Sooner Mysticicm than Jihad

Atiq Rahimi had written books that nobody was interested in. Then came September 11, and – all of a sudden – the man in exile was the literary voice of Afghanistan. A portrait by Brigitte Neumann

Atiq Rahimi left Afghanistan in 1984, at the age of 22. He was a young man from a wealthy and educated family – his mother a teacher, his father Governor of the Panjir Valley under the monarchy of Zahir Shah. After fleeing from the Russians, the Communists and the threat of military service, he found refuge in Pakistan before moving on to France.

In Paris, he matriculated at the Sorbonne, where he learned to make documentary films. Before taking up filmmaking, Rahimi had spent years writing books no-one appeared interested in reading. Then came September 11th, 2001… and suddenly, Rahimi was the literary voice of Afghanistan.

His two books, "Earth and Ashes" and "Love and War" (the latter not yet available in English), deal with the following question: What does "survival" mean to a man who has made the acquaintance of war – and been left behind by it? Rahimi answers the question by quoting Nietzsche: "We have art so that we don't have to die of the truth."

Rahimi: "Pain is a bomb!"

In his first novel, "Earth and Ashes", which remained untranslated for years, he writes of the suffering caused by war: "Either pain melts and flows from the eyes, or it becomes a dagger and lies on the tongue, or it turns into a bomb – a bomb that explodes one day, and shatters you"

His father, he says, always referred to his homeland as "Fghanistan". When one drops the "A" at the beginning, the word that's left means "the land of complaints and screams". To Rahimi, however, Afghanistan is "a land of uncanny silence: walking through the streets of Kabul, you see people with angelic faces, enraptured expressions and wonderful smiles. You think, 'It can't be possible that this is a warlike people!' But when you look into their hearts, you can feel that they're lost, you can sense their despair and violence.

"We Afghans are a taciturn people; we cherish our suffering and take good care of it. It would hurt too much to find words for our weakness and powerlessness; so we remain silent, out of pride or shame. And over and over again, all these blocked-up feelings are released in acts of violence; for when there's no mourning, all you have left is revenge."

Culture provides an emotional anchor

Nonetheless; this "cultural refugee" (as Rahimi describes himself) remains optimistic about his country's future. "More and more intellectuals are returning, from Pakistan and Iran. At the moment, there are 150 publications on the market in Afghanistan. And an enormous élan can be felt amongst the young generation, an incredibly strong urge to build something up, to create. Of course, the warlords continue to make threats and carry out attacks; but this is a sign that their power is on the wane. They're in a panic, for they can feel that their time is coming to an end."

Rahimi himself recently inaugurated a cultural centre in Kabul: "The moment Afghans have a roof over their heads and something to eat, but no cultural identity to hold on to, we will inevitably experience the next political crisis." He's also looking forward to soon start work on the film adaptation of his successful first novel, "Earth and Ashes". Filming will take place in Kabul, but Rahimi has no desire to return to Afghanistan for good. "To live there, I'd have to be able to be the way I am now in Europe: free in my thoughts, free to write as I please, accepted as the person I am."

Sooner mysticism than Jihad

For his home region, the 41-year-old writer would like to see the return of a sensuous Islam close to Sufism. "Up until the 18th century, there was a mystical Islam that had nothing to do with this constant cry of, 'Let's have another Jihad'. In Afghanistan – in Central Asia – Islam has a very particular basis: it’s rooted in Buddhism, and in Zoroastrianism, named after Zarathustra, the man who founded the religion in ancient Iran.

"In the mystical teachings of Zarathustra, God is referred to as a woman, and religion is a highly erotic affair. In those days, everything was obviously very feminine – too feminine, perhaps. Maybe that's why revenge had to be taken in the end. Yes, men are frightened of women; they always have been."

Brigitte Neumann

© Deutsche Welle/ 2003

Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan