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.

7 Amazing Things You Can Find in Kabul

If there’s one thing you should know about Kabul, it’s that this incredible city is full of surprises. Current news stories usually reveal little about the Afghan capital. However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see a place that is home to some truly special and unexpected features.

Some of the most unique things you can find in Kabul include:

Evidence of a long, rich history

Did you know that humans have been living on or near the site of Kabul for over 3,500 years? The first mention of a settlement here appears in the Rigveda, an ancient Hindu scripture which dates back to the year 1500 BCE. The city then makes a further appearance in the writings of the Alexandrian scholar Ptolemy, who lived in the second century CE. This long history makes Kabul one of the oldest settlements in the world, and evidence of its amazing past can still be found in the centuries-old monuments and buildings that survive to this day.

High altitude

Tucked into a narrow valley between the soaring peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range, Kabul is one of the world’s highest capital cities (only 10 other capitals are located at higher altitudes). Kabul’s elevation is an impressive 5,873 feet above sea level; this is about the same elevation as the city of Denver, Colorado, which is popularly known as the “Mile-High City.”

A century-old bird market

In the heart of Kabul’s old city lies the Ka Faroshi Bird Market. Tucked away behind a mosque, the market occupies a narrow alley that is lined with stalls selling all types of birds. For many Afghans, keeping birds is a passion and a much-needed source of solace and comfort in challenging times. Birds that can be found at the market include canaries, finches, fighting cocks, roosters, and doves, but a particular favorite is the elegant chukar partridge, a reddish-gray bird with a red beak, black stripes on its side, and a distinctive black band across its eyes and throat.

Lush gardens

Among outsiders, Kabul may have a reputation as an arid desert city, but in fact, the capital is home to many beautiful green spaces. The largest and best known of these is Bagh-e Babur, or Babur’s Gardens, an 11-hectare oasis of peace and tranquility in the heart of Kabul. The gardens were founded in the early 16th century by Babur, the first Mughal emperor who used Kabul as his capital city for two decades. An avid gardener and nature enthusiast, Babur designed his gardens according to the traditional principles of Islamic gardens, which include key features such as a quadrant layout, flowing water, shade, abundant foliage, and perimeter walls. Although they fell into disrepair, Babur’s Gardens have been spectacularly restored with the support of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Open to visitors since 2008, the gardens stand today as one of Kabul’s most beloved public spaces, and a home for cultural performances and other special events.

A museum dedicated to land mines

Many of Kabul’s museums, such as the National Museum of Afghanistan, highlight and celebrate the country’s rich cultural history, but some also commemorate the more sobering aspects of Afghanistan’s recent past. Among these is the OMAR Mine Museum, which teaches visitors about the history of landmines in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. This museum, operated by the Organization for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation, features displays about the different types of mines and military hardware that have been used in Afghanistan, and the ongoing work being done to remove mines and make the land safe for use again.

An unusual mosque

In the center of the city, just off the Kabul River, sits one of the most surprising examples of Islamic religious architecture to be found anywhere in the world. Built in the 1920s, the Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque boasts two stories, a lemon-yellow façade, and Italianate stucco detailing: all very unusual features for an Islamic place of worship. The design for the mosque was modeled after Istanbul’s Ortakoy Mosque, and some describe the overall effect as “Afghan Baroque.”

A skate park

When Australian skateboarders Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolan first came to Kabul in 2007, they couldn’t have foreseen that over a decade later, they would be running a hugely popular skateboarding school and international charity. Today, Skateistan continues to pursue its mission of using skateboarding to engage Afghan children, and to help increase their access to education, health care, and cultural opportunities. The school and skate park, which serves around 300 students, is built on land donated by the Afghan National Olympic Committee.

Featured Image courtesy Teseum | Flickr

Spotlight on the Unique Traditional Instruments of Afghanistan

New York City might not be the first place you’d think of in connection with Afghan music, but surprisingly enough, the city’s famous Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to one of the finest collections of traditional Afghan instruments in the world. Comprised of 29 different instruments, the collection was donated to the Met in 2015 by Mark Slobin, a former professor of music and American studies at Wesleyan University.

