Literary Currents Series: An Interview with Atiq Rahimi
On the 25th of February 2011, I got a chance to sit down with Atiq Rahimi, world-renowned author of Earth and Ashes, The Patience Stone, and A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, and film director, at the Gaby Restaurant at the Sofitel Hotel on West 44th street in New York City while he was in the city to attend the Festival of New French Literature at NYU's Silver Center. Below is the full transcript of our conversation.
Time: 11:00 AM
Location: Gaby Restaurant, Sofitel Hotel 45 W. 44nd Street, NY NY
JK: Okay, so you were born in 1962 in Kabul and in 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. 1984 you go to Pakistan.
AR: No the first time in Pakistan was in 1979. I went to India for the first time. It was my first exile because my father was in India so I went to join him and for one year I was with him in India. And for six months I travelled alone when I was sixteen years old through all of India. It was my first experience in exile and to travel alone and I can say that I met myself at this time.
JK: On the road.
AR: Yes, on the road. Really. And this travel, this voyage really changed me in the realms of religion, ideology, everything. For me it was the internal voyage. And after I went back to Afghanistan one and a half years later just because I didn’t have the visa in India. I travelled for six months in India without a visa and when I went to leave, the police were very confused as to why I didn’t have a visa and said, “Oh, you have stayed here in India for six months without a visa.” And I spent one night in jail.
JK: All part of the experience, huh?
AR: Yeah [laughter]. After that they gave me my passport and I had to leave India in 48 hours and I didn’t have any money to go to another country so I came back to Afghanistan.
JK: So from Afghanistan you then went to France?
AR: Yeah, and after, in the summer of ’84 I left Afghanistan and this time, clandestinely. We were 24 young students and we walked nine days and nine nights.
JK: It was epic, eh?
AR: Yeah, really. And we arrived in Pakistan and then I asked the French embassy in Pakistan [for asylum] and in March of ’85 I arrived in France.
JK: So the Soviets arrive in 1979. They leave in 1988. The Americans come in 2001 and are of course still there. Paint a picture of your childhood and Afghanistan before these multiple invasions.
AR: Oh, it is not the same Afghanistan because before the Communist period Afghanistan really wanted to be a country like Iran at this time, the era of the Shah or Turkish, you know? The political model of Afghanistan was Turkish. In 1963 there was a new constitution in Afghanistan. It was not absolute monarchy but constitutional monarchy with a Parliament, election and at this time we had three women ministers and that was anti-Democracy. At this time it was part of the Communist party, Islamist party, Maoist, Democratic, Nationalist, every party was there with a representation in Parliament. But with the Soviet invasion everything changed because at this time it was the Cold War so the United States and Europe and all of this bloc wanted to create the green line in the south of the Soviet Union so why did they want to help the Muslim fundamentalists of this time? You know when I was in Pakistan in 1984/85 Bin Laden and his group were coming through Pakistan. And at this time the resistance in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen, changed in this time. Before the resistance was only opposed to the Soviet invasion and Islam was not really that important but after 1984, Islam became very important. Then liberty, then independence, then everything else.
JK: It was a good way of unifying people.
AR: Yeah. And this was a really important change in Afghanistan to me. Fundamentalism then grew within the Afghan resistance.
JK: I am interested too in more personal memories that you may have of the Afghanistan from your childhood versus the Afghanistan after the series of invasions. What changes did you see in people’s faces or in the spaces of Afghanistan?
AR: Ah, you know, this is going to be an anecdote but in 1980 I was a student and at this time I worked as a journalist on vacations for a magazine and I went to the North of Afghanistan alone. It was the beginning of war in Afghanistan and I was to make a report on the carbon mine in Afghanistan about the workers in this mine. And one day I had forgotten my camera in a local tea house. One week later, I came back and this guy said, “Oh, Mister!” I was a Mister for them, you know [laughter]. Maybe because of my blue eyes, etc. He told me that I had forgotten my camera here. It was one week later and he gave me my camera back. This explains the mentality of the people. This guy was poor. He was not a rich man because it was a very small tea house in the village and for them a camera was not very cheap and he could have taken it very easily but he wanted to give it to me. This is important for me, you know? But in 2002, after eighteen years of being away from Afghanistan, I went back. The first thing that I noticed was that the walls of each house were very high. The windows were all closed with brick and everybody would watch you with incertitude. Nobody talked with you.
JK: There were issues with trusting one another?
AR: Yes, there was no trust. They couldn’t believe in liberty, they couldn’t believe in those other things that I mentioned before. The second story I will tell you is that two years ago I was in a restaurant in Kabul and I had a sack with two cameras and everything else in it. I set it on the chair, had a drink, ate and 10 minutes later, my sack was gone! [laughter]
JK: A clear indication of the change, huh?
AR: You know, of course this is only anecdotal but for me it explains everything in this country, you know? Why? Because in thirty years of war, everything changed: the mentality and the confidence of people. Everybody had confidence before but no more. When you lose your confidence, you are afraid of everything, you don’t believe in everything, you know and you don’t have any confidence in yourself. And this is the beginning of the destruction of the culture, of identity; when you don’t believe in you, you don’t believe in your country, you don’t believe in your identity. So this was the big change: losing the identity and confidence in oneself. It’s very important and we do not have that now.
JK: I want to turn to Earth and Ashes, a book that was published in English in 2000 and later turned into a movie which you directed. In an interview with Nadia Ali Maiwandi in November of 2004 you stated that, “Women are absent. Woman is imagined.”
AR: Yeah, you know this story is very old because I wrote a short, short novel of four pages...I told you of my travels in the North of Afghanistan in 1980 and at this time I had the idea of this novel. And the first time I wrote this book was in Persian in 1996. And at this time the Taliban took power in Afghanistan and at the same time I lost my brother in Afghanistan. He was killed. And also I had a daughter in France. So I didn’t have a period of mourning for my brother because I was in France and he was in Afghanistan so for me the writing itself was a process of mourning. When my brother was killed, my parents didn’t tell me about it until two years after. And every time I talked to them I asked them why they didn’t to talk to me about it. And Earth and Ashes is an old man who wants to go to the mine to meet his son to tell him that their village was destroyed, etc, etc. But he wondered how he could announce the tragic news. It was my father. Why didn’t he want to tell me? Why? So these are words of mourning. But sometimes I ask of Afghanistan, “Why, every time there is violence, why after the Soviet invasion could we not have peace in Afghanistan?” I think after each war if you do not mourn you enter into a cycle of vengeance.
JK: And I think before you were talking about that. Maybe the violence is then internalized and this is why we have the walls, the lack of trust?
AR: Yes, and after the Soviet war people didn’t have time for mourning and this led to violence, to vengeance. So I wrote about this mourning and we had the opposite of mourning in this country. And I noticed the place of women in this country. In the movie we have two women. One is naked only in the imagination of the old man (his daughter-in-law) who was a home and she goes crazy and enters into the fire. This image is inside of the old man. The old man possesses this image of his daughter by law and sometimes I show another woman not naked but all the time in the burqa. We don’t know anything about her. She doesn’t have an identity. So for me, these are the two extremes. When the woman has an identity, she’s present in the society, she’s a body, she has a very tragic life. She is at the end of life. So when the woman takes an identity she’s condemned and damned. But the other woman doesn’t have an identity but she is alive in jail because the burqa is like a jail. So the question for me is always, “Why is the woman always absent in this society?” Because in this society she doesn’t have a face, doesn’t have an identity and they are always in the house, do not work. Of course after 2002, after the Taliban, they tried to give women an identity but it’s not easy because you can’t change the mentality just like that.
JK: But what’s interesting is that earlier you were talking about your experience in the tea shop where the man returned your camera and in that society where that man returned that camera also had within it what you are talking about; this lack of identity for women. Have you seen a change after the repeated wars in the role of women since the 1970s to now?
AR: You know, in the 70s my sister worked as a journalist and traveled alone all over Afghanistan. But the Communists entered Kabul, entered the province, and there were not these Islamists. The Communists wanted to expose the women but it was very extreme. But after, it was another culture, a culture that came from Arabic people, from Saudian people and Pakistani people. Afghan identity? This is for me Saudian identity. This influx changed our identity.
JK: Now in The Patience Stone the woman is given voice and the man has his voice taken away. I want to ask you something (and I know that you have been asked this before) but do you ever ask yourself, “I wonder how I can give voice to a woman? Is that okay?”
AR: [Laughter] Well, first to give the voice to the woman, we had to paralyze the man [laughter]. This is the unfortunate thing. But in countries like Afghanistan, Iran, and other dictatorships, voice becomes very important. So in Europe or the United States, the question is “to be or not to be?” But in Afghanistan with a dictator, the question becomes, “to say or not to say?” Because the voice does not exist here. You cannot love your life and say things opposite to government opinion. And for me, to give voice to women we had to paralyze this patriarchal right from the beginning. And for this woman, it is very important to talk. As a writer, I know that words are very important. In the beginning it was the verb. I believe that because if you don’t have voice, if you cannot explain everything you do some things to express yourself and take what is bottled inside and let it outside. Why is there all of this violence in Afghanistan? Because we don’t have voice. This is a very human characteristic. When children cannot say things, they become very frustrated. And if we don’t talk we do violent things. To change the combat to debate, this is the voice.
JK: I guess what else I was trying to get at is that a lot of writers are criticized when they take the voice of the “Other”, someone they are not. Did you ever question whether it was okay to use the voