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Mujib Mehrdad "Writing in Countries at War"

On October 20th, 2014, Indiana University hosted Mujib Mehrdad, an Afghan poet. He read selections in English and Dari from his latest collection of Dari poems entitled “Soldiers.” Afterwards, Mehrdad answered questions about his poetry, his political views, and the state of Afghanistan today.

After the young Afghan poet Mujib Mehrdad read poems in English and Dari, a gentleman asked him, “Do you see yourself as a healer [of Afghanistan’s problems]?”
To everyone’s surprise, Mr. Mehrdad responded that he did not want to be seen as a healer at all. He wanted, rather, to capture the events unfolding in Afghanistan’s changing society. And he certainly does: despite all the political upheaval over the last few decades in his country, Mehrdad’s poetry is a surprisingly vivid reminder of the emotional, human face of war and occupation.

The poetry is free-form and rhythmless, very different from more mainstream Afghan poetry that mimics more traditional literary and musical forms. His shorter poems, couplets and quatrains, were poignant and almost Imagist in their tone:

“Afghanistan is a place on mars
women and children are howling
and no one from the earth can help them”

The longer poems were rife with war imagery: shrapnel, tanks, mines, bombs and blood. He described during his Q&A the pervasiveness of the instruments of war, and his poems emphasized that:

“…Have you seen 
the rush of shrapnel at throngs of children in the road?
Enough! Your children return safe to your homes
and explosions haven’t yet sprinkled blood
on your city walls
The mines you plant,
Grow your flags on our soil,
And the suicide bombers of Kabul
Moan in the parks…”

Of course, it is difficult to walk the line between writing poetry about war and being a political poet; Mehrdad himself insists that he is not the latter. When asked about his feeling on the war, he responded that he is anti-war but that he cannot ignore the positive developments in post-war Afghanistan: more children are able to go to school and the economy is being diversified.

But what is undoubtedly the clearest indicator that Mehrdad’s intentions are apolitical is his empathy. During the Q&A, he pointed out that despite foreign occupation, Afghan mothers, for example, mourn the death of American soldiers understanding the pain that their American counterparts must be going through. And surely Mehrdad captures this in his poetry: not only are the poems in Soldiers about a variety of subjects, but are from a variety of perspectives. Among others, Mehrdad writes as a girl playing with her toys, a man falling in love, an expatriate returning to his birthplace, and even an American soldier reminiscing about home and describing Afghanistan.  In this last example, “A soldier’s letter to his lover,” he compares a soldier’s lover to the women of Afghanistan working in the fields:

"[T]hey are sad
like when you kiss my photo in the mornings
they don't have photos of their men when they are upset
they work like you, but in the sunny fields
which belong to the snakes as well
they also take care of herds of children
they work hard in the fields
planted with mines by their lovers
and they like the details of life, just like you do
and like in your house, love is a mist everywhere in the fields"

Mehrdad’s imagery is both simple and fantastic, and the starkness of his phrasing only heightens the emotional response to his poems.  Overall, the event provided a refreshing if chastening look at the realities of occupied Afghanistan through the eyes of a talented and perceptive poet.