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

7 Fun Facts about the Most Popular Beverage in Afghanistan

Few experiences are more quintessentially Afghan than the simple act of drinking tea. Black or green, plain or sweet, tea is widely (though unofficially) recognized as the national beverage of Afghanistan due to the important role it plays in daily life all over the country.

Feeling thirsty yet? Read on to learn some fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s most popular drink.

Afghans drink a lot of tea.

Believe it or not, Afghans drink more tea than anyone else in the world! According to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Afghanistan imported 299 million pounds of tea in 2012. This makes Afghanistan the world’s third largest importer of tea, surpassed only by Russia (close to 400 million pounds) and the UK (319 million pounds).

However, when you look at how many pounds of tea were imported per capita, Afghanistan takes the lead by an impressive margin, having imported nearly 10 pounds of tea per person, which is enough to brew over 1,500 cups of tea (by comparison, the UK imported just over five pounds per person). In other words, Afghanistan imports enough tea for every Afghan to drink four or five cups daily all year round!

Tea is strongly linked with Afghan hospitality.

One of the reasons why so much tea is consumed in Afghanistan is that the beverage is an essential element of Afghan hospitality. Afghans are an extremely hospitable people, and treating guests with generosity and honor is considered to be a reflection of personal reputation. Offering tea is one of the most important ways that this hospitality is demonstrated.

If you are ever a guest in an Afghan home, you will always be offered tea: this is a sign of the host’s respect for you, just as your acceptance of the offer is a sign of your respect for your host. You can then expect to have your cup constantly refilled throughout your visit. To politely signal to your host that you have had enough, you can turn your cup upside down, or you can cover it with your hand and thank them.

Tea can be made and served in a variety of vessels.

In many businesses and households, tea is brewed in large traditional kettles or urns known as samovars: these vessels keep a large supply of tea hot and ready all day. As for serving, different types of cups may be used depending on where you are.

If you are in an urban household, such as a home in Kabul, your tea may be served in Western style teacups. In other places, vessels used to serve tea include small, short glasses called istakhan, or porcelain bowls without handles, known as piala, that are similar to Chinese tea bowls.

Tea can be sweetened or unsweetened.

In Afghanistan, tea is drunk with and without sugar, and you will usually be served both sweetened and unsweetened tea as a guest in an Afghan home. For example, it is a typical Afghan custom for the first cup of tea offered to a guest to be heavily sweetened: this sweet tea is known as chai shireen, and the more sugar the cup contains, the greater the honor shown to the guest.

It’s then usual for the next cup of tea to be served without sugar; this plain tea is called chai talkh. When having tea in their own homes or in cafes, Afghans often dip lumps of sugar called qand in their tea, and then hold these lumps in their mouths as they sip rather than placing them directly in the cup.

Tea is often served with particular foods.

In addition to being offered tea in an Afghan home, you will also be offered food, usually the best that the household has to offer. Some typical foods that are served with tea when entertaining guests include shirnee, which are sweet candies that are similar to toffee; noql, which are sugar-coated almonds, pistachios, or chickpeas; and kulcha, which are biscuits or pastries that may be made at home or purchased from local bakeries.

A special kind of tea is prepared for formal occasions.

While ordinary green and black tea is consumed on a daily basis in Afghanistan, formal occasions often involve the preparation of a special kind of tea known as qymaq chai. To make this tea, green tea is brewed, and then bicarbonate of soda is added, which turns the tea a dark red color. To finish the tea, milk and sugar are added, and the beverage becomes purple-pink in color. Qymaq chai has a strong, rich taste, and is often prepared for events such as engagements and weddings.

You can make one of the most popular kinds of Afghan tea at home (kahwah tea).

The most popular kind of everyday tea consumed in Afghanistan is known as kahwah tea, and it’s easy to make at home, wherever you are. It’s a traditional combination of green tea, cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron, and every family will usually have their own version of the recipe. To make it yourself, add the spices to water and bring to a boil; then add the green tea and let steep. To serve, sweeten with either sugar or honey.