Poetry News

Poetry in Afghanistan: New York Times Profiles Matiullah Turab

By Harriet Staff


This weekend's New York Times also includes a dispatch from Afghanistan about the life and writing of Matiullah Turab. Mr. Turab is a popular poet who performs throughout Afghanistan and works during the day as a metalsmith.

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, 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.

Read more about Matiullah Turab's life and work at NYT.

Originally Published: August 19th, 2013