An Afghan Poet Shapes Metal and Hard Words
With his unflinching words, Mr. Turab captures the feelings of Afghans about the war and those who are responsible for it: the Americans, the Taliban, the Afghan government, Pakistan.
By AZAM AHMED
KHOST, Afghanistan — The poet guided a strip of sheet metal into the ancient steel clippers, cutting shimmering triangles that fell with a dull clang on the shop floor.
In the background, a workman’s chorus filled the yard: a handsaw planing a log beam; a generator humming and catching; the groan of a giant diesel truck idling.
The harsh music of the workday welled up around Matiullah Turab, one of Afghanistan’s most famous Pashtun poets, in the garage where he earns a living repairing the colorful Pakistani caravan trucks that transport goods around the countryside.
The cadence of his nights, though, is his own: shaping poetry as hard and piercing as the tools he uses by day. Nature and romance carry no interest for him.
“A poet’s job is not to write about love,” he growled, his booming voice blending with the ambient noise of the workshop. “A poet’s job is not to write about flowers. A poet must write about the plight and pain of the people.”
With his unflinching words, Mr. Turab, 44, offers a voice for Afghans grown cynical about the war and its perpetrators: the Americans, the Taliban, the Afghan government, Pakistan.
War has turned into a trade
Heads have been sold
as if they weigh like cotton,
and at the scale sit such judges
who taste the blood, then decide the price
Taped versions of Mr. Turab’s poems spread virally, especially among his fellow ethnic Pashtuns, whom he unabashedly champions — a tribal affinity that alienates some Tajik and Hazara listeners. His close affiliation with Hezb-i-Islami — part Islamist political party, part militant group — has put off others.
But even as his social affiliations are narrow and divisive, his poetry has mass appeal. Mr. Turab reserves his charity for ordinary Afghans, weighed down by the grinding corruption and disappointment that have come to define the last decade of their lives.
Many see his poems, some of which were translated from Pashto for The New York Times by Mujib Mashal, as a counter to the daily spin showered on Afghans by the government, diplomats, religious leaders and the media.
O flag-bearers of the world,
you have pained us a lot in the name of security
You cry of peace and security,
and you dispatch guns and ammunition
Seated on a makeshift bench, his wool pakol hat tilted slightly and his clothing stained with grease, Mr. Turab surveyed the evening beyond his concrete workshop bay, a landscape of rags, wires and waste. The squalid heat was broken intermittently by a standing fan connected to a car battery. A neighboring vendor hammered a glacier of ice, cleaving chunks to sell to drivers passing by.
“There is no genuine politician in Afghanistan,” he said, briefly cracking a rare smile. “As far as I know, politicians need the support of the people, and none of these politicians have that. For me, they are like the shareholders of a business. They only think of themselves and their profit.”
He continued: “The Taliban are not the solution, either. Gone are those old days when the Taliban way of governing worked.”
He has no patience for preciousness in his own work or in others’, and he is particularly merciless with government officials. He ridicules them, saying they should stitch three pockets into their jackets: one to collect afghanis, one for dollars and a third for Pakistani rupees.
For all that disdain, however, Mr. Turab has remained popular in influential corners of the government. And President Hamid Karzai recently invited him to the presidential palace in Kabul.
“The president liked my poetry and told me I had an excellent voice, but I don’t know why,” he said. “I criticized him.”
In fact, he is quite widely in demand. Though he prefers to be home in Khost, Mr. Turab’s travel schedule still far outpaces the average metalsmith’s. People flock to his rare personal readings, and new poems posted on YouTube quickly become among the most-watched by Afghans. He is planning a trip to Moscow soon to receive an award from members of the Afghan diaspora there. And he visits the governor of Paktia, a friend, to perform on occasion.
Mr. Turab is the latest in a long roll call of poets cherished in Afghanistan, among the most famous of them Rumi, the Sufi mystic whose works of love and faith remain popular across the world. In this country, poetic aphorisms are woven into everyday talk, embraced by Afghans from all walks of life. In pockets of Kabul, it is not uncommon to see men bunched together as they transfer audio files of readings over Bluetooth from one cellphone to another.
Though poetry is loved, it seldom pays. Some writers have taken government jobs, finding the steady paycheck and modest responsibilities conducive to their work. Mr. Turab, for his part, has stuck to his dingy garage on the outskirts of Khost City.
“This is my life, what you see here: banging iron, cutting it short, making it long,” he said. “I still don’t call myself a poet.”
There is something else, which even the plain-spoken Mr. Turab seemed reluctant to confess: He is nearly illiterate. Though he can, with difficulty, read printed copy, he can neither write nor read the handwriting of others, he said. He constructs his poetry in his head, relying on memory to retain it and others to record it.
Mr. Turab grew up in a small village of Nangarhar Province, poor even by Afghan standards. His father was a farmer, and grew just enough to feed the family. Though they had little, he fondly remembers his youth — particularly the days spent learning from the village poet, a man he grew to love for his sharp words and honesty.
After the Soviet invasion in 1979, Mr. Turab, a teenager at the time, moved with his family to Pakistan. He came of age there, returning to Afghanistan only two decades later, with a trade, a wife and a modest following as a poet.
He kept refining his craft after his return, cultivating a broader audience. Under Taliban rule, he dared to publish a book of his work — a grave mistake.
“The Taliban beat me very badly,” he said, shaking his head, then proffering a smile. “After that, I decided publishing wasn’t such a good idea.”
Though he is an unabashed Pashtun loyalist, he has no love for the Taliban, who are closely identified with Pashtun tribes. He says he loathes the terror they cultivate and the way they have destabilized Afghanistan. And he excoriates them, for being as inept and out of touch as the Western-backed government.
O graveyard of skulls and oppression
Rip this earth open and come out
They taunt me with your blood,
and you lie intoxicated with thoughts of virgins
The dirt road outside his shop runs all the way to Pakistan, and its traffic is an economic lifeline. Vendors line the highway, selling everything from snow to keep the blistering heat at bay to seasonal fruit. Periodically a convoy of American vehicles passes, breaking the spell of an otherwise Afghan scene.
“Sometimes I’m amazed that things aren’t falling apart,” he said, clasping his hands together as he reflected on years of war and foreign presence here. “But then I realize there is a social law here that holds the country together, even if there is no governmental law.”
Though he has been critical of the American occupation, he does note the progress that has come with it: roads, electricity and schools. It is other parts of the Western legacy in Afghanistan that he worries about.
“Democracy will hurt and eliminate our tribal laws,” he said. “The medicine prescribed by democracy was not suitable for this society’s sickness.”