My dream with journalism is to travel to the frontiers and send their stories to breakfast tables thousands of miles away. Join me for my first chapter, in Afghanistan, summer 2006. These are my letters to you.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Herat: from Sharia to Shakespeare

"These beautiful buildings may be destroyed by rain or by sun,
but I have built a palace of poetry which will never be damaged."
Ferdowsi, Shahnameh

If you stand in one of the towers of Herat's thousand-year-old citadel you have a commanding view over the city that once, in terms of culture and the arts, knew no equal. The mud and straw houses still stretch to the city's limits; small lines of light and shadow etched into the sand. The bazaar below still teems with people buying spices, vegetables and carpets, and occasionally slipping from the blazing summer sun to drink chai under the shade of a pine tree.

The scene can't be much different than if Tamerlane were standing beside you, looking out over his glorious capital, 700 years ago.

The citadel has seen the rise and fall of a thousand years' worth of Central Asian empires. Yet, even a building as old as this still has its firsts. Last Saturday, 250 people gathered within its walls to watch something that until very recently would have been unthinkable - a performance of Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost," translated into Dari.

Amidst the jaw-dropping set of the citadel's towering ramparts, a troupe of talented Afghans put on the show, suitably filled with witty Dari couplets, humour and heartache. And for a city still emerging from the Taliban's war on the arts, the result was a production as political as it was cultural.

In the five years the Taliban ruled Herat, they whitewashed paintings, banned music and dancing and outlawed the celebration of the Persian new year, Nawroz. Herat could only stand and watch as its vibrant artistic legacy was veiled and locked away. The citadel's massive walls were used instead to launch mortars on the city.

Beginning with the Soviet invasion and ending with the fall of the Taliban, in the past 25 years, Herat has been rocked by war that has destroyed more of the city than even Genghis Khan and his hordes were capable. As a result, the citadel - itself an old caravan serai once on the Silk Road - has gone largely unexcavated. Modern warfare has added its own artifacts. Today, broken pieces of glazed pottery from the city's glory days catch the midday sun alongside bullet shells of all sizes.

From the citadel tower you can also see the Masjid Jomeh, or Friday Mosque, which holds within its towering azure-tiled walls some of the only squre meters of this country that haven't been bombed to pieces in the past 25 years of fighting. The place resonates with peace. There men of all ages read scriptures from the Koran, while pacing the cool marbled floor underneath lofty arches. It doesn't take more than a breath in this place to be knocked flat by its depth of history.

And yet, as the sun cast the citadel's walls in gold and the actors and actresses belted their lines from a stage of carpets, all was not well in our fair scene. The surprise of a bold performance by women and liberal view as to what is accepted in Islam divided the opinions of the crowd. Upon seeing the actresses remove their veils and the actors dance a scene without shirts, the Minister of Education stood up and left. An NGO worker named Mohammed said that the minister was a close friend of the former Herat governor Ismael Khan, a conservative warlord who still wields great power in the city.

Mohammed is worried about the survival of the arts in Afghanistan.

"It is not enough to have magnificent buildings, or a great previous leader," he said. "We have to do new things. Education is the key, you have to educate people to be ready for these things."

Due to careful advertising in girls' schools and newly-formed women's unions, of the 250 in the audience, approximately 40 percent were women. One, dressed in a sky-blue burqa, told the organizer of the performance that she was overjoyed by the theatre.

"This is the first time a woman has been on stage in Herat," she said in fluent English. "Now more will follow, because it won't be taboo anymore."

If education is needed, Afghans have been robbed of it by ceaseless war and draconian leadership. Now in this precarious peace may be the chance to rebuild the traditions of arts and literature. A major development goal in Afghanistan is to improve the country's appalling literacy rates. As the figures stand now, 80 percent of women and 50 percent of men cannot read or write.

But sitting with the actors in a city park at midnight, drinking chai and smoking a hookah, I realized that statistics don't account for everything. As we sat, the actors told jokes and stories, laughing at life, the hardships they had lived through and the current situation of their country. Then two of them brushed off their hands for a bout of shaer jangi, or 'poetry war.' One would recite a perfectly metered couplet, leaving the other to return one starting with the letter that the previous ended on. It was sheer magic. We shared the cool night air with Hafez, Rumi and Ferdowsi. There was no end to the number of verses in these actor's heads. With an oral history such as this, what does literacy mean, anyway? Many people their age in the West are reading college textbooks, and aren't half as literate. I was left wondering what this country would be like if only an export of poetry could account for a GDP.


Blogger Traut said...

NY Times quality writing!!

12:05 PM

Blogger Will Tucker said...

Sounds like you are having an excellent time- I am so jealous as I sit here in wet leafy Surrey with nothing more exciting than some appalling English football and weekends seeing Liz to break otherwise monotonous home life! Never mind, masters next year and then earn some money for the next round of traveling- I might have to quiz you on traveling in India once you are done in Afghanistan (any recommendations for good Indian books?) Anyway really glad you are keeping the updates coming in; always makes for a delicious break from the bland local news. I’ve got the Amnesty International Media Awards coming up tomorrow- I will be sure to point anyone I meet your way! Stay well mate I’ll raise you a glass of finest British ale next time I’m supping some!

Will Tucker

7:18 AM


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