Did You Know These Amazing Facts About Poetry in Afghanistan?

No other nation has poetry flowing through its history and its soul quite as strongly as Afghanistan does. The rich tradition of poetry in Afghanistan dates back thousands of years, and historic and contemporary poems alike are cherished by just about every group in modern Afghan society. To learn more about the special place that this unique art form occupies in the hearts of Afghans, read on for a look at some fascinating facts about poets and poetry in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has produced countless famous and passionate poets.

Poetry has existed in the region that we now know as Afghanistan for more than 3,000 years. It’s therefore hardly surprising that, over the centuries, the region has produced some of the world’s most famous and passionate poets, many of whom are enjoying a newfound popularity with contemporary audiences. These poets include:

Rumi—The 13thcentury Sufi poet and mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi, better known simply as Rumi, is the most widely celebrated Persian language poet in the world. Born in Balkh in 1207, Rumi lived for much of his life in present-day Turkey, but is still claimed by Afghans as their own beloved poet. His thousands of poems, many of which were inspired by his friendship with the mystic and religious seeker Shams of Tabriz, are known for combining religious themes and imagery, and for exploring spiritual love and transcendence. Rumi’s most important work is the Mathnawi or Masnavi, a six-book spiritual epic that attempts to teach followers of the religious tradition of Sufism to become one with God.

Jami—Two centuries after Rumi, the Persian-language scholar, mystic, and poet Jami was born and spent his life in Herat, which was a noted literary and scholarly center for many centuries. His work explores complex questions of ethics and philosophy using what has been described as a fresh, graceful, and simple style. Many Islamic rulers of the time offered patronage to Jami, but he refused most of these proposals, preferring to live simply as a mystic and scholar rather than as a court poet.

Khushal Khan Khattak—Often referred to as the national poet of Afghanistan, as well as the father of Pashto literature, the 17th century Pashto poet Khushal Khan Khattak was both a poet and a warrior. A renowned military fighter who first served the Mughal empire and later turned against it, Khushal Khan Khattak spent the last years of his life promoting the cause of Pashtun nationalism through his poetry. It is estimated that he wrote some 45,000 poems in total, primarily on subjects such as honor, war, unity, and love.

Poetry readings are a common pastime.

In present-day Afghanistan, poetry is considered one of the highest forms of self-expression, so it’s not surprising that gathering to read and share poems, both old and new, is a popular pastime among Afghans.

In Herat, for example, members of the Herat Literary Association meet weekly to share and discuss their latest works. While these poets come from all walks of life, many are young people looking for an outlet to express their views on life in contemporary Afghanistan. Poems shared at the Herat Literary Association deal not only with weighty subjects such as war and peace, but also with love, friendship, and the realities, both positive and negative, of daily life.

In Afghanistan, poetry can be competitive.

Have you ever thought of poetry as a competitive sport? One of Afghanistan’s most intriguing poetic traditions is “sher jangi,” which translates as “poetry fighting” or “poem battle.” In this game, which is a common form of entertainment in Afghanistan, one person kicks off the contest by composing a verse. The challenger must then reply with a new verse or line which not only responds thematically to the previous verse, but also begins with the same letter as the last word of the previous verse.

The contest continues back and forth until one poet fails to come up with a coherent response. The tradition of sher jangi is at least a thousand years old: once performed by master poets at court, poetry fighting is now popular among adults at parties and gatherings, and as a game for younger boys and girls.

The Kabul Public Library was established by poets.

Of the handful of public libraries that exist in Afghanistan, the Kabul Public Library is the country’s only state-owned public library. It therefore seems entirely fitting that this library was established in 1966 by members of the Association of Poets. An organization that brought scholars, playwrights, teachers, and poets together from all across Afghanistan, the Association of Poets gave Afghan literary artists a sense of support and camaraderie that few had experienced before. The four founding members of the library transformed this wonderful poetic energy into a small but important literary hub that, today, is home to thousands of poetry books, among other resources.

