Unspeakable Suffering: How Afghan War Novels Express 40 Years of Conflict
Hizbullah Khan explores how fiction is helping the victims of Afghanistan’s decades of war to face up to the past.
Sitting on a prayer rug, Khush Bakht, a 53-year-old widowed mother, reads a Zanmargai novel and weeps because she thinks that it is a real story written about her son. Whenever memories of her dead son come to mind and stop her sleeping, Bakht begins reading this popular Afghan genre about suicide bombers.
“When I feel desperate, I start reading novels,” she told Byline Times. “It seems as if I’m talking with my son. The novelist writes about all those ideas that I had discussed with him. Only novelists write the extreme pains of women who have lost their young sons.”
Bakht’s 19-year-old son Mujeeb Yar was working on their land in the Paghman district of Afghanistan and looking after the home as a guardian when he was suddenly inspired by a cleric in February 2017. He then left work and disappeared from the home for 22 days.
In the universities, a large number of students read war novels because there are no other stories in the curriculum about the horrific situations we frequently face.Meena Noori
He spent those days with the Taliban. When he returned home, Yar was completely changed.
Yar refused to marry, although he had collected half of the money – $4,500 – for the dowry for the family of his bride-to-be. He told his mother that he would fight in the path of God and wanted to become a martyr. After martyrdom, he would go to heaven where he would receive 72 Hoori – beautiful maidens promised in paradise.
After spending six days at home, Yar went to his mother for a final farewell. “I am leaving this ruined world, sacrificing my life for a great cause and going away from you and my siblings till doomsday,” he told his mother.
Khush Bakht was so astonished she couldn’t reply for a while, but then said she would permit him to leave if he answered her questions: “For whom you are leaving this old widow mother? For whom you are leaving your five siblings and one ill brother? For whom you are leaving your fiancé?”
Yar answered only one question. He was leaving his fiancé for the maidens in paradise and didn’t need marriage in a life full of sorrows.
Bakht protested: “Don’t kill your widowed mother. As a widow, it was so hard to bring you up. When you were a child, I didn’t eat so I could give food to you,” she cried. “You are our only breadwinner; your small brothers and sisters will die of starvation.”
The son replied that he wanted to go on the right path and no one could stop him. She tried to prevent him from leaving. “I’ll never forgive you,” she said. “My son, for God’s sake, don’t go!” But, Khush Bakht’s son ran away.
After 13 days, Yar returned home in a coffin. He was killed while fighting with the Afghan army in Paghman.
“Pangs of My Heart”
After 40 years of recurrent conflict and devastation, a tradition of war novels has developed in Afghanistan and attracted a large devoted readership, especially among victims as they describe the harsh miseries of war, losing entire families, disease, displacement, and destruction of homes.
Aryan Mohsini, an employee of the Kabul University Library, says more than 80% of its readers read novels written about the Afghan wars. He estimates that, since the Saur Revolution of 1978, which eventually led to the Soviet invasion, almost 400 books have been written about the ensuing decades of civil war, the Taliban Government, and then the ‘War against Terror’.
Avid readers of war novels fall into two types of people. Firstly, the victims who lost their loved ones and seek similar tragic tales as happened to them in the novels. Secondly, readers who want to explore the unprecedented and unbelievable stories that occurred across the country in the last four decades.
When I feel desperate, I start reading novels. It seems as if I’m talking with my son.Khush Bakht
Dr Liaqt Taban, a novelist who wrote about the various diseases of war, believes that writing novels is the most effective ways to reveal and relive the traumas of the past.
“Afghanistan has suffered four decades of non-stop war with millions of casualties,” Taban says. “Almost every Afghan is a victim of war physically, psychologically and economically. The issues of Afghanistan are completely different from the rest of the world. That is why the themes of our novels different from the rest of the world. We write about our issues.”
Meena Noori, studying for her masters at the English department at Kabul University, is a survivor of a bomb attack in Kabul in 2017 which killed her younger brother. She says it is natural for people to take an interest in those books which describe their own issues.
“For me, reading novels is a way of expressing pangs of my heart. Whenever I get free time, I read Qomandaan, Zanmargai, and six other types of novels,” Noori told Byline Times. “These eight genres completely describe my own story.”
Among the novels, the Zanmargai, Qomandaan and Kabul Rang Dai are the favourites of victims like Khush Bakht and Mena Noori. The Zanmargai genre looks at the brainwashing of youth and preparing them for suicide attacks and violent Jihad. The Qomandaan genre focuses on the humiliation of Afghan women as refugees, and other novels describe other harsh aspects of recent histories.
“In the universities, a large number of students read war novels because there are no other stories in the curriculum about the horrific situations we frequently face,” Noori says.
While there are English novels in the libraries and bookshops, they do not really grab the attention of Afghans. “English novelists write about the issues of developed societies,” Noori explains. “Those novelists are not able to write about Afghanistan if they didn’t spend time here and see the ordeals of Afghans.”
Hizbullah Khan is a freelance journalist based in Kabul who writes about war and cultural issues.