Slobin gathered the instruments between 1967 and 1972. During this five-year period, he traveled repeatedly to northern Afghanistan in order to conduct extensive research into Afghan music, culture, language, and general society. This fieldwork, along with the instruments themselves, would eventually prove to be more valuable than anyone anticipated.

Just a few short years later, the Soviet invasion of 1979 initiated a decades-long period of civil conflict in Afghanistan. During these challenging years, music became widely banned. Many musicians (and their instruments) either fled the country or were driven underground, and Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage fell into decline.

Slobin’s instrument collection—along with his in-depth research, which includes folk music recordings, films, and hundreds of music-related images—therefore stands as an important and rare glimpse into an aspect of Afghanistan’s culture that has been all but lost. As a result of Slobin’s work, the fascinating traditional Afghan instruments that visitors to the Met can see and learn about include:

The Qobuz

A type of fiddle widely used in northern Afghanistan, the qobuz is an ancient instrument of Turkic origin. The instrument is mentioned in the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages, which was compiled in the 11th century. Shaped like a deep, curved ladle, the qobuz has a belly covered with camel or goat skin and two horsehair strings; a horsehair bow is used for playing, which generates a sound rich in overtones.

Believed to be a sacred instrument traditionally owned by shamans, the qobuz was popular during the 15th and 16th centuries for musical entertainment at Afghanistan’s royal courts. The qobuz featured in the Slobin collection at the Met was custom made for the popular Afghan folk musician Baba Naim.

The Dambura

Another traditional Afghan instrument of Turkic origin is the dambura (sometimes known as the dombra or dombyra). A type of lute typically made from a single block of wood, the dambura features a long, thin neck; a deep, oblong bowl; and two playing strings.

It is played either by plucking or strumming the strings. In some regions, musicians will also bang or strike the instrument while playing in order to produce a strong percussive sound.

The Waj

More formally known as a Kafir harp, the waj is a traditional arched harp, typically with either four or five strings, used by the Kafir people of northeastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Interestingly, although similar harps were historically widespread throughout Central Asia and India, the waj is not found anywhere else in Afghanistan today.

The instrument features two main components: the soundbox, made from a hollow piece of wood covered with a thick, stretched animal skin; and the stringholder, which is a curved branch positioned on top of the soundbox. Traditionally, the waj is played at social gatherings, usually as an accompaniment to epic storytelling or heroic songs.

The Nai

One of the few wind instruments used in Afghan music, the nai (or ney) is an end-blown flute of Persian origin. The instrument is little more than a hollow tube, usually made from a piece of hollow cane or a large reed, with five or six finger holes and one thumb hole (some nai also feature decorative painting or carving). Given the nai’s basic, simple design, it’s hardly surprising to learn that the instrument is one of the oldest still in use. It has been played continually for roughly 5,000 years.

The Ghichak

A very popular instrument in Afghanistan’s central and northern regions, the ghichak is a type of two-stringed fiddle that is played with a kaman (a horsehair bow). Distinct from many other traditional Afghan instruments which are made of wood or natural materials, the body of the ghichak is made from a large metal tin, which gives the instrument its characteristic sound.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Afghan Music.

Happily, although Afghanistan’s musical heritage suffered greatly during the country’s conflict years, traditional music is once again on the rise in Afghanistan. In recent years, a number of local and international organizations have launched programs aimed at reviving Afghanistan’s musical traditions and bringing back the use of traditional instruments.

For example, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Master-Apprentice Music Training Program sees hundreds of students learning to play traditional instruments under the tutelage of master musicians in Kabul and Herat. Likewise, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded in 2010 by musicologist Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, provides children and young teens with training in general academics and music, with a particular focus on traditional Afghan music.

Featured Image courtesy US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan