“Poetry is deeply rooted in Pukhtun families. It is a tradition which passes from generation to generation,” explained Pashto Academy Director Salma Shaheen. This can be traced back to 17th century poets Khushal Khan Khattak and Rahman Baba who are revered to this very day. But the current economic climate and security concerns leave contemporary poets largely unrecognised and unpublished.
These days, poets recite their work in intimate gatherings of peers and enthusiasts, basking in appreciation in short, much-needed doses.
According to the Pashto Academy, there are more than 500 registered literary associations in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). These associations list hundreds of poets and intellectuals, but few are known outside their tight circles.
Records available at the academy suggest 3,500 Pashto writers exist in the country. Khyber Agency alone is home to 500 poets. However, only 100 of these have compiled collections – these could not be published because of a dearth in investment in cultural activities in the public and private sector.
Shaheen told The Express Tribune the academy is trying to publish compilations of several poets. However, getting a book out is a daunting task which requires a publishing company to commit time and resources without any certainty of financial return. Self publishing is also an expensive endeavour, he said.
Sixty-year-old Niamatullah Aseer has been writing verses for the last 40 years, “Despite many years of being a poet, I have not been able to get a single word published as I do not have the resources to compile 40 years of my work.”
Aseer is considered to be one of the most prolific poets of Khyber Agency and has a huge circle of admirers. The agency has produced a number of celebrated Pashto poets including Ameer Hamza Khan Shinwari, Khatir Afridi, Murad Shinwari, and Abdul Qayum Afridi.
“Intellectuals and poets are known to bring about change in society, but not without opportunities to flourish,” noted Aseer.
Nisar Afkar, another prominent poet from Khyber Agency, maintained he presented his work to the former culture minister but received no response.
Of ideology and war
Financial constraints are not the only reason many poets remain unpublished; militancy is taking a toll on the literary form and its expression as well.
While militants on the other side of the Durand line gained recent fame over their verse, militants in K-P and Fata seem less than sympathetic towards the art form.
“In a province where poetry can be cathartic for people, it is being suffocated by the continuous fear of terrorism and threats,” said Rahmat Shah Sail, the wordsmith who stood as an Awami National Party candidate from NA-35 Malakand Agency in the May 11 elections.
Hundreds of poets remain tight-lipped as they face threats against the content of their work and refuse to publish in fear. Even the culture of poetry recitals is fading day by day, revealed Sail.
The last word
The last poet from Khyber Agency to be published was the late Murad Shinwari, son of Hamza Shinwari. The book titled ‘Ayeena’ was published posthumously by the Pakhto Adabi Jirga (Pakhto literary society, Abu Dhabi) in 2011. Yet, FATA Secretariat Director Sports and Culture Fazal Jamil claimed the secretariat was taking all possible steps to promote literature.
But one look at the Hamza Baba Academy – constructed in Landikotal to make literature available to tribesmen – shows little progress has been made. Even though the building has been erected by the previous government and has books placed in shelves, none can access them. The Hamza Baba Academy remains under lock and key for security reasons and the political agent’s permission is needed to use the books.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2013.