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Afghan Cultural Expressions: Resilience In Face Of Adversity – OpEd


By Chayanika Saxena

Inspired by an article that I recently read on the evolution of music of Afghanistan, I thought that maybe it is time to talk about how cultural expressions can become both the carriers of social, political and economic undercurrents in Afghanistan and also the very mediums to escape the turmoil that accompany them.

The landscape of cultural expressions hosted by Afghanistan is vividly variegated, corresponding significantly with the social base that it contains within its boundaries making it essentially political in its nature. Flowing out of the many social cleavages that the country has, cultural expressions in Afghanistan come to assume many formats that may be both community specific or generic in their usage and appeal. Right from weaving carpets, to composing poetry; from pottery to orchestras, and even ballads, there is no dearth of artistic expression in Afghanistan. In fact, what makes these expressions more powerful over the toiling times in which they originate is that they are at once embedded in these tiring times and at the same time, they seek to transcend it. Giving an outlet to people’s exasperation with the present times as also their expectations from a future they imagine, these cultural crucibles hold those emotions that cannot be captured in ivory-tower debates on Afghanistan.

Coming in many formats, that one cultural expression that has managed to grab a lot of attention is the art graffiti painted on the high walls that have been erected through the streets of Kabul ostensibly to protect the ones staying behind them. Interestingly, words such as ‘residences, offices’ and the like, which are used in common practices as signposts of social units have been replaced with the word ‘compound’ in Afghanistan. Be it the Indian Embassy or a regular workspace, the word ‘compound’ litters the social language in Afghanistan indicating the pallid homogeneity that has been enforced on the capital city (and many provincial capitals in the country) out of extreme insecurity and fear for life. Serving as reminders of just how unsafe Kabul can be, the Art Lords of Kabul try to pierce through the dense fog of insecurity these walls come to testify to by drawing graffiti with social and political messages painted on them.

While painting on these walls comes with great risk since it is the ‘compounds’ behind them that are often chosen as targets for violent, fatal strikes by militants, the Art Lords of Kabul have managed to add color to a city that had once been at the cross-roads of civilizational exchanges, but which today is considered to be one of the dangerous spots in the world. From messages that are inscribed in letters on issues such as education, corruption to impactful images of Gandhi, Abdul Gaffar Khan, and even a pair of eyes with a piercing gaze, these colored renditions of some of the pressing concerns and demands of the people of Afghanistan make their point without getting smeared in actual politics that is steeped in violent rivalries, and tall, unfulfilled promises.

Poetry is another cultural expression that has managed to capture the many shades of Afghanistan- right from gender-related misery to the invasion of Afghanistan by US. Thriving in variety much like the emotions it provides expression to; poetry in Afghanistan comes in many shapes and sizes. Landays, which are similar to Japanese Haikus, have been one such powerful medium that have expressed what are generally deemed as inexpressible for the social censorship that surrounds them. Used by Pakhtun women predominantly, and often in a clandestine manner, these not-so-often rhyming prose are built around themes such as child marriage, failed cultivation, Taliban, unrequited love, and bombs and grenades to name a few. Taking these issues into a more modern realm, rapping is being increasingly used in Afghanistan for conversing on concerns that are otherwise hushed in Afghanistan’s tight fisted society. A rap on the damning practice of bride-price and child marriage by a 16-year old girl from the western province of Herat had recently made headlines, and had in fact, opened the grand Women in the World conference.

Social media too has been taken to expressing the atmosphere of discontent that shrouds the country courtesy the rise of political satire in Afghanistan. Taking a comical dig at the hard times so as to blunt their blow, parodies have become quite a rage in the country and so much as so that a satirical social page on Facebook- Kabul Taxi – was forced to call it close for ‘hurting the sentiments’ of the political class. Afghan Onion is another outlet that voices its angst against the present state of affairs by giving it a humorous twist. In fact, the mainstream media in Afghanistan too has caught up to the satire frenzy, with the country’s widest circulated online daily, Hasht-e-Sobh (‘8 AM’) dedicating a column to such satirical uploads on a day-to-day basis.

Interestingly, none of the cultural mediums that have been mentioned above have been modern-day interventions in Afghanistan; some of them, such as poetry and art have been around for ages. Musical gatherings, poetry recitations had been dominant forms of recreation in the medieval times, with their political intonations often doubling them as desirable mediums for communicating grievances and expectations to those in power. Even during the Communist coup and Soviet invasion that followed through the decade between 1979 and 1989, music was specifically employed with the intention of spreading the ideas that were inherent to the political regime of the time. Under the Taliban too, not all formats of music were banned. While playing of instruments in specific was outlawed as ‘un-Islamic’ practice, unaccompanied music was permitted by and large by a regime that had been infamous for its archaic laws and barbaric dismissal of fundamental human rights. In fact, Taliban often used rhymes and songs for entertainment as well as for the promotion of their ideas on radio.

Political satire too did not come about in Afghanistan with the jolly Americans. Rather, with the granting of ‘freedom of expression’ to Afghans post the promulgation of the 1964 constitution, political satire – written, visual or otherwise – became a staple diet for many in the urban political centers. For instance, a magazine dedicated to satire called ‘Shokhak’ (naughty) had the political and administrative classes of then as its humor-target, with even the king not being spared.

Proliferating in variety, Afghanistan’s expressions’ of its political, economic and social undercurrents have assumed many creative and imaginative formats. While the sordid conditions that prevail in the country on various counts often takes the spotlight away from these metaphors, but they have not been able to undermine the resilience they show in the face of precarity that seems to have become a by-name for this South Asian nation.

*Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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