Middle East

How books are brewing a cultural renaissance in Afghanistan

Atifa Safi

The love of reading and its rebirth in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has a unique cultural history, it is the land of great writers, scholars, and poets like Maulana Jalaluddin known worldwide as Rumi and once upon a time it was also the capital of Persian civilization and Persian literature. These distinguished personalities have played an important role in shaping the Afghan society and Afghan thought, knowledge, and literature. Scholars of the bygone era have left us a glorious and rich literary background and many valuable books which are not only admired by Afghans and the neighborhood but acknowledged globally. Afghan people know the significance and importance of book reading, poetry and their effect on the development of the society. Afghans regularly, in the past and to some extent still, organized cultural events and poetry nights to celebrate and honor different occurrences.

Growing up we did not have access to many books, and yes few families had their own libraries, but the culture of reading and reading to kids was strong. Our parents would read to us before bed or an elder in the family would gather all the kids around them and read from literary masterpieces like Shams-e-Tabriz, Gulesta’n, Bosta’n, Maulana’s Masnavi, Shanama-e-Ferdowsi (now translated into English as The Epic of the Persian Kings). These and many other fictional and non-fictional texts form memorable parts of our childhood. This also cultivated a keen interest in reading books among children, and the youth. The few accessible books that were in our houses or in relatives’ house were usually read several times over the years as each child grew up.

But Alas! Over the last four decades of war, this common culture of book reading has lost its place in the Afghan family and is almost forgotten. There is lack of interest in books and book reading among citizens especially the youth. Unfortunately, this continued multi-generational conflict and the current tense situation has not only had its devastating effect on political and economic stability, human rights, and development but also the social and cultural aspects of life in the country. Lack of security, immigration, poverty, a high percentage of illiteracy, economic instability, adverse customs and traditional practices are accepted issues of life in Afghanistan but what many fail to notice is that these are also the root causes of many barriers to the culture of book reading in the society.  Today, a severe lack of libraries, low-quality prints smuggled into the country from the neighboring countries, lack of quality translated work in the national languages (Pashto and Dari), lack of good writers and institutions that would support the writing effort all compound the challenges being faced by individuals in their choices and their access to books.  The consequences of these aforementioned challenges are inevitable on the life of Afghan youth and especially on the culture of reading.

A non fictional glimmer of hope

Luckily, the country has taken some small step towards curbing this trend since the fall of the Taliban. Progress has been made in some areas. For example, social and cultural organizations and institutions have been established and they are focused on cultural activities and literacy. But much needs to be done to turn the tide. There needs to be a sustained effort and different initiatives should be undertaken in order to spread the culture of book reading; to encourage people to read books and to revive the culture of reading in a society where upwards of 70% of the population is illiterate most certainly requires tireless efforts and motivational initiatives. In various reports and research work, lack of public awareness has been highlighted as one of the main factors of current problems in Afghanistan. Books and the culture of reading could be an essential tool to promote awareness, convey information, thoughts, and knowledge amongst communities and from one generation to the next.

In addition to the challenges mentioned before, Afghan women face additional barriers on this path. Lack of equal educational opportunity, sexual and street harassment issues that exacerbate the situation for women. Common thought would have it that bookstores and libraries are safe places for a woman but the reality is very different. Majority of female students avoid going to the libraries because of the harassment they face. Bookstores are often located in the areas where they don’t feel safe visiting alone. Whenever a girl goes to the bookstore everyone, including the book seller, stares at them as if she is an alien from some other planet. Personally I have had many such experiences from simple stares to rude comments and at times serious misunderstandings for example in 2016 when I went to major bookstore in Kabul and asked the for a book title “Forty Rules of Love” the shopkeeper, not having the said book on his shelves, referred me to books on relationship and adult content all the while looking down upon me as if we were committing a crime.

Less than a minute reading each year

Changing this mentality may be one of the hardest things to do but it is something that needs to be done. Involvement of young educated Afghans is essential in fighting these taboos, encouraging the coming generation to read and spreading the culture of book reading. Many of the current dilemmas in the Afghan society are not new. These have been dealt with before but if members of a society do read about their history, their own current social, political and economic affairs, and that of the world, how can they become active and conscious citizens.

A recent report jointly released by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Culture and Information of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan stated that “a majority of Afghans spend less than a minute reading each year”. That statement alone paints a very grim image of where the Afghan society stands. Understanding how effective promoting a culture of reading could be, to cure some of the ailments in the society, a group of committed and active youth started playing with the idea of establishing a book club.

In 2015, these Afghans got together to give shape to their idea and established the Book Club Afghanistan (BCA). They started conducting regular meeting and motivating members to read, promoting its possible positive effects on their personal and professional life, building their skill set, developing new networks and making them not only successful individuals but also effective citizens. This was a completely new initiative and like any other new initiative, the core members faced many challenges but those challenges could not deter them from following this joint dream. One major challenge that I personally, often faced was promoting an environment of respecting differences of opinion within Afghan youth that are still caught within traditional structures.

Being fortunate enough to have been the co-founder of the book club Afghanistan, personally, my goals were to provide youth with a safe space to share their thoughts freely; practice freedom of speech and thought; respect each other; honor differences and embrace the culture of acceptance; practice their debating skills and learn to respect each other’s opinion.

One small step at a time: Book Club Afghanistan (BCA):

Book Club Afghanistan is a grassroots community of active, committed and dedicated youth with professional backgrounds in various fields. BCA was established in 2015 by a small group of young adults committed to improving the culture of reading in Afghanistan.  The club has had 31 meetings, with an average of 20 members attending each meeting.

The club’s mission is to promote and institutionalize the culture of reading among people, to build educational and cultural networks among youth, and to encourage, empower and support youth writing and reading skills.

BCA members envision book reading as a tool to change individuals in a positive way, to make them conscientious and active citizens who can have better choices and make better decisions for themselves and for the next generation.  Members make collective decisions to have effective and efficient programs and activities and support each other to achieve the above-mentioned goals. The club is a platform, where members practice the culture of acceptance and freedom of speech through debate sessions in a friendly environment.

Members meet every two weeks. Sessions are usually designed as follows:

  • Book Talk: members are invited to make a 10-15 minute presentation on books they have read and share their experience and lessons learned, to encourage others to read the book.
  • Book Discussion: members share the summary of the books they have read, and the group members discuss, ask questions, and share their comments.
  • Guest speaker: an author (national or foreigner) is invited to talk about her/his published work and the experience of book reading and writing, and shares her/his expertise and how the habit of reading changed and affected her/his life. Members then have the chance to interact and exchange their ideas and concerns.
  • Book exchange: members bring books they have read and exchange with other members.

Through the book talks, discussions, guest speakers, and book exchange, members have the chance to practice the culture of assistance and cooperation and inspire others to read, discuss and debate, and spread of knowledge and make the most of the limited resources available to them. We may be long off from a true a Afghan Renaissance, but I have hope in our people to slowly return to our past richness in intellect, one book at a time.