The (Afghan) Writer Who Sold His Book Collection to Pay the Rent

13 December, 2021
Kab­ul-born poet and writer Javed Farhad pre­pares to sell his trea­sured book col­lec­tion (pho­to cour­tesy Javed Farhad).

Àngeles Espinosa

1 in 3 Afghans are going hungry and two million children are malnourished.

With the coun­try on the verge of star­va­tion, the loss of a few books may seem like a small mat­ter. How­ev­er, the image of the 52-year-old Afghan poet and writer Javed Farhad get­ting rid of his library in order to feed his fam­i­ly and pay the rent, sums up like few oth­ers the dehu­man­iza­tion that Afghanistan is suf­fer­ing. Deprived of a min­i­mum income, all their effort goes into sur­vival. There is no time for cul­ture, let alone recre­ation. “I feel strange, it’s as if I had sold my chil­dren,” he wrote in the text that accom­pa­nied the pho­to on his Face­book pro­file and repeats in con­ver­sa­tion with a for­eign reporter at his home in Kabul.

It was not an easy deci­sion, but it was nec­es­sary. “I owed three months’ rent and since the Tal­iban took over, I lost my job as a uni­ver­si­ty lec­tur­er and as an edi­tor at Khur­shid tele­vi­sion sta­tion,” says Farhad who, like most Afghans, com­bined two jobs to sup­port his fam­i­ly — and Afghan fam­i­lies are not small. In addi­tion to his wife, who also lost her job at the Human Rights Office, the writer has four chil­dren, two of whom are mar­ried and live with their wives at home because they are still at uni­ver­si­ty, and a grand­child by one of the couple.

The dire economy has led to the closure of 95% of libraries, bookshops and publishing houses in Kabul.

Among the 2,000 vol­umes Farhad had amassed in his library, there were sev­er­al collector’s items, includ­ing two man­u­script books from the begin­ning of the last cen­tu­ry. There were also three works by Fed­eri­co Gar­cía Lor­ca, includ­ing Blood Wed­ding, trans­lat­ed into Per­sian. But what he found most dif­fi­cult to part with was the col­lec­tion of poet­ry by Maulana Jalalud­din Moham­mad Balkhi, bet­ter known as Rumi, the influ­en­tial Per­sian mys­tic poet. The writer’s eyes water at the mem­o­ry. Only a dozen books have remained, includ­ing two writ­ten by his wife.

Even so, the painful sep­a­ra­tion has only tem­porar­i­ly alle­vi­at­ed their hard­ship. The mon­ey raised, equiv­a­lent to 700 euros, a twelfth of what they cost him, only cov­ers the rent for the three months due. “I still have anoth­er two months to pay,” he says.

In addi­tion to hard­ship, there is fear. Farhad has been attacked twice by the Tal­iban, the last time only a month ago. He was not at home and his eldest son who was with him was beat­en up. He con­fess­es that he is afraid and that some­times he sleeps at his sister’s or a friend’s house.

“The Tal­iban are anti-cul­ture, anti-music, anti-poet­ry and anti-free­dom,” he says, before point­ing out that they have post­poned indef­i­nite­ly all cul­tur­al activ­i­ties. Many Afghan artists have gone into hid­ing. The eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion has also led to the clo­sure of 95% of libraries, book­shops and pub­lish­ing hous­es in the cap­i­tal, accord­ing to sources in the sec­tor quot­ed by ToloNews. “Artists and writ­ers have a very dark future,” says Farhad. “If the Tal­iban stay in pow­er, those like me who have not left the coun­try will do so in the future,” he predicts.

That’s why he calls on for­eign artists and intel­lec­tu­als to show sol­i­dar­i­ty by offer­ing aid or places to stay to Afghans so that they can leave the coun­try with dig­ni­ty, espe­cial­ly women writ­ers. “There used to be many of them at our meet­ings, but now we don’t know whether they are at home or have man­aged to leave,” he says with concern.

Per­son­al­ly, he would pre­fer to stay if his safe­ty and that of his fam­i­ly were guar­an­teed and he is allowed to write. “Under threat, it is not pos­si­ble to live like this,” Farhad says. He also fears that things will get worse because he doesn’t think the Tal­iban have changed as they pre­tend to have done. “They are only act­ing more pru­dent­ly to get out­side recog­ni­tion,” he believes. It hurts him that the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty does not have a clear pol­i­cy in this regard and he is will­ing to accept that the Tal­iban be rec­og­nized “if they at least respect half of what is asked of them” in terms of human rights and free­dom of expression.


This col­umn first appeared in El País and is trans­lat­ed here by Jor­dan Elgrably.


Ángeles Espinosa is El País correspondent for the Persian Gulf, based in Dubai and previously in Tehran. She specializes in the Arab and Islamic world. She has written El tiempo de las mujeres, El Reino del Desierto and Días de Guerra. She has a journalism degree from Complutense University (Madrid) and a Masters in International Relations from SAIS (Washington DC).


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