Category Archives: The Arts

Afghanistan as explained by Yeats’s poetry

A certain national narrative has taken shape around the events of the last decade in Afghanistan. The sentiments surrounding this narrative are expressed in familiar phrases in conversations by taxi drivers, day laborers, civil servants and civil society activists. These sentiments are about the Afghan sense of self and the delights and disappointments that Afghans have experienced over the last decade of statehood.

Living a full century in the past and half a world away, Yeats was surrounded by similar sentiments. He was an Irish nationalist and served two terms as an Irish senator. Among his poems – both political and non-political – one can find snippets that are apt commentary on Afghanistan today.

This is not least because, much like Afghanistan, his country, Ireland, also plunged into civil war right after gaining independence from British rule – and his people, the Irish, have a tough, warlike reputation, much like Afghans. This, and the two nations’ long and shared experience of violence, makes his poetry strikingly relevant to contemporary Afghanistan…and the seemingly timeless nature of his writings is a reminder that the literature of hope and despair and violence and war are more or less universal and timeless.

I am not a scholar of literature, but in this admittedly crude study, I list an expression of Afghan sentiment and then post an excerpt from Yeats’s poetry or prose that seems to address that sentiment.

Enjoy (and feel free to make your own contributions or corrections in the comments).

2014: the worst-case scenario

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

-‘The Second Coming’ was written right after World War I but still describes the sense of impending doom in Afghanistan.

And this:

…many that have been free to walk the hills and the bogs and the rushes will be sent to walk hard streets in far countries; many a good plan will be broken; many that have gathered money will not stay to spend it…

-‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan,’ the play from 1922 about the bloody Irish rebellion of 1798 against British rule. This passage could describe the displacement (internal and external) of Afghans due to violence, capital flight before 2014, and the government’s seemingly ill-fated plans to fix things.

The educated but indifferent younger generation crowded out by the older set of leaders who have questionable pasts

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The Second Coming

On the essence of the Afghan sense of self

Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.

-Quote frequently attributed to Yeats, but I couldn’t find the parent work that it is part of.

And:

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.

-‘Remorse for Intemperate Speech,’ a poem which, according to this book on Yeats’s poetry, “ascribes the ‘fanatic heart’ to the peculiarities of Ireland…[taking] account of Ireland’s furious politics and perennial land agitation” – two phenomenon not unknown in Afghanistan.

And:

There was a man whom Sorrow named his Friend,
And he, of his high comrade Sorrow dreaming,
Went walking with slow steps along the gleaming
And humming Sands, where windy surges wend:
And he called loudly to the stars to bend…

-‘The Sad Shepherd,’ describing the essential sadness of the Afghan heart, beset by tragedies and sorrows of generational violence.

And:

Having inherited a vigorous mind
From my old fathers, I must nourish dreams
And leave a woman and a man behind
As vigorous of mind, and yet it seems
Life scarce can cast a fragrance on the wind,

-‘My Descendants,’ the fourth meditation in ‘Meditations in Times of Civil War,’ speaks to the Afghan sense of inherited vigor and martial prowess…which can sometimes get lost between generations, effecting a generation of loose conviction and weak attachment to country and honor.

On the security industry: the policemen, soldiers, private guards and other gunmen that proliferate a poor nation at war:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds

-‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,’ written in 1919 about his friend who was an aviator fighting on the side of the British even as the Irish were fighting a war of independence against them. Kiltartan Cross may well be Kabul City, and his friend may well be an Afghan policeman who joined the force not out of conviction to protect or avenge but of the obligation to put food on the table for his family.

On Afghans being fed up with war and violence, and longing for peace and normalcy

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?

-‘Easter, 1916’ is a poem describing Yeats’s sentiments about the failed Irish uprising that took place that day against British rule. It speaks to the common Afghan sentiment about the toll and futility of continued violence.

On the human toll of Afghanistan being the ‘graveyard of empires’

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love; …

-‘The Stare’s Nest by My Window’ is the sixth meditation in ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ and describes the Irish civil war that broke out right after Ireland became independent from British rule. This poem speaks to the Afghan sentiment that the narrative of Afghans being a martial and fiercely independent race has been too costly to them.

Watching ‘The Patience Stone’ in Kabul

The cold Friday night was well suited for landi – the dried, preserved meat dish – most commonly served in the winter. Someone from my extended network of cousins had somehow procured an illegal copy of the movie on his thumb drive. So there was the landi delicacy, the movie, cards to play and an unceasing flow of green and black tea. The night was set.

The French-made film started with a deceptive simplicity, a calm that is so at odds with the typical Hollywood movie that aims to dazzle with action, graphics, sound, movement or a combination thereof. As the film went on, it was interspersed with scenes of war and destruction, but the screen adaptation of the book fell somewhere short of being impressive.

The principal actors, mostly Iranians, failed despite their best efforts to mimic the Dari accent. The screenwriters – I don’t know who they are – failed despite their best efforts to produce a genuine Dari screenplay. The use of Karzai-era Afghani in a scene supposedly depicting Jihad-era Afghanistan was a subtle but obvious indicator of how disconnected the filmmakers are from Afghanistan. The random kid with the kite – obligatory in most Afghan-themed films after The Kite Runner – was cliché and unconvincing.

I was focused on these details, but my cousins had other things to focus about the movie. It was raunchy, but everyone kind of knew to expect (and enjoy) that.

In one scene, the female lead’s soliloquy discusses Prophet Muhammad and his relationship with his beloved wife, Ayesha. This is where the first critical note came from the group. Someone said the filmmaker shouldn’t have gone there; it’s sacred space after all. Someone else retorted that the story wouldn’t have won any wards had it not been deliberately provocative.

In that way, the film had the typical European artistic irreverence to it. This “irreverent” attitude could not only offend Muslim sensibilities but also thoroughly anger Afghans because it appears to them as though the artist deliberately sets out to offend an entire people.

The female lead seems connected with her sexuality and is vocal about it in a way that’s taboo for Afghans to imagine – much less talk about or depict on screen. At one point, she reveals that her brother- and father-in-law forced themselves on her regularly when her husband was away on jihad; she also engages in sex for money with a young jihadi fighter and initiates him in the ways of love. She connects with her aunt, a prostitute, and reveals how she, an “infertile” woman, supposedly conceived her two daughters through sex with a “healer” in a dark room. At one point she asks her husband, who is in a vegetative state, what God has done for him after all the years of fighting for His sake?

Afghan familial relations are governed by a sense of pious honor. It should come as no surprise, then, that the movie’s rancid depiction of the family could elicit indignation and vehement protest once it premiers in Afghanistan (if it ever does). There’s no lack of constituency that the movie could offend: the mujahideen, the mullahs, the religious Afghans or, at the very least, the manly Afghan man who prides himself on the sacredness of the Afghan family and the superior purity of the Afghan society.

Protests against films and subsequent bans on those films are not new in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The precedent began with the Bollywood production, Kabul Express, which was banned after protests from Hazaras who felt offended by its portrayal of the ethnic group.

But perhaps because The Patience Stone does not have a cohesive ethnic or linguistic constituency, it will be met only with scoffs and righteous indignation. (The book is set “somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere,” but the movie doesn’t make that clear.)

None of the people in the audience with me seemed much troubled by the provocative aspect of the movie.

An interesting comment came from a wholly unexpected quarter. One of my cousins, in his 40s, had been a village mullah in the late 90s and early 2000s. Mullahs are expected to lead their congregations toward goodness and away from sin. This cousin launched into a think-out-loud session that yielded some interesting remarks.

“When I was a mullah, I condemned – or if within my powers, prohibited – people from watching things that even portrayed women without a headscarf. But now it has all become so common that any such objection from me will make very little sense,” he said.

“Maybe because uncovered female hair and other things are so common now, people don’t feel carnal pleasure seeing them on TV,” he continued.

“And maybe because people don’t derive pleasure, it’s not a sin to watch these things.”

He was a mullah when the Taliban were in power (he didn’t have any connections with them). With these comments, he was stepping well beyond the limits of what is proper for mullahs and adopts views that are openly contrarian and blasphemous by the standards of the conservative religious orthodoxy.

Afghans and some foreign observers claim that Afghanistan is a vastly different country now than it was under the Taliban. Few of these observers can tangibly explain exactly what they mean by this change apart from pointing to the number of students in school, the proliferation of TV channels and the improved road networks.

But, as this mullah’s comments indicate, it’s the evolution in thinking and expectations that has made Afghanistan such a different place now than it was a mere 10 years ago.

And that is a truly sustainable development that will outlast the international community.