preserving the meanings and their ambiguity and depth, but tends to make me yawn. It seems to be the dominant literary style though – most perfectly expressed in the speech of Ranaward Zaryab, one of the most celebrated and respected of living Afghan authors. Mr Zaryab also spoke at the opening of the newspaper, and both speeches were characterised by the most extreme ponderousness I have ever witnessed. I would imagine that he averaged around one word every second during the entire speech. Normally this would be good for someone who is not yet entirely fluent in the language, but I am afraid I just turn off. He was explaining how Jalaladdin was influential on world literature and thought today, as evidenced Paulo Coehlo’s use of one of his stories for the basis of the idea of the novella The Alchemist. It seemed to take about 20 minutes for him to explain this simple idea.

One of the readers however was startling and exciting. He took a poem full of repetition, assonance and swirling rhythms that conjured up vividly the dance of the whirling dervishes, and read, cried and whispered it which excited me and inspired me to read more of Jalaladdin, and particularly to find this poem, though I had a very misty idea of what it was about. I had an idea that perhaps he was Iranian, partly because his delivery was so different to the others, but also because his accent was rather Iranian –sounding. I was close – I asked his name and origin of the journalist who was sitting next to me, and it turns out he is from Herat, to the extreme west of Afghanistan, on the way to the Iranian town of Mashhad, and renowned as one of the centre’s of culture in Afghanistan throughout its history. I will have to go there sometime.

The other highlight was the music. For most other literary figures, it might get dull to put together a programme consisting purely of settings of his work, but clearly Jaladdin has inspired and continues to inspire a wide range of musical settings, so that you have a wide choice. Shakespeare, for example, has inspired generations of classical composers to set his verse to music, but I can’t think of many chart-topping pop songs that do the same. There was a blind flautist and singer, a traditional qari and a little classical four-piece band with a harmonium player and singer, a tabla, tambour (see my posting for nawruz for more on the tambour) and a lovely kind of scrapy spike-fiddle called a ghichak. The blind flautist was very good, but his sound was not really large enough to fill the hall, though he was very cool, in his dark glasses and a turban. The qari could have been brilliant, but fell pray to poor speakers, performing as he was from the speech-makers’ podium, rather than the musicians’ stage. This was a great shame, and it was poignant to see his face contorting with effort and emotion, only to produce a horrible buzzy whine, pumped out to colossal volume through the poor speakers. At one point the speakers cut out, and a clear, rich voice broke through, penetrating easily the crowded salon. Relief! But alas the speakers came in again a second later giving us the buzzing travesty of the voice that we had momentarily experienced.

The four-piece band were excellent too- with the indian-influenced classical Afghan sound, distinguished by the beautiful clarity and subtlety of the singers voice. I made a note of his name also – Shah Rasul Qasemi – I will have to see if I can find a CD. I wish I could hook up some of this music on the web, so that you have more than just my word for this.

After we had lunch, and a few more speeches, and then all streamed out into the sun. As I was making my way I shook a few more hands and gave out a few cards, and the tiny old poet from the day before introduced me to his sons who were about twice my size, making them about four times the size of their father.

Both of these functions were opened by a recitation from the Quran – Bismillah Ar rahman ar rahim, nasta’iinu min shaytan ir-rajim… It always surprises me – this kind of thing, though of course I know that it is a very religious country. But it is relatively easy to ignore, in particular at those times when I am too lazy to break out of the expat bubble. I could not imagine many places where the opening of an independent newspaper would occasion a reading of scripture.

I had a particularly close brush with Afghan religious fervour the other day when I went to visit an old mosque at the centre of town, the mosque and madrasa of Sheikh Marghilani. I took a few pictures of the mosque’s earthern domes (my current obsession is earthern domes) and then started chatting with the residents who were curious to here who I was. After I questioned them a bit about the history of the building (the answer to my questions generally being ma’luum niist – that is not known) and getting them to guess my nationality (another recent obsession), the growing crowd of young boys and men with long, silky beards began to take me to task on the question of religion. I used my usual default response, and told them that I was a Christian, in the hope that a common monotheism would appease. But no. They told me that I would burn. They told me to say La ilaha ill-allah (there is no god but God) which I did, but I stopped short of saying Muhammad rasul-illah (Muhammad is God’s prophet) as it did not seem to be a correct Christian response. Also, in saying this formula, some believe that you automatically become a Muslim, though I told them that I did not believe in Muhammad – I did not want to lay myself open to accusations of apostasy once I had said the formula but still did not believe. The ringleader – a young man with the longest and silkiest beard – tried another tack and asked me whether I would continue to support Tony Blair after another Prime Minister had been elected. I explained that I do really not support Tony Blair at the moment, and that I would judge his successor on the individual merits of his character. He wasn’t happy with this, and said ‘but if a new man were in power, would you still recognise Tony Blair’s legitimacy as the ruler?’ I saw where he was going with this one and preempted him saying ‘but surely Jesus is still an important prophet?’ We did not get much further before I decided that I had seen enough of the mosque, and politely took my leave. All this argumentation was conducted in a very matter-of-fact way, without raising of voices but just a dogged insistence, and then mutterings of ‘you see – there you go’ - I was proof that God has set a seal on the hearts of the unbelievers.

But my driver was very angry with them as we left muttering ‘bloody stupid Taliban… guest in this country… no coercion in religion… trying to make you say something you don’t believe…’

It is very quiet in our guesthouse here, so I feel a bit like an old aristocrat whose family have all died out, and is kept company by a few loyal retainers. It’s not bad though, as I get to spend a bit of time with the loyal retainers who normally skirt round the edges of our expat home life, and I am usually to lazy to break through the conventions which separate us. Last night after watching Tony Blair being upbeat about modern Britain on BBC World, I sauntered out and lay on a takht (a wide wooden bed-like thing which you sit on or lie on) with the guesthouse manager and the dirty guard. The guesthouse manager, whose name is Friday, told me stories about Ghengis Khan, and his ravages of Afghanistan beneath a starry sky until I began to feel dozy and went off to bed early.

Monday, April 11, 2005


Bad Philosophy in the Mustafa Hotel

I am back in Mazar again, after a fairly uneventful few weeks in Kabul, marked by late evenings working at the office, and a smattering of the ubiquitous expat parties. Not thrilling reading – though I will have to lay down a description of the Kabul expat party for posterity at some point. They are marked chiefly by an interesting mix of nationalities (with a startling preponderance of French and Americans, and an extreme scarcity of Afghans) a marked resemblance to student parties, and a terrible gender ratio. One memorable evening that I have largely forgotten was spent in the notorious den of iniquity known as the Mustafa hotel, hangout of various seedy Kabul types, and the only bar in Kabul where you can fit a decent number of people together round a table at once to have a few beers. I had lead the party (including the Mild-Mannered American and some of his new media-related colleagues) to the Mustafa for a change, and was happy with the choice, but the atmosphere darkened somewhat when one of our French friends was reportedly rounded upon by the aggressive Washingtonian barman who declared that he hated the French. We were all scandalised by this, and tutted as we steadily drained our beers in our corner. After becoming disgusted with the Mild-Mannered One for a particularly egregious and unsubstantiated slur on my ablilty to get on with the shaven-headed clientele of the Mustafa (in fact, I love to play pool with private security workers, and chew the fat over the red-sox victory) I turned to my side to talk about aesthetics with the very Near-Midget of a Frenchman who had so disgusted the barman. Though I do not agree with the barman on the question of Frank-bashing, I did come some way in seeing eye-to-eye with him in his appraisal of this particular Frenchman. The Near-Midget tried to convince me that art could be judged by universal criteria, disconnected from cultural standards. He did not have much proof for this, however, other than that Kant said so, and I was too slurred by this time to have much to prove him wrong, other than the example that eastern musical scales include notes which are inbetween the notes of the classical western scale and therefore in tune in one culture, and out of tune in another, but the Near-Midget did not go for this, and said that he could not explain what he mean using English, but that Kant explained it very well. I got frustrated and started spluttering b-b-but that’s rubbish!’, at which he became offended and said ‘no! you can say you do not agree, but you cannot say I am talking rubbish. It is just that you have your opinion, and I have mine.’ Had I been more lucid, I would have said that this exactly proves my point – that the very existence of different opinions on the subject proves that there are no universal standards, as there is no one to guarantee that there is agreement. A Benignly Peculiar Teuton butted in saying that if you are a Kantian, you are a Kantian, then that is it, and you will never agree with… with whatever I am, and then added something incomprehensible about Heidegger.

At some stage in the proceedings, one of the clientele who was not spouting bad philosophy gave me the rules of the game which they were playing ‘UHU pool’ – a game apparently invented and exclusively played in the Mustafa hotel in Kabul which consists of knocking down a UHU stick in the centre of the pool table, but avoiding the dominoes set up around it, or something. The list of rules was extremely long, with special jargon for particular events that the game threw up. I did not get further than the first couple of sentences. The Near-Midget continued with his train of thought, asking me whether I considered Picasso a genius, and I said yes, but that I doubted that he emerged from the womb able to produce works of artistic genius, and where do you draw the line? At this point another Frenchman with burning eyes butted in to say that his grandfather had known Picasso, and he was a charlatan in almost everything he did, and the Benignly Peculiar Teuton agreed adding his own examples. I was boiling with frustration. We left a while later after several more beers and too much bad philosophy. The evening was lightened by the extreme strangeness of the Benign Teuton, a middle-aged German with the name of one of the great German film directors of the seventies who, when we walked out into the lobby of the hotel, pulled out a large disc of felt from beneath his arm and began to dust it off. I stood looking around chatting, waiting for people to file out, and as I did so, I eyed the disc of felt vaguely, wondering what he was going to do with it. No sooner had the thought passed through my mind, but with a swift movement the Benign Teuton confirmed his extreme peculiarity and placed the disc on his head at a jaunty angle – only at that moment did it become clear to me that I had been looking at the most enormous beret. Thus attired, the Teuton sallied out into the Kabul night.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?