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Afghanistan aims to restore its cultural heritage

Published Jun 28, 2012 08:00am


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A scene of Afghanistan's war against the former Soviet Union's army is portrayed in a diorama in People's Museum, or Manzar-e Jahad in Herat. Along with the death and destruction of the past three decades, Afghans say they also lost a chunk of their rich cultural heritage with Iran, Pakistan and even Turkey claiming parts of it. – Reuters (File Photo)

KABUL: Interred a quarter century ago in Pakistan, the remains of Afghan poet Ustad Khalilullah Khalili now lie in a forlorn corner of Kabul University, brought here to be reburied so that no one else can lay claim to the revered poet-philosopher.

He has no epitaph; only a few wilted bouquets lie at the grave of Afghanistan's most prominent 20th century poet. Three policemen guard the site.

But if President Hamid Karzai - who ordered the remains be disinterred from a grave in the Pakistani city of Peshawar last month - has his way, the reburial will become an assertion of Afghan culture over encroachment by Pakistan and Iran.

“We brought him back from Pakistan because he was our poet and scholar,” said Mohammad Hussain Yamin, head of the Persian and Dari department at Kabul University.

“We don't want someone in future to say that he belonged to Pakistan just because he lived the final years of his life there.”

The assertion of cultural sovereignty is part of an effort to unite Afghanistan and prove it can stand on its own after most foreign troops leave at the end of 2014.

The government says it wants an end to “foreign interference”, usually a reference to Pakistan, but also Iran with which it is locked in a fierce debate over ownership of some of the greatest poets and philosophers in the region.

Poetry is big in Afghanistan, from the time of the kings of the 10th century to the present day, permeating every level of society from children in school to warlords and even the austere Taliban who study long works of classical Persian poetry as part of their education in religious schools.

It's the thread that runs between Afghanistan's often warring ethnic groups whether Tajik, Hazara, Pashtun, Uzbek, Turkmen, Nuristani, Baluch, or any of the many other sub-groups and clans.


But along with the death and destruction of the past three decades, Afghans say they also lost a chunk of their rich cultural heritage with Iran, Pakistan and even Turkey claiming parts of it.

Many, like Khalili, left the country to escape the wars and died in faraway lands which slowly began to claim them as their own, Afghanistan says.

Now it aims to get its heritage back.

“Iran wants to show the world it had a glorious past. This has been going on for years, they have been claiming many of our literary figures as their own. We cannot remain silent,” said Jalal Noorani, an adviser at the Information and Culture Ministry.

Debate has long raged over Rumi, arguably the greatest Persian poet, but now as Afghanistan begins to stand on its feet, the claims and counter-claims have intensified not only over him but also others.

Rumi, known as Mawlana Jalal-ud-Din Balkhi in Afghanistan and Mevlevi in Iran, was born in the 13th century in Balkh which was at the time an eastern part of the Persian empire of Khorasan but is now a province in northern Afghanistan.

His family moved and they eventually settled in present-day Turkey where he wrote some of the greatest mystic Sufi poetry in Persian.

Today, all three countries regard him as their national poet even though his poetry itself transcends borders, religion and ethnic divides.

Rumi's poetry is displayed on the walls of Tehran, sung in Iranian music and read in Iranian school books. Iranians are known to live with his poetry.

But Yamin says what is indisputable is that his origins were in Afghanistan. Rumi's occupies pride of place on a billboard in Yamin's room that gives details of the birth dates and place of birth of poets that others have laid claim to.

“We have repeatedly given evidence that these figures belong to Afghanistan, not Iran. When we sit down with the Iranians and discuss these issues, they don't offer any evidence. They say in the past both countries were one, so they call all these poets, philosophers Iranian,” said Yasmin.


Iranian embassy officials could not be reached for comment and did not respond to an email.

In the past, Iranians have challenged Afghanistan to a test of history, suggesting they were waking up a bit late to claim inheritance.

At a concert in Kabul a few years ago, an Iranian singer challenged any member of the audience to speak for two minutes on Rumi since they claimed he was their own. Afghan authorities took offence and the concert had to end hastily.