Spotlight on the Upcoming Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub

The Bayat Foundation has spent a great deal of time in recent months focusing on COVID-19 relief efforts. However, it has not lost sight of its other ambitious projects planned for the post-pandemic future. Among these is the Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub, an exciting new initiative that aims to advance science and technology education in Afghanistan. Read on to learn more.

What is the Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub?

The Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub is a classroom for the 21st century located on the grounds of Michelle Bayat High School in Kabul. Currently under construction—the project was launched at a special groundbreaking ceremony on October 10, 2020—the Hub will serve as a state-of-the-art education center that will provide students with an inventive, practical, and accessible learning environment.

What will be the focus of the Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub?

The Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub will offer a curriculum focusing on STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. The broad goal of the Hub’s educational programs is to help students understand and maximize the potential of today’s technology and—at the same time—to think creatively about the role that technology can play in solving the problems of the future. In order to encourage critical thinking, inventiveness, and leadership development, the Hub will immerse students in the curriculum using the latest app-based learning initiatives. For example, coding skills will be taught via robotic balls, drones, and physical and virtual coding blocks.

Why is STEM education important?

We are currently living in an age of constant scientific discovery and technological transformation. In order for people and countries alike to keep up with the pace of change, stay competitive in a global economy, make valuable contributions to the future of society, and address our planet’s most pressing challenges, STEM literacy is absolutely essential. Through a STEM education, young people can develop vital skills such as critical and creative thinking, gathering and evaluating evidence, and information-based problem solving and decision-making that will help them—as well as the organizations and countries that they will eventually represent—to succeed in a complex world.

How does the Hub advance the Bayat Foundation’s mission?

Education has always been one of the central pillars of the Bayat Foundation’s mission, which is to nourish the lives of all Afghans. Throughout Afghanistan’s history, a significant portion of the population has lacked access to any kind of formal education. This not only impacts individuals and families, many of whom have difficulty improving their circumstances due to a lack of education, but also the country itself, which has been deprived of societal, business, and government leaders.

In response to this challenging education gap, the Bayat Foundation has worked hard to develop, implement, and support initiatives that aim to provide Afghans with valuable learning opportunities. The foundation’s efforts in this area focus on two important groups: vulnerable and at-risk Afghans, such as orphaned children and refugees who lack literacy skills; and post-secondary students, who need an enhanced standard of learning in order to help Afghanistan to compete on the world stage. In recent years, the Bayat Foundation has been involved with the launch of the Faryab Orphanage and Learning Center in Maimana Province and has provided support for the reconstruction of the American University of Afghanistan.

What other organizations are involved in developing the Hub?

The following organizations are partnering with the Bayat Foundation on the construction and operation of the Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub:

The Afghan Red Crescent Society—The Michelle Bayat High School, which will house the new Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub, is located in Kabul on the grounds of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (the acting managing director and the secretary general of the society both participated in the October 10 groundbreaking ceremony for the Bayat Foundation Innovation Hub alongside the Bayat Foundation’s chairman, Ehsan Bayat). The Afghan affiliate of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Afghan Red Crescent Society has conducted wide-ranging humanitarian and relief work throughout Afghanistan since the 1930s.

MATTER—A global nonprofit organization, MATTER envisions a world in which every person is able to lead a full and healthy life. A movement of people, businesses, and organizations, MATTER is dedicated to overcoming one of our biggest contemporary challenges: a lack of access to healthcare, education, and other resources that are necessary to enable people to lead healthy and fulfilled lives.

Teach for Afghanistan—For many years, one of the main barriers to improving education in Afghanistan has been a lack of qualified teachers. Teach for Afghanistan works to address this problem by placing the country’s most promising university graduates in two-year teaching positions at Afghan schools. To date, over 200 university graduates—who teach at 69 schools—have helped more than 60,000 young students.

A Look at the Unique Plant Life in Afghanistan

Although Afghanistan is a dry country that primarily encompasses arid desert and rugged mountain ranges, it is home to an incredibly diverse array of plant life. In fact, according to some botanists, when it comes to plants and vegetation, Afghanistan is one of the world’s most important centers of biodiversity. Read on to learn some fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s surprisingly rich and unique plant life.

