Mujib Mashal writes: Four large clocks tick out of sync, puncturing the silence of his Soviet-built apartment. A half-burned candle sits next to a stack of books. A small television is covered in soot.
This is where Rahnaward Zaryab, Afghanistan’s most celebrated novelist, locks himself up for weeks at a time, lost in bottles of smuggled vodka and old memories of Kabul, a capital city long transformed by war and money.
“We live in a vacuum, lacking heroes and ideals,” Mr. Zaryab reads from his latest manuscript, handwritten on the back of used paper. The smoke from his Pine cigarette, a harsh South Korean brand, clings to yellowed walls. “The heroes lie in dust, the ideals are ridiculed.”
The product of a rare period of peace and tolerance in Afghan history, Mr. Zaryab’s work first flourished in the 1970s, before the country was unraveled by invasion and civil war. Afghanistan still had a vibrant music and theater scene, and writers had a broad readership that stretched beyond just the political elite.
“I would receive letters from girls that would smell of perfume when you opened them,” Mr. Zaryab, who is 70, remembered fondly.
Mr. Zaryab’s stories are informed by his readings of Western philosophy and literature, the writer Homaira Qaderi said. He was educated on scholarships in New Zealand and Britain. But his heroes are indigenous and modest, delicately questioning the dogma and superstitions of a conservative society.
“He is the first writer to focus on the structure of stories, with the eye of someone well read,” Ms. Qaderi said. “We call him the father of new storytelling in Afghanistan.”
But after he became the standard-bearer for Afghan literature, Mr. Zaryab was forced to watch as Kabul, the muse he idealized as a city of music and chivalry in most of his 17 books, fell into rubble and chaos.
Some of the chaos has eased over the past decade, but that has caused him even more pain. He loathes how Kabul has been rebuilt: on a foundation of American cash and foreign values, paving over Afghan culture.
“Money, money, money,” he said, cringing. “Everyone is urged to make money, in any way they can. Art, culture and literature have been forgotten completely.” [Continue reading…]