Letters From Afghanistan Reveal Elegant Heritage

Library Offers Look Into Afghan Culture

Posted February 24, 2010 at 4:22pm

Nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan has seared into America’s consciousness stunning images of explosions among jutting auburn peaks and humble turban-clad peasants nursing their wounded. Still, for most of us, the struggle seems a world away.

For Afghans, though, those images are reality. But their world, their culture, is much more than just the fighting. And perhaps because this seems long forgotten, they document their lives in droves of letters they send to the popular short-wave radio station, Radio Free Afghanistan, locally called Radio Azadi.

A selection of these letters is now on display at the Library of Congress as part of an exhibit called “Voices From Afghanistan.”

Americans “will learn the human face of the Afghans,” said Akbar Ayazi, Radio Azadi’s director. “The Afghan face is not only the terrorism, the violence.”

Because of an electricity shortage that prohibits widespread television use, about half of the country’s adult population — nearly 10 million people — tunes in to Radio Azadi to hear news, information and music, Ayazi said. The letters illuminate their everyday lives and also signify a rich culture that holds dear the traditional art of being a scribe.

“Thirty years of war has not prevented the people from the tradition of writing, literacy, poetry, art and learning,” said Ayazi, who was born in Afghanistan and is now a U.S. citizen.

Though written mostly within the past few years, the letters adhere to these centuries-old Afghan traditions in both form and content. The authors include poetry, philosophical statements, folkloric wisdom and information about health before moving on to descriptions of their daily lives.

“You need to do it to show you’re a cultured individual,” said Christopher Murphy, head of the Library’s Near East section. “Manners are really important.”

One letter, written on behalf of several Afghans by the scribe Najib Hamraz, proclaims, “Oh Lord, awaken us from our state of ignorance/Dazed and proud we are, bring us to our senses/Til when we remain in a state of stupor and self-indulgence/Arise and serve God every dawn.”

Those with stomachaches, reads another, “should eat fresh yogurt and sweets and avoid all carbonated drinks because they are acidic.”

An Afghan prisoner said he has listened while interred for more than 10 years at a Pakistani prison. He requests that Radio Azadi invite Afghan officials on air and make his plight known — then he adds that he’d like to hear a song by Sarfaraz.

Another despondent Afghan writes: “How can I request a song when I am starving to death? We need mercy and help — so please try to discuss our problems further with government officials.”

The letters also follow long-held traditions of Middle Eastern calligraphy. Often they are rolled into scrolls or shaped to resemble an accordion, another classical letter format.

Most include gorgeous ornate borders and illustrations of flowers or birds. Next to the contemporary letters, custodians have placed 16th- or 18th-century manuscripts to demonstrate the similarities. The relationship is undeniable, though the recent letters are often written on glossy fax paper or printer paper.

“Despite 30 years of chaos and war, the fundamental concepts of beauty have not been in any way suppressed,” Murphy said. “The medium has changed, but culturally it’s very much the same.”

More recent letters have been sent via e-mail. But Afghans have transferred the traditional art into the digital. One letter, a clear product of Photoshop, still incorporates the flower and bird motifs.

“These young people want to be part of the global community. It shows that people want modern life and technology, and they want to communicate instantly with the world,” Ayazi said. “But the more the young generation goes into technology, the less they’re going to write.”

And so in some ways, this is exhibit is also a window not only into Afghan culture, but also into the near-extinct art of letter-writing and one of its last frontiers.

But all is not lost on the young generation: The exhibit includes a beautifully produced video about two young Afghan villagers — 19 and 20 years old — who created a 130-foot-long scroll and traveled four hours to Kabul just to deliver it. That scroll is on display. The exhibit also presents clips of real Radio Azadi broadcasts.

The exhibit is free and open to the public and will be on display until May 8.