Monday, January 17, 2011

'I Cried on the Mountain Top' - images and poems from Afghanistan

Opening a window on Afghan culture
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 16 Jan 2011

Despite all the Western involvement, military and otherwise, in Afghanistan, the Western public knows all too little of that country’s culture. A book published recently in the UK helps open a window on Afghan culture through poetry and photographs.

The 64-page book, “I Cried on the Mountain Top”, marries selections of traditional Afghan poetry to black-and-white images from the photographic archive (covering 1980-2010) of the independent London-based charity Afghanaid. The poetry is in the form of the ancient and widespread tradition of folk singing known as chaharbeiti. These quatrains (four-line verses) are popular all over Afghanistan and in Iran and Tajikistan.

The images and poetry were selected, and the poetry translated, by Doubleday, who published the book in collaboration with Afghanaid. The charity was founded in 1983 to provide assistance to Afghans in hardship and distress.

The book was launched in an event at the Afghan Embassy in London. The Afghan ambassador Homayoun Tandar is keen to promote Afghan culture in the UK, and he was enthusiastic about the project to prepare the book. He wrote the preface, in the form of a page of poetry on the sufferings and dreams of Afghans: “A dream of love, sweetness, tenderness, happiness, joy – a better life. “

In her introduction Doubleday writes: “With this book I have tried to show how – in the midst of chaos and trauma – Afghan people live, love, work, pray, suffer and enjoy themselves.” Any reader would immediately notice the passionate tone of the verses: “Romantic, sometimes mystical or stoical, and often concerned with sadness at separation from beloved people or places.” Yet at their core is “an inner faith and patient resilience that form a very strong aspect of the Afghan character.”

Doubleday was uniquely well-placed to undertake the project of the book. In the mid-1970s she lived for over two years with her ethnomusicologist husband Dr John Baily in the Western Afghan city of Herat. There she studied women’s music and learned how to perform it. She recorded and memorized many of the chaharbeiti in the dialect of Persian known as dari, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan.

Her research and experiences formed the basis of her book “Three Women of Herat: A Memoir of Life, Love and Friendship in Afghanistan”, published by Jonathan Cape in 1988 and republished by IB Tauris in 2006.

Each left hand page of “I Cried on the Mountain Top” carries a single photograph from the Afghanaid archive. On the facing page is a quatrain, chosen to reflect some aspect of the picture and displayed both in the original Persian –with beautiful calligraphy executed by Afghan calligrapher Parwiz Latifi – and in Doubleday’s English translation. The technique of pairing images and poems works well, and the cumulative effect is very moving. [picture of two young girls was taken by Amanda Curley]
Some of the photographs remind us of the years of destruction. One 1980s image shows an armed resistance fighter atop a crashed Soviet helicopter. The accompanying poem is entitled “Gunshots and Smoke”:
High on the mountain, a pair of leopards –
and the air filled with gunshots and rifle smoke.
Friends, you must appreciate one another,
for in the grave your sole companion is a pillow of stone.

A picture of a war-devastated Kabul alley is partnered by the poem “Alas, sweet Kabul.” Opposite a 1980s picture of migrants wheeling their belongings on a cart in the snow is the poem “Lonely traveller”:
O god! I’ve arrived in this town,
Sad and lonely, with no friends.
Give a traveller a smoke from your pipe!
I’m here tonight – but tomorrow, who knows where?

A portrait of a sad-faced old lady resonates with the poem “If you saw my daughter” in which the mother says: “If she asked how I was, say I’m as thin as a wisp of straw.” Poems with romantic themes are often tinged with sadness, such as “I kiss the earth” in which the poet pining for his sweetheart roams the mountains and deserts “like a sorrowful bird that cannot fly”. The charming “Chains of ringlets” is addressed to a girl whose black locks of hair “twisting like snakes” beautify her shining face. The accompanying photograph is of a seller of chains in Faizabad bazaar.

Some of the photographs show projects that Afghanaid has carried out over the past three decades. One shows workers in 2002 mixing cement for a wall to prevent river flooding, opposite the poem “Your pitcher of water”. A picture [by Howard Lake] of a tailor cutting cloth was taken in 1989 in Peshawar, Pakistan, where Afghanaid set up income-generating projects for refugees in tented refugee camps. The quatrain “The tailor” has as its final two lines: “I cut my garment of sorrow / and no tailor could ever sew it together.”

The availability of Afghan poetry in English translation will widen further in June when London-based Hurst Publishers issues “Poetry of the Taliban” by Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn . The anthology has a foreword by Faisal Devji, Reader in the History of South Asia at St Antony’s College, Oxford University.

The title of the book may raise eyebrows, but Hurst Publishers says that while the Taliban are synonymous with the war in Afghanistan, cultural aspects of their identity, “the Taliban’s other face”, is often overlooked. “Most Taliban fighters are Pushtuns, a people who cherish their vibrant poetic tradition, closely associated with that of song.” Taliban poetry has an appeal that transcends the insurgency. “For the Taliban today, these poems or ghazals, have a resonance back to the 1980s war against the Soviets, when similar rhetorical styles, poetic formulae and tricks with meter inspired mujahideen combatants and non-combatants alike.” The poetry includes “classics” of the genre from the 1980s and 1990s as well as a selection from the odes and ghazals of today’s conflict.

I Cried On the Mountain Top can be ordered from

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