Afghanistan has a rich and ancient poetic and storytelling tradition, going back over the millennia.”Khalid Wardak
Khalid Wardak is an Edmonton-based writer currently working on a memoir about his early life in Afghanistan. Although his work is yet to be published, I’m intensely curious to read it and learn about his experiences. He and I have had several conversations about our writing, Afghanistan, and life in general. He graciously agreed to be interviewed, and in doing so, provided a tremendous amount of insight into his influences and process.
Phil: Firstly, I’d love to know what spurred you to start writing your memoir, The Wicked Taliban?
Khalid: It was that itch to scratch at first really, to put pen to paper and write about something—anything really—philosophy, mysticism, poetry, whatever. I tried dabbling in all of that, before settling on storytelling. I began writing “The Wicked Taliban,” out of the blue when its title and opening lines came to me while walking home one evening this last April at the height of COVID-fever. I remember that moment well, as I couldn’t wait to get home and start typing away fast and furious. I did just that, not going to bed until the early hours of the morning.
I love it when you get that spark, and the ideas start to flow! Unfortunately, writing doesn’t always work that way (for me, at least). What’s the hardest part of writing for you? What does your writing practice look like?
I write intuitively and you can call me a pantser at this stage, working my legs to soon graduate to the league of the plotters. Now it seems that I either have the words and the story or I don’t, and instead draw a complete blank. That’s a great challenge to overcome for everyone I think, when you are staring at that screen and the screen stares back at you. Editing is another great and unmet challenge for me still and I realize that I need help—professional help—but am doing the best I can on that front and raising my game all the time.
That’s a really interesting observation: I think that learning to edit, and to work with an editor, is actually an overlooked writing skill. There is a lot of truth to the idea that everyone’s first drafts suck, and that editing reveals gems hidden in bad writing. On that front, I’ve had a lot of success with the online editing app, Hemingway. It’s not prescriptive. It doesn’t suggest edits, it just highlights problem areas. That helps me to focus my editing efforts without changing the feel or tone of my writing.
Thanks for the software hint, I haven’t used any as of yet and as for the rest of your observations, I am in perfect agreement. Editing is hard. Hemingway himself put it well when he said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Afghanistan has a rich artistic tradition of poetry and storytelling. How do you draw on this, and your education in Afghanistan, to impact your writing?
You are absolutely right. Afghanistan does have a rich and ancient poetic and storytelling tradition, going back over the millennia to the Vedas (the sacred chants and myths of the Aryan people) and then in conversation with the ancient Greeks, when they ruled that part of the world. That would have been well over two thousand years ago by now. Then you have the post-Islamic era, which gives a whole new imagination and rich (Arabic) vocabulary to the poet and storyteller, and a whole new mythos to work with through the Koranic motifs. You can’t have a better or more fertile soil than that—to have influences from Jerusalem, Athens and Balkh come together in one place. That was the rich substrate of the soil that gave birth to a poet such as Rumi (Mawlana Jalaluddin Balkhi). I think he was almost inevitable, and all those influences show up in his poetry as well. Oral storytelling and fables are another great pastime over there in Afghanistan, and that’s where we find the stories of the jinns and that princess in her castle waiting for prince charming. The kind of stories one hears from their sweet granny before bedtime. All that must and does show up in my writing, and one of my favourite stories I ever wrote was a story that my mom told me, and I call it that.
I love that you’ve brought the Greeks into this discussion. The Greek societies left behind by Alexander the Great, and the mixing of cultures along the trade routes between East and West, created a really rich mixing of cultures that many people aren’t aware of. Whether that is the Greek influence to the typical way that sculptures depict the Buddha’s hair, or the Persian influence on Greek pottery (like the drinking vessel called a rhyton), this should be better known. Even in ancient times, Afghanistan didn’t exist in isolation.
I agree, that’s an often-overlooked chapter of the history of antiquity of the region. And the influence of the Greeks lives on! In Afghanistan there is a love for everything that has to do with martial pursuits and war—dog fighting, Greco-Roman wrestling, kite fighting, quail fighting, but also the love of debating, music and dance.
So that being said, what are the Western influences on your writing?
I am hopelessly in love with the ancient Greeks—Plato and Aristotle through Socrates and then the pre-Socratics as well. I think that the Republic and Symposium are irreplaceable human treasures that have no peers. I received Dicken’s Oliver Twist as a gift when I was a kid and read it in translation, and that fired up my imagination and gave me those itchy fingers to write something like that myself someday. I will read Les Miserables and Rousseau’s Confession the same way (in translation). When it comes to poetry in the Western tradition, I love some of what’s there in Ezra Pound’s Cantos as well as modernist works by Yeats and T.S Eliot. I also love what Robert Bly has done with his translation of mystical poetry. I don’t read much fiction, and so that has less influence on my storytelling, but who does come to mind are George Orwell, Faulkner and the whiffs of inspiration that I picked up from the Latin American writers and their self-described school and style of magical realism or “lo real magical,” and from writers the like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
I’ve always thought that magical realism was a genre that was well suited to Afghanistan! The idea of the legendary and the magical intersecting with gritty reality seems like a way to integrate that rich vein of Afghan (and Persian and Islamic) stories with reality. I have read that there is a strain of Iranian literature that uses magical realism as a device, but I must admit that I don’t know much of anything of the details. I would love to read something like Pedro Parámo written through an Afghan lens, though.