Afghanistan has more species of flowering plants than Central Europe.

It would be easy to assume that a region like central Europe, with its damp climate so favorable to plant growth, would have a wider variety of flowering plants than arid Afghanistan. Interestingly, however, the opposite is true. Afghanistan has far more species and sub-species of flowering plants than central Europe. Approximately 4,500 distinct flowering plants have been identified in Afghanistan, and botanists believe that there are many more still to be found and named. Afghan flowering plants encompass more than 600 species within the legume/pea family; 500 species in the daisy family, including nearly 150 different types of thistle; and 205 species in the mint family.

Nearly one-third of Afghanistan’s flowering plants are not found anywhere else.

Afghanistan’s flowering plant life is not only exceptionally diverse, but it’s also unique. Approximately 30% of all of the country’s flowering plants are endemic to Afghanistan, meaning that they don’t grow anywhere else in the world. (In contrast, the UK—another region with a damp climate that is ideally suited to plant growth—only has about 1,700 species of flowering plants, and a mere handful of these are endemic.)

Afghanistan’s valleys helped to shape its floral biodiversity.

Afghanistan’s extraordinary floral biodiversity owes a great deal to the country’s distinctive landscape, particularly the fertile valleys that lie in between its soaring mountains. Over the course of millions of years, these valleys served as a refuge for plants, helping to preserve and protect floral life through a series of global ice ages that wrought destruction elsewhere (to take the UK as an example once again, that region was wiped relatively clean of species with each successive Ice Age due to the area’s fairly flat topography). Furthermore, because the valleys are isolated from one another, many new species were able to evolve in the different areas, each specially adapted to the highly specific local conditions.

Foraging for plants plays an important role in rural Afghanistan.

Given the rich diversity of plants found in Afghanistan, it’s hardly surprising that plant foraging is an important activity in the country, particularly in rural and remote areas. For many Afghans living in rural communities, foraged plants can provide an important source of food, medicine, and sometimes income (foragers often sell their finds by the roadside or from carts in urban areas). The following are some commonly foraged plants:

Rhubarb—Known as chukri or rawash in Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is the Afghan forage plant that is most recognizable to people in the west, particularly northern Europeans. In Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is a springtime delight that is usually an ingredient in salads, or simply sprinkled with salt and eaten raw. Since rhubarb is rich in key nutrients (such as calcium, manganese, potassium, and vitamins C and K), it is an important type of food for rural Afghans, particularly during drought years when other crops are more scarce.

Liquorice root—A member of the legume/pea family, liquorice is known for its pale purple flowers and sharp, distinctive flavor. Foragers dig up liquorice roots and boil them to make a tea, a common treatment for stomachaches. Dried liquorice roots are also an important Afghan export typically destined for markets in India and the Emirates.

Caraway—Zira-ye Kohi, as it is known in Afghanistan, is a delicious spice that is from the carrot family. It is frequently used in Afghan cuisine, especially as an addition to rice dishes.

Afghanistan is one of eight regions in the world where crops were first grown.

The richness and diversity of Afghanistan’s wild plants is also closely related to the country’s history of plant domestication. According to scholars, Afghanistan is part of the “Vavilov Centers,” a term used to describe the regions of the world—eight in total—where humans began domesticating plant crops. In order for this process of domestication to be successful, it is important for early growers to have ready access to each crop’s wild relatives. The fact that wild plants such as wheat, peas, and lentils existed so plentifully in Afghanistan thousands of years ago is what allowed their eventual domestication to take place.

A groundbreaking book on Afghanistan’s plants was recently published.

For those interested in the native plants of Afghanistan, more information can be found in the groundbreaking 2010 book Field Guide Afghanistan: Flora and Vegetation. The culmination of decades of work by a team of Afghan, German, and British biologists and scholars, the book is highly detailed, but easily accessible to non-specialists. Written in Dari and English, the book is used at many schools, universities, and research institutes throughout Afghanistan.