“Afghans are a bit late at this. Iran and Turkey have stolen their thunder,” said Mohammad Taqi, a US-based columnist for Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper who has written extensively on the Pashtun heartland straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Iran, he said, had milked Rumi and the whirling dervishes that his poetry inspired by setting up cultural centres on the pattern of Germany's Goethe Institute.

Still, this new burst of cultural revivalism in Afghanistan can help bridge the distance between the Tajiks and the Hazaras, and to a certain extent the Pashtuns, he said.

“A supra-ethnic Afghan identity needs non-violent icons.”


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Comments (7) Closed

zubair Jun 28, 2012 03:39pm
We all have one identity that tops all, that we are humans, after that the only thing that unite us is that we worship One God and bow down and surrender only in front of Him as Muslims. We need to remind ourselves of this important lesson we seem to forget causing this downfall we see. Wake Up! Zubair USA
Aikido Arjun Jun 29, 2012 03:16am
aren't these the guys who destroyed bamiyan buddhas ? what heritage are they talking about ? BTW, Zubair.....God is an indoctrination. Hope you'd realize.
Surinder Jeet Jun 30, 2012 02:03am
Zubair, it is good to bow down to your God as Muslims but the Afghans have problems with Muslim countries only. No non Muslim country has stolen their heritage. They did destroy the Bamiyan Budhas and the world did not hear a wimper of protest from the Middle East or its neighbours. Some mumbling did come after a few days out of embarrassment but it seemed that their 'brother countries' were happy to see the Budhas go. The disease of Myopia does effect long term effects, some even lasting over a thousand years.
mohammad Jun 30, 2012 04:50pm
What about all those Amerian Atheletes winning Gold medals for USA in the world olympics giving name and fame to her but were born in other countries. It would be absured and hipocritical if their countries of birth lay any claim on them.
Dr.M.Ayub Jun 30, 2012 04:13am
His name is Mullana Jalaluddin Balkhi so the name is a clear evidence that he is belong Afghanistan.Iranian also claim that Sayed Jamaluddin Afghani the great scholor is belong to Iran on the other hand Turkey claim the same which later on during the King Zahir Shah Afghanistan Showed evidence and made proved that he belong to afghanistan rather than any other country.Sayed Jamal-u-Din Afghan is one of the greatest scholars that Afghanistan has produced.Iran is disputing the origin of Jamal-u-din Afghan, Iran is claiming that Sayed Jamal-u-din was born in the city of Asad Abad, Iran. This confuses some people because the provincial capital of Kunar in Afghanistan is also called Asadabad. But Jamal-u-din himself claimed in his own writing to be a true proud Afghan. One of the reasons that these rumors was spread about his nationality was because he was a prominent figure in the anti-colonialism compaign against the British Empire in Afghanistan and its neighbours. Western powers used these rumor to destroy his image and start a dispute between the two neighbours. His death body was shifted from Turkey to afghanistan Kabul City at the heart of kabul university.Dr.M.Ayub Ayubi__
Javed Jun 29, 2012 01:08pm
The area, which is now Afghanistan, was part of greater Persia. The state of Afghanistan was created in 1709. Therefore, both Iran and Afghanistan can claim Rumi to be their poet. In my view, Rumi was a global poet with a global message of peace and he is read in the west and other countries more than in Afghanistan. Because of low literacy, very few people in Afghanistan can read Rumi's books. There is a popular saying “do not brag about what your ancestors were but tell us about your own status/condition”. Everyone knows what the condition of Afghanistan and Afghans is these days. What is more important is that Afghans need to promote education, enlightenment and progressiveness so that they can create many more great poets. Rumi was a promoter of peace, knowledge and wisdom and therefore his name should not be used to create a conflict. Based on what I have read about Rumi, he would not like his name is used for a conflict between two countries.
kakar Jun 28, 2012 06:24pm
it is a complicated issue of culture among three countries Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. we can solve this issue by comparing with other such issues in the World. Lets take the example of Iqbal he born in Sailkot now the part of Pakistan. At that time sailkot was the part of Hindustan (India). But now Iqbal is the National poet of Pakistan. if we apply this case on Rummi than it is clear that it is the right of Afghanistan to claim Rummi as Afghani or the Afghanistan prominent Philosopher and poet.