Reading Kipling in Kabul

It was World Book Day this week, not something marked with much occasion in Afghanistan.

Wherever I am, for me reading is one of the great pleasures of life. More than that, it is an essential part of my life. I’ll read a train timetable if there is nothing else to hand, and living here a book is a refuge more secure than any guarded compound.

For all the small international fame of The Book Seller of Kabul, with a literacy rate of 28% of all adults, books do not feature much in the cultural life of Afghanistan. Though as the anthropologist Louis Dupree pointed out, that is not the same as saying literature, particularly poetry, is not important here. Afghanistan has a rich heritage of oral poetry and there is a hackneyed saying that in the past, you couldn’t stretch your legs in Herat without accidentally kicking a poet in the bum.

From the minority of people who can read, fewer still will be able to read in English, French or Russian, and few foreign language books are available even in Kabul. I don’t know how much fiction has been written and published in Pashto or Dari but I’d guess very little, and I’d guess very few books have ever been translated into these languages.

I read something a while back about ‘the book seller of Kabul,’ Sultan Khan, setting up a mobile library and driving it around the north for a while. A fantastic thing to do and he seemed positive about his reception.

But even amongst the small literate section of the population, it strikes me that reading is not usually done for pleasure. I have one Afghan friend who does so. Having read and enjoyed a Dari translation of Les Miserables, he asked me to bring him back an English copy when I went on leave. But he is a rare exception as far as I know.

The Koran is usually the only book to be seen on a shelf. My colleagues will read for work if they have to, but it seems books are more associated with school and a dry kind of learning than with enjoyment. Maybe it is different between men and women, I do not know.

Discussing reading one day, a literate Afghan said ‘we don’t know how to read books. We haven’t been taught at school or university. We do not have a culture of reading.’ Her comments were more in relation to critical reading, of challenging the written word, but I suspect they hold true in general.

Films and TV, meanwhile, are hugely popular. Remarkable little attention has been paid to popular culture in Afghanistan. The impression given is that there is no such thing. When the international gaze of media and academics does turn from conflict or drugs to ‘culture,’ it is usually more in terms of ‘tradition,’ of pushtunwali, say, though more recently also of the Taliban’s use of new media. Then there is the recent focus on attempts by the government to ban the broadcasting of Indian soap operas, but more of that another time.

At the moment I’m reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. The only other work of his I’ve read is the poem ‘If-‘, a framed copy of which used to hang in the toilet of a friend’s family’s house. I used to curse it for trite rubbish every time I went to have a piss.

I picked up a copy of Kim because of its connection with the Great Game (a term bestowed by Kipling) and Afghanistan. To my surprise I’m enjoying it: imperialist, but a fine story.

And better than reading a te-rain timetable, of which there are non in Afghanistan anyway.



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4 Responses to “Reading Kipling in Kabul”

  1. islandbridget Says:

    Yeah I think that is true, there is more to reading tan being literate. It is almost a ‘concept’ that is integrated into you through culture very young, and that concept needs to be built on over your lifespan, if to really understand the value of it. It is the same with literate people here, they only have a bible (there are no bookshops here), and only read it so they can tell people what to do. When you give kindergarten children a book they rip it up immediately, it is their first reaction. Which I find strange because children in the west almost sense the importance of books, even from 2 or 3 years old. We must give them the vibe very young. 🙂

  2. Capacity building in Afghanistan: what’s that all about then? « harry rud Says:

    […] The capacity I see lacking (anti-capacity? non-capacity?) most often day to day is an (in)ability to analyse a situation in a particular way, to interpret and above all question critically. This is partially related to something I wrote before about there being no real culture of reading in Afghanistan. […]

  3. Yadgar Says:

    What island (I suppose your nickname has something to do with your location) do you live on? Tristan da Cunha? 😉

  4. hair removal letchworth Says:

    You could definitely see your expertise in the work you write.
    The sector hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid
    to say how they believe. Always go after your heart.

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