I have to read Juan Rulfo and Pedro Parámo to then give my measured response, but for me, the definition of magical realism goes back to Ezra Pound’s vision in his critical and youthful essay “The Spirit of Romance,” where he calls the newbies to the craft to maintain a perfect balance and following a “pattern, at once historical and atemporal, of cultural beginnings and re-beginnings.”
How does your interest in poetry influence how you write prose?
To a great degree perhaps, although I’m perhaps not able to quantify it exactly. I’m not sure I’ve even been fully conscious of it in my writing. Poetry is where I began to put my aesthetic curiosity to the test at first—through the translations of poetry from Hafez, Mawlana and others. I thought for a long time that it would be the extent of my artistic/aesthetic endeavours. Poetry is still there in my writing, in my own naked attempts at it and in the translations that I do as well. I have no less than five poems that I intend to include in “The Wicked Taliban.”
I agree! There’s no reason to draw a thick line between poetry and prose, and mixing them together can tell a story in a much more effective way than using either in isolation.
I hope it doesn’t torpedo the project, to be honest. I’ve heard that publishers and agents don’t like the mixing of poetry and prose all that much, but I am keeping my fingers crossed.
If it works, it works—and both agents and publishers like what works. It’s hard to talk about anything these days without talking about the pandemic. How has the pandemic changed your view on the role of artists and writers in society?
The pandemic helped me, lol! I was finally confined long enough to string together enough words to both begin and complete a decent body of work. I’ve written quite a few pieces so far during the pandemic. And I’d like to point out that mystics and monks of all the ages lived in solitude and practiced social isolation most of their lives, as that critical step towards achieving quietude and reflection and piety. In doing that, I thought it was my duty, as a presumptive artist/writer, to show people the silver lining and meaning that is in this pest and affliction that is visiting upon us.
Oh man, now you’ve got me thinking about the Beats as an influence! I’ve found a lot of solace in rereading Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs, Ginsburg and Snyder, all of whom were seeking some sort of quiet and beatitude to produce their art and as a result of it. Your writing has a beat quality to it, in terms of the rhythm of it especially.
To be honest, I haven’t yet had the chance to read any of the Beats.
Well, I’d suggest you start with something like Tristessa or On the Road by Kerouac. Listening to them as audio books is the way to hear the rhythm of the work. Kerouac also saw himself as a poet first and a novelist second, and perhaps that is where I see the similarity. Or maybe it is the pandemic that has me thinking about the Beats. That movement sprung, in part, from the disruption of the Second World War and the way that American society changed in response to it. Something similar might happen post-pandemic.
OK, back to the topic at hand. If someone wanted to learn more about Afghan history or culture, what would you recommend they read or watch?
That all depends, as I am sure you know there’s s a wide field out there of things to read on that subject. There are some excellent books about the recent/modern history of Afghanistan. If someone is interested in the background to the so-called War on Terror and what happened to that broken land in the run up to it, then I would recommend Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars.” To tap into the true cultural richness of that ancient culture, though, one has to dig way deeper than that and it would take tremendous effort just to get beyond the surface. Take Rumi as an example—to really understand his writing, one would have to be as well learned as he was in things like medieval theology and mysticism, as well as fluent in Arabic and Dari (the very specific dialect of Farsi that he uses). And don’t forget about reading the Greeks, too.
Steve Coll’s books are all terrifically well researched and well written, and I really enjoy them. Directorate S was terrific too. We’ve talk before about Poetry of the Taliban, too. Poetry gives us a window into people’s lives and feelings that our typical dialogue about Afghanistan often misses. I suspect that most Canadians would be surprised to know that the Taliban have had a website since 2005, and that a lot of the content on it is poetry!
I agree, Steve Coll’s great, although I haven’t read “Directorate S” yet. Your observations on the Taliban are head on, and I am baffled by their media savvy and sophistication. I listen to some of the members of their cultural committee who hold live debates with callers, and they are sharp tongued and know what they are talking about.
There is so much to dig into that interests me that there isn’t enough time in my lifetime to get through it all, and I can tell that you feel the same way. And the more that I read, the more that I have the strong sense that everything is connected.
Thanks for this opportunity to speak, Phil! And thanks indeed for all the conversations, guidance and support that has lifted my spirit. I understand that I have a long road yet to go towards becoming a published author, and it helps when you have found someone in your writing tribe and they are so ready to help.
Our conversations have been a pleasure for me, too! It’s inspiring to talk to writers at all stages of their journey. This won’t be our last conversation, but I want to end this one by wishing you the best of luck on all your projects!