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Afghan poets find inspiration in exile, using art to channel their pain


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Judy Woodruff: Poetry has a special place in the heart of Afghans. It has played a prominent role from the country's ancient history to its present day.

But when the Taliban took over, many of Afghanistan's most popular poets had to flee. They are now figuring out how to find inspiration in exile.

Ali Rogin talked to several masters of the art for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Ali Rogin: In post-Taliban Afghanistan, the new constitution was written in prose. But the idea of the new Afghanistan, peaceful, pluralistic and democratic, was cloaked in poetry, starting with the lyrics of the new national anthem written in 2006.

Abdul Bari Jahani, Author, Afghan National Anthem: This is Afghanistan. And this is the honor of every Afghan. This is the home of the soul. And this is the home of the peace.

Ali Rogin: It's such a hopeful message.

Abdul Bari Jahani: Thank you.

Ali Rogin: Was that intentional?

Abdul Bari Jahani: Yes.

Ali Rogin: Abdul Bari Jahani is one of Afghanistan's most prominent contemporary poets. He's spent most of his adult life in the United States, fleeing Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Since then, he's wielded his most powerful weapons, his pen and his voice.

Abdul Bari Jahani: This was -- all the artists and the poets and the writers were doing their part in the jihad or in the -- in fighting against occupiers. In the same role, deeply against the civil war after the Soviet withdrawal, poets were opposed to the Taliban too.

Ali Rogin: Above all, Jahani wrote about the need for Afghans of all ethnicities to unite, a theme that the then new President Hamid Karzai wanted to promote in the new anthem.

Abdul Bari Jahani: It's about the pride we have taken in our country, in our history, in our -- our present.

Ali Rogin: Karzai's choice of a well-known Pashto-language poet was also deliberate. Poetry is central to Afghanistan's past and present, not just as a storytelling method, but as part of the story.

One of the most famous examples, Malalai of Maiwand, the namesake of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. In 1880, Afghans were fighting their second war against the British. During the battle of Maiwand, the soldiers grew demoralized. Malala roused them with a stirring short poem in the Pashto language known as a landay.

Person: "Young love. If you do not fall in a Battle of Maiwand, by God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame."

These types of verses, usually written by women, are what drew Shafiqa Khpalwak to poetry.

Shafiqa Khpalwak, Poet: It's a way of resistance for women. It has been throughout the history against patriarchy.

Ali Rogin: But patriarchy was part of the Taliban. When it came to power in the mid-1990s, women were largely erased from public life.

So too were modern music and poetry, except for the Taliban's own, which fixated on war and martyrdom. When the Taliban fell in early 2002, Khpalwak was 8 years old. As a student and poet, she flourished. In 2014, Khpalwak recited a poem at the presidential palace, paying tribute to another symbol of Afghan national unity, the flag.

Shafiqa Khpalwak: I kind of glorified the flag as the flag of a land where there was love, it is free, it is prosperous, it is flourishing, it is youth, it is beautiful.

The Taliban Web site wrote about that, that this is a very erotic poem, and she actually disrespected the Afghan flag.

Ali Rogin: The poem, "My Flag Is Made of Colors," became a surprise hit, catapulting Khpalwak to fame.

Shafiqa Khpalwak: I was not expecting that it would go that viral.

I think it was one of the most important events of my life.

Ali Rogin: In those years, the poetry scene that Khpalwak was part of embodied modern Afghanistan. Men and women took part in sher jangi, a traditional game that's a mix between a poetry slam and a rap battle, like this one Kabul University in May 2021.

Just three months later, all of those forms of expression and the drive for gender equality were lost when the Taliban took over Kabul and the Americans withdrew. Khpalwak escaped Afghanistan and is now in Canada. One year on, she feels no more settled.

Shafiqa Khpalwak: I think I'm not only exiled from my country, but I'm exiled from myself.

Ali Rogin: For now, she has put down her pen.

Shafiqa Khpalwak: This grief is so -- it's like an ocean. It's drowning me. And I don't know how to swim.

Ali Rogin: Sometimes, though, grief inspires, as it did for poet and singer Goodar Zazai. Now living in Pakistan, he wrote "Akh Watan Watan," "Oh, Homeland," after celebrating his first Eid holiday away from loved ones.

Goodar Zazai, Musician: We had lost our homeland. So, in a very disturbed and crying state, I wrote the poem "Akh Watan Watan," and then I was able to sing it with music.

Ali Rogin: Back under Taliban rule, popular music is once again considered sinful.

Jahani's national anthem no longer plays, nor does the tricolor flag fly. But Jahani says that's just Afghan history running its course.

Abdul Bari Jahani: This is the luck of the -- of the Afghans. Whichever party comes to power, they change the flag, they change the coins, they change the banknotes, they change the constitution.

Ali Rogin: What remains is the desire for knowledge and freedom. Some women have opened unofficial schools to teach girls beyond grade six, when the Taliban says they must stop learning.

And a favorite act of public protest, gathering to read.

Do you believe that will continue, despite the Taliban being in power again?

Shafiqa Khpalwak: Oh, yes, of course. This is how we survive. This is how we survive. And we will survive.

Goodar Zazai: Those who think they can destroy our identity, culture and music by removing artists and poets should think again. No one can take Afghanistan from us. And each of us can work for our people in our professions from any corner of the world.

Ali Rogin: The Taliban may have reconquered the country, but, in Afghanistan, history shows that the pen always outlives the sword.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ali Rogin.

Judy Woodruff: It's an enduring reminder the pen does outlive the sword.

Thank you, Ali.

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