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Context and Culture

AAN Obituary: Muhammad Azam Rahnaward Zaryab, pioneering Afghan writer and guardian of the Persian language

Thomas Ruttig 13 min

One of Afghanistan’s most influential and prolific writers died in a Kabul hospital 40 days ago on 11 December 2020. Born in Kabul in 1944, Zaryab wrote some of the first modern Afghan novels, and his contributions to Afghanistan’s literature inspired a new generation of Afghan writers. In Afghanistan’s post-Taleban media scene, the celebrated author was widely regarded as the authority on the Persian language. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig re-visited some of his work; especially the short stories in which he explored the frailties of the human condition (with input from Roxanna Shapour). 

Leading Afghan novelist and story writer, late Rahnaward Zaryab (1944-2020). Photo: Tolo.

A longing for ‘old Kabul’

Muhammad Azam Rahnaward Zaryab was widely considered a giant in the field of modern Afghan literature. The London-based Independent Farsi called him the “towering citadel of the Persian language.” Kabul Now named him “Kabul’s inspiring storyteller.” Acclaimed Afghan writer, Atiq Rahimi (author of the novels Earth and Ashes and The Patience Stone) said that generations of Afghans to come would follow in his footsteps. He was quoted by the BBC, saying: “In the realm of our literature and letters he was pioneer, guide, and companion.” In his message of condolence, Iran’s minister of culture Abbas Salehi, using the honorific title, ustad (master), said: “Ustad Zaryab’s stature transcended the geography of his birthplace, he was celebrated in the vast Persian speaking world, among the people of culture and art. His work, especially in the field of fiction, is world-renowned and will be his enduring legacy.” The embassy of Tajikistan also posted a statement on its website. 

Born in 1944 in Kabul’s Rika Khana neighbourhood, one of three children, to a middle-class family, Zaryab attended the prestigious Habibia High School, earned a bachelor’s in journalism from Kabul University and a master’s degree from South Wales University. He returned to Afghanistan in 1972, and for the next decade, worked as a journalist for several newspapers and magazines, including as a crime reporter for Zhwandun (Life). A prolific writer in Dari and Pashto, he penned more than 100 short stories and several novels. At the time, novel writing was a relatively new genre in Central Asia, including Afghanistan. He wrote his first short stories when he was still in school. His last novel, A Badakhshani Woman, is unfinished. While it is not easy for Afghan readers to find books in the country’s fragmented book market, which lacks a centralised book registry and a mechanism for submitting copies to central libraries, some of his ten or so story collections went into multiple printing runs. [1]Before the wars that began in the late 1970s, the state-owned Baihaqi Publishing House printed and distributed inexpensive books through its own sales pavilions (in Kabul, one was close to the … Continue reading

Many of Zaryab’s short stories are evocative of his beloved Kabul in the pre-war years – a time he cherished and the loss of which he lamented dearly. This passage from “The Purple Bangles,” a short story the author found in an undated and possibly pirated collection printed in English in Kabul, could easily be autobiographical (author’s translation from German):

Do you know what “street urchin” meant in our street?

Well, I’ll tell you. A “street urchin” was an ill-mannered and insolent boy who should be avoided. And I was one of the street urchins. Altogether, there were 10 or 12 of us. 15 to 16 years old. We were always together. The neighbours didn’t let their sons talk to us. They told them:

“Be careful, don’t play with these street urchins!”

And we, the street urchins, were in league.

Being “street urchins” had bound us to one another. We were partners and allies, and the “decent boys” were scared stiff of us. Many of us didn’t go to school at all, and for the few who did, it took them two or three years to finish each class. 

Our families were also outraged by us. Each day, one or two of us left their houses black and blue after a good thrashing. (…)

We had specific pastimes for specific seasons. In spring, we played “top danda.” [2]Top danda is a bat and ball game somewhat similar to baseball or cricket (see herehere and watch a game here). People crossed our makeshift playground with caution. Occasionally, our ball would hit them by mistake, or on purpose, in the back of their head. We would burst into laughter while the passers-by quickened their pace.

“Yes, it is autobiographical,” Sayed Haschmatullah Hosseini, an Afghan literary scholar living in Germany, confirmed to AAN. Hosseini, a classmate of Zaryab’s at Kabul University, recalls a time when, in his youth, Rahnaward Zaryab was a pahlawan, a wrestler, and a bit of a ruffian. 

A 2015 New York Times portrait by Mujib Mashal, which was widely shared on social media after his death, painted Zaryab as a reclusive man in his final years, lost in the past and consumed by “old memories of Kabul, a capital city long transformed by war and money.” 

Speaking to Mashal, Zaryab recalls walking along the Kabul River as a child: “It had beautiful, clear water at the time (…) Fishermen would fish with nets, not hooks. I would spend all my day along this river,” – a description that is difficult to imagine nowadays. And of the neighbourhood in which he was born: 

“In old Kabul’s Rika Khana, one shopkeeper had said something rude to a little girl once. Without a collective decision, the residents stopped buying from that shop and he was forced to move. (…) Do we have such people anymore? Today, they kill a girl and then burn her. How could I not be attached to the past?”

According to Mashal, “For some Afghans, though, there is tragedy in the fact that one of their most renowned and enduring writers has largely withdrawn into his own memories, unable or unwilling to visualize a new identity amid a confusing and traumatic time for his country.”

Zaryab, however, shrugged off the criticism: “In reality, I write for myself. (…) There is something inside that needs to come out, otherwise it bothers me.” He insisted that he was “still looking at the problems of the day, though at times his allegories go unrecognized.”

Between Schopenhauer and Hedayat

Rahnaward Zaryab’s popularity came from his singular style. He pioneered modernist prose in Afghanistan, together with his wife Spuzhmay Zaryab, Akram Osman, Maryam Mahbub and a few others (find some examples in English translation here). In this tribute to him, Afghan poet and BBC journalist Sohrab Sirat said Zaryab explored a new literary style which he called ‘dastayat’ – a fusion of dastan (fiction) and hekayat (anecdotes). This, he said, is exemplified in the 2011 collection of short stories “And Sheikh Qudsullah Said.” Latif Nazemi, another leading Afghan literary scholar living in Germany puts Zaryab’s style “between literature and essay.” Hosseini who quoted Nazemi added: “Still today, it is one of the characteristics of Afghan short prose that writers who would give their position on a social problem, do this in the form of a short story. A writer like Zaryāb who wants to write about the difficulties and travails of a man of letters, about his destitution and material hardship chooses to write a short story such as “Khastam newisenda shawam” (I Wanted to Become a Writer) instead of a literary or political article.” [3]Sayed Haschmatullah Hosseini, Die Erzählprosa der Dari-Literatur in Afghanistan 1900-78 (The Narrative Prose of Dari Literature in Afghanistan 1900-78), Hamburg 2010.

Khalil A. Arab, a philologist from Herat, now living in Poland, writing in the Polish Journal of the Arts and Culture noted Zaryab’s “enormous influence on fiction-writing and the younger generation of writers in Afghanistan.” According to Sohrab Sirat, speaking during a BBC Persian television special on the writer, Zaryab’s unadorned prose, influenced by western thinkers and tinged with magic realism, “revitalised fiction writing in Afghanistan. (…) He introduced us to novel reading. He had an excellent command of the language and was the undisputed ustad to the new generation of Afghan writers. (…) Many young people, including myself, learned Persian writing from his [2003] novel Golnar and the Mirror (Gulnar wa Aina).” As Hosseini told AAN, without Rahnaward Zaryab and a handful of others “modern Afghanistan would have no [prose] writers of quality.”

Radio Farda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Persian service) commented on the influence of Indian culture in his work, quoting the eminent Iranian novelist Mahmud Dowlatabadi: “Zaryab’s work connects us with the enchanted spirit of India. In his body of work we can, once again, discern India’s visage, disposition, comportment and the spirit of Qalandari [sufism] (…) despite theseparation inflicted by colonial decisions, it recalls the pleasant aroma of Hindu culture.” [4]Here is a definition of Qalandari by J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, Oxford University Press, 1998, p 267: “The term qalandari to which the Arabian Nights has given wide … Continue reading Speaking at a 2017 event organised in honour of Zaryab by Bukhara Magazine in Tehran, Dowlatabadi read a passage from Zaryab’s Golnar and the Mirror. which he said he finished in one sitting and “when we lost electricity at 4-4:30 in the morning (…) I read the last 8-9 pages in the dim light of a flashlight.” Dowlatabadi said that the novel was “resplendent with the atmosphere of Qalandari. (…) After reading it, you must sit and think about the meaning behind the text. It’s a wondrous thing” (see here; the novel’s first chapter in English here).

Published in 2003, after the fall of the Taleban regime, Golnar and the Mirror introduced a new generation of Afghan readers to the works of Zaryab, according to Sirat. A love story between a young literature student and the beautiful Rubaba, a descendant of a celebrated Lucknow dancer, with “fanciful scenes set in old Kabul.” It was a huge popular success with “fourth and fifth editions within a few years. A rarity in the literary atmosphere of war-torn Afghanistan,” said Sirat. Asad Kosha, writing in Kabul Now, called the novel “Zaryab’s most famous and perhaps most read fiction.” He said that in the story “the hero finds himself [caught] between [the] ancient Indian myth of creation and Western rationality. (…) between modern consciousness of time and history and [the] ancient myth of creation. [The] emphasis of symbolism, metaphor and anecdote captivate us.”

Most authors writing about Rahnaward Zaryab agree that he was influenced by Western philosophy. Kosha said that he was “inspired by 19th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer” and his empirical pessimism. Nancy Dupree, in a 1992 journal article, added as influences “the writings of European socialist-existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.” [5]Nancy Dupree, “Socialist Realism in the Literature of Afghanistan” in the Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol 27, no 2 (Summer, Fall 1992), pp 85-114. Arab, the philologist from Herat, said that Zaryab drew inspiration from “[Franz] Kafka and the Iranian writer Sādeq Hedāyat. He even dedicated a story (…) to Hedāyat.” As a forerunner in Persian literature’s avant-garde movement in the 1930s, Hedayat was misunderstood and ostracised in his native Iran. Exiled in Paris and plagued by self-doubt, he took his own life in 1951. 

In a eulogy for BBC Persian, Iranian essayist and journalist, Sirus Alinejad, wrote about his years-long friendship with the author: “Rahnaward Zaryab and I are from the same generation. (…) [When he] spoke about his childhood and the books, magazines, translations and films he had read and seen growing up, I was amazed by the similarities between my generation in Iran and his in Afghanistan. (…) In those years of adolescence (…) we made scrapbooks in which we pasted pictures and wrote down quotes from our favourite authors. (…) Zaryab said that he did the same thing, in a small pocket-sized book (…) with a picture of Schopenhauer affixed to the front cover and one of Sadeq Hedayat to the back.”

A pioneering author

Like Hedayat, Rahnaward Zaryab was a literary pioneer. Afghan writer Homaira Qaderi described Zaryab in the New York Times as “the first [Afghan] writer to focus on the structure of stories, with the eye of someone well read. (…) We call him the father of new storytelling in Afghanistan.” She characterises his heroes as “indigenous and modest, delicately questioning the dogma and superstitions of a conservative society.” 

Hosseini told AAN that Zaryab was the first to use colloquial language and even street slang in his short stories. It was not to everyone’s taste, and purists attacked him for it. Some critics even derided his work as being “too short” to be called novels. (If anyone should think this could only happen in Afghanistan, they may be reminded of the media storm when, in 2016 in Germany, Bodo Kirchhoff won the prestigious German Book Prize for his novel Widerfahrnis (Encounter). Detractors argued that the 150-page book was a mere ‘novelette’ and should not have been considered for the prize reserved for novels.)

This author has only read a handful of Rahnaward Zaryab’s short stories in English and German translation. [6]They have been published in “Short Stories from Afghanistan” (by Shah M Book Co, Kabul 2002 – the ‘Bookseller of Kabul’ of the Norwegian novel’s fame) and Moderne Erzähler der Welt: … Continue reading Most are austere. Even his first short story, published in 1963 when he was 19 years old, seems to reflect austerity in its title: “Flowerless and Leafless.” According to Arab, in this story and other works written before 1970, Zaryab follows “the romantic tradition of his predecessors.” Arab points to a “dramatic shift” in Zaryab’s writing starting in 1970 and quotes Muhammad Hussain Muhammadi: “the characters are no longer ordinary folks. They are replaced by lonely, isolated, and frustrated individuals, who live their lives in vain, and converse with their shadows.” [7]Muhammad Hussain Muhammadi, Tārikhe Tahliliye Dāstān Newisiye Afghanistan (Critical History of Fiction Writing in Afghanistan), Cheshmeh, Tehran 2009, pp 201–2.

Dupree described Rahnaward Zaryab’s settings as “most often painted in shades of grey, misty, cold and damp, half-way existences between lightness and darkness, between being and not being.” His stories, she wrote, are characterised by an “overriding melancholia,” featuring “ambiguous characters (…) having no sense of belonging, either to family or to a society with which they are unable to establish meaningful relationships.” According to Dupree, feelings of helplessness, inadequacy and self-doubt and the “transience of human existence,” are the persistent themes in his narratives. 

For Rahnaward Zaryab, the human condition was a cabinet of mirrors, with death as its irrevocable conclusion. In the 1388 (2009/10) short story “The Beauty Sleeping Under Earth” (original title: Zibayi zer-e khak khufta), an archaeologist dreams of a woman who kills a man because he is harassing her and is herself killed by the man’s brother. The woman resembles a neighbourhood beauty he pined for in his adolescent “dreams of love.” At the story’s conclusion, he excavates a statue in an ancient city’s ruins that bears her likeness. He contemplates her mysterious smile and says: “One day, I too will be dead.” In his allegorical ultra-short story “The Hawk and the Tree” (see here), Zaryab describes death as “strings tied to your feet.” Dupree quotes him: “This world is like a bridge which we have to cross but upon which we are not to build a house.”

Still, Rahnaward Zaryab found life, before death, also intoxicating. In his 1366 (1977/78) short story “Khanda-ye talkh-e shab” (The Bitter Laughter of the Night), a drunkard, walks the nocturnal streets hoping for an eternal intoxicated night. 

“Akhtar the Clown”

Rahnaward Zaryab also contributed to Afghanistan’s film industry. He wrote the screenplay for the 1981 dark comedy Akhtar-e Maskhara (Akhtar the Clown). It is the story of a shy schoolboy who is the subject of his classmates’ ridicule. One day, as his classmates badger him for arriving late to school, he finally talks back. When a classmate asks if the reason for his tardiness could be that he was “a guest somewhere last night,” Akhtar retorts: “I was a guest of your sister.” Silence falls in the classroom. Akhtar finds the secret to becoming popular, by sharpening his tongue and playing the clown. Later, Akhtar, who is embarrassed by his impoverished family and the fact that his father is a mere cobbler, is befriended by the wealthy Jamil. His new friend drives an expensive car and lives in Kabul’s affluent Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood with his wife Shahla, who has just returned to Afghanistan after spending two years “in America,” and his boozing brother Mustafa. 

Shot in black and white in Kabul’s Old City and Qargha by director Latif Ahmad, with the popular actor Faqir Nabi as the title character, the film is a co-production of state-owned Afghan Films and Radio Television Afghanistan. According to Harun Majidi, writing in the Kabul daily Mandegar, the value of films such as Akhtar the Clown is that they “provide a picture of Afghanistan’s bygone years, especially for a generation that did not witness those years.” It also reflects the social disparities in the pre-war years – a period that is now often romanticised.

Film still from Akhtar the Clown, with Faqir Nabi as the title character. Photo: movie.douban.com.

Guardian of the Persian Language 

In the final years of his life, Zaryab “retreated to the privacy of his fourth floor Macroyan [sic]apartment” [8]“Makroyan” is the name for an extensive residential complex in eastern central Kabul. The Soviet-built Jangalak factory, which was destroyed during the wars in the 1990s, manufactured the … Continue reading where he continued to write and worked as an editorial advisor to Tolo News.

In her profile of Rahnaward Zaryab for Independent Farsi, Wahida Paykan quoted Afghan journalist Sami Mehdi: “Contemporary language and literature of Afghanistan owe ustad Zaryab great debt. He left his family in Paris immediately after the fall of the Taliban regime and returned home. He refined the language of the media and nurtured a large generation of young journalists and writers.” Sirat called him ’a language activist’ and said that because of his “command of the Persian language” he was widely regarded as the “definitive authority.” According to Sirat, “Whenever there was a disagreement about Persian usage, grammar and form people cited him. They would call him and ask him to give his view on a particular [linguistic] point.”

Radio Farda said: “[His] emphasis on Persian made him the ‘guardian of the Persian language’ in a country that, in addition to other local languages, was exposed to the onslaught of foreign languages. (…) In his view, Persian did not have a geographical border but was itself an all-encompassing land with a great spirit. (…)  He also helped others with editing, selecting words, and published spelling rules. His activities in the Afghan media and his influence on the Afghan government’s spelling and vocabulary are proof of his impact.”

Old Kabul and life as a cabinet of mirrors and dreams are once again the central themes in Zaryab’s seminal last novel Chahar gerd-e qala gashtam (I Walked Four Times Around the Castle), which is a verse from a famous Afghan folksong (listen to it here, recorded by Jalil Zaland). [9]Muhammad Azam Rahnaward Zaryab, Chahar gerd-e qala gashtam (…), Kabul: Entesharat-e Pak, 1390 (2011), first edition.

«چار گرد قلاگشتم، پای زیب طلا یافتم، پای زیب طلا یافتم

I walked four times around the castle.

I found a golden ankle chain.

I found a golden ankle chain.

In contrast to his earlier works, Zaryab ends the novel on an optimistic note. Those who know Kabul, then and now, can well picture the scene:

The city is singing. The Sher Shah Darwaza and Asmayi mountains are singing. There is a big gala in the world. The world is experiencing joy and enormous abundance. The silvery sky is sprinkling a smile and means to start laughing – a joyous and liberating laugh. Snow falls. Snow falls.

In Iran, the novel won the prestigious Jalal Al-e Ahmad literary award in the Afghan literature category in 2016 (together with Sayed Ali Musawi’s Kabul ja-ye adam nist [Kabul is not a Place for Humans]).

A quick AAN survey in Kabul and Herat found that demand for Rahnaward Zaryab’s books has increased since his death. One bookseller in Herat’s Chowk-e Gulha (Flower Square), an older man, said that sadly people start reading an author’s body of work only after the writer has died. A bookseller in Kabul had seven of his titles available in the store. He said that young and old, but particularly younger people, were asking for them. In Herat, only one bookseller carried Zaryab’s books. Another bookshop owner said that he could source the full collection by “tomorrow or the day after.”

Rahnaward Zaryab was buried in Kabul’s Shuhada-ye Salehin cemetery, the final resting place of many famous Afghan artists and intellectuals, such as singer Ahmad Zaher and historian Mir Ghulam Muhammad Ghobar. On the anniversary of their deaths, people gather at the cemetery to honour these giants of Afghan arts and letters. One can imagine that many Afghan writers and readers will commemorate this celebrated writer and melancholic patriot at his grave for years to come. 

Muhammad Azam Rahnaward Zaryab (1944-2020) is survived by his wife Spuzhmai Zaryab (Rauf) and three daughters. One of his daughters, Shabnam Zaryab, is also a writer (of the novel Le Pianiste Afghan, 2011) and film director (of I am Passing and The Camel Boy). 

Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Martine van Bijlert

References

1 Before the wars that began in the late 1970s, the state-owned Baihaqi Publishing House printed and distributed inexpensive books through its own sales pavilions (in Kabul, one was close to the Ministry of Communications) and newspaper stalls. Baihaqi did not resume operations after 2001. Although there are a growing number of private imprints, they often print unauthorised copies of previously published works. Under such circumstances, it is not easy for readers to find a particular book.
2 Top danda is a bat and ball game somewhat similar to baseball or cricket (see herehere and watch a game here).
3 Sayed Haschmatullah Hosseini, Die Erzählprosa der Dari-Literatur in Afghanistan 1900-78 (The Narrative Prose of Dari Literature in Afghanistan 1900-78), Hamburg 2010.
4 Here is a definition of Qalandari by J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, Oxford University Press, 1998, p 267: “The term qalandari to which the Arabian Nights has given wide currency, covers in its historical usage a wide range of dervish types. It was loosely applied in the East (it was unknown in Western Islam) to any wandering faqir, but it was also adopted by certain groups and even distinctive orders were formed.” One of Zaryab’s last works, published in 2015, is titled Qalandar Nama, “a collection of minimalist vignettes,” according to Mujib Mashal.
5 Nancy Dupree, “Socialist Realism in the Literature of Afghanistan” in the Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol 27, no 2 (Summer, Fall 1992), pp 85-114.
6 They have been published in “Short Stories from Afghanistan” (by Shah M Book Co, Kabul 2002 – the ‘Bookseller of Kabul’ of the Norwegian novel’s fame) and Moderne Erzähler der Welt: Afghanistan (Modern Storytellers of the World: Afghanistan), Horst Erdmann Verlag: Tübingen and Basle, 1977. The German anthology provides sources (in Rahnaward Zaryab’s case, one story from Afghanistan’s Erfan magazine published in 1975, and one typescript). The Afghan publisher avoids this issue entirely; the book could possibly be an unauthorised re-printing of the author’s work.
7 Muhammad Hussain Muhammadi, Tārikhe Tahliliye Dāstān Newisiye Afghanistan (Critical History of Fiction Writing in Afghanistan), Cheshmeh, Tehran 2009, pp 201–2.
8 “Makroyan” is the name for an extensive residential complex in eastern central Kabul. The Soviet-built Jangalak factory, which was destroyed during the wars in the 1990s, manufactured the prefabricated Soviet-style apartment blocks. (Until recently, the Jangalak factory’s surviving management building served as a temporary shelter for rejected asylum seekers deported from Europe and without local relatives.) The original Russian term is “Mikro-Rayon.”
9 Muhammad Azam Rahnaward Zaryab, Chahar gerd-e qala gashtam (…), Kabul: Entesharat-e Pak, 1390 (2011), first edition.

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Kabul Shuhada-ye Salehin AAN obituary Rahnaward Zaryab Afghan literature Culture&Context dastayat Mahmud Dowlatabadi Sadeq Hedayat Rika Khana Akhtar-e Maskhara Akhtar The Clown Baihaqi

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