Islamabad Literature Festival 2013: Pashto poetry deals with war

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on May 1, 2013.

Islamabad – “What tyrant has attacked my mountains this year/ When I go to shovel the snow, I pick up only blood.”

This verse from a recent Pashto poem written by Mukhtar Orakzai, translated into English, best describes the issues most widely being addressed in new Pashto poetry.

Young Pashto poets are predominantly writing about the conflict that has beset their region.

But among the pain and anger brought about by war, a voice for the promotion of peace is also emerging in Pashto poetry, said poet Arif Tabassum at a session titled “New Voices in Pashto poetry” at the Islamabad Literature Festival on Tuesday.

Tabassum, a Pashto poet from Balochistan, said Pushtuns have developed an obsession with honour, perhaps due to Orientalist propaganda and foreign religious influence.

“We think we are the most honourable race in the world and all other races perhaps have no integrity,” Tabassum said. “This idea is also present in Pashto poetry; we exaggerate issues related to honour and religion.”

A new, positive trend is emerging, however.

“Since 2000, especially after 9/11, there is a hope in the poetry which is replacing the provocation present in the past 20 years of poetry,” Tabassum said. “The new Pashto poets are talking about peace and coexistence and they have also started critiquing their own society.”

The session was chaired by Raj Wali Khattak, one of the top literary figures of Pashto, and moderated by Ahmed Fouad, Pashto writer and poet.

Speakers said young Pashto poets, who could have written about surrealism, existentialism and romanticism, were instead writing about war and insurgency.

Khattak read a Pashto couplet to drive the point home: “Why are there no bracelets of flowers on your wrists, beautiful/Did the bombs also destroy the flower gardens?”

Poet Zubair Hasrat from Mardan, Muhib Wazir from Waziristan, Fouad and Tabassum all read their Pashto ghazals, with Urdu translations, at the session to tremendous applause.

Talking to the Express Tribune after the session, Tabassum said there was a need to translate new Pashto texts to Urdu, so the rest of the country is also made aware of the real issues faced by Pashtuns.

The Pashto poetry session drew a meager crowd. Nevertheless, the audience members raised interesting points during the questions and answers session about women education and the need for more communication between Pashtuns and other Pakistani ethnicities.

Samar Minallah, rights activist and filmmaker, asked the panelists about women’s role in Pashto poetry, to which Khattak replied saying the credit for the “creative awareness and taste” in poetry that Pashtun men possess goes to Pashtun women.

Later, when a Punjabi civil servant in the audience accused Pashtuns of being narrow minded and prejudiced, Minallah responded by saying that other ethnicities must also try to understand Pashtuns while respecting their culture.

She also cited the example of Malala to emphasize that Pashtun men have a role to play in their women’s education.

Usman Qazi, a reader of Pashto poetry who attended the session, said Pashto poets are articulating the issue of the survival of Pakthuns in their own language and poetry in the absence of any significant interest by the mainstream media, which, he said do not posses a deep empathy for the Pakthuns.

Qazi said the advantage of such new Pashto writing is that it sustains communication among the local communities but the downside is that it alienates the Pashto speakers from the rest of the country.

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