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Celebrated Afghan Writer Recalls Kabul Of Decades Ago


We go now to Kabul to hear about a novelist who lost his literary mission in the long wars. Rahnaward Zaryab is Afghanistan's most famous writer. His work flowered in the 1970s, a time when Afghanistan was peaceful and Kabul had a lively arts scene. He now lives mostly in that past. Journalist Mujib Mashal tracked him down at his dusty Soviet-era apartment to hear his story.

MUJIB MASHAL: It's sort of a tragic tale really. He had an audience that he wrote to, and he would receive letters, and he remembers these letters very fondly. You know, he remembers getting letters that he opened; they would smell of perfume. But now when I went to see him at his apartment, he basically lives alone and lives with these memories of what he considers an ideal image of Kabul that he thinks is lost to war and money.

MONTAGNE: And his stories and his novels, they are set in that lost Afghanistan or even an earlier Afghanistan. Give us a sense of how he wrote.

MASHAL: Yes. His stories I think are almost exclusively set in an old Kabul where it was a good mix and coexistence between a conservative culture but also sort of opening to poetry and to music. And to give you just one example of these cities, he wrote about this rake, this guy who is just going around and a celebrity. And then he has this chance encounter with a very fancy bird, and it's a talking bird. And the bird kind of introduces this guy to the philosophy of Socrates. And through his conversations with this bird, the guy sort of gives up on his mundane life, and he goes into soul-searching where he questions everything - his own life but also the conservative culture of the city. And to Zaryab, the bird is an example of a push for enlightenment. And when he wrote that story a couple years ago and the story was published, Zaryab laments the fact that nobody understood with the bird stood for.

MONTAGNE: Did the wars break him because he could, you might think, have written about war?

MASHAL: The wars definitely did break him in the sense that his muse, what he wrote about, was completely wiped away by the wars. And I don't mean in the physical sense. Yes, Kabul was destroyed physically. But I think what broke him was how the social fabric of Kabul completely unraveled. I think the larger tragedy of somebody like him is in the fact that Afghanistan is at a huge loss for a narrative right now. There was a narrative of the 1970s, 1960s and then 40 years of perpetual violence. Right now, we are in a state of chaos without a sense of direction, without a sense of narrative. And some Afghans would hope that their writers and their artists could step in and help in reshaping a new narrative. But when you look at the examples of somebody like Zaryab who straddled the times of peace and war, they're completely lost in aiding the shaping of this new narrative. I think that's where the larger tragedy lies.

MONTAGNE: Mujib Mashal profiled Afghanistan's great novelist Rahnaward Zaryab for The New York Times. Thank you very much for joining us.

MASHAL: Thank you for having me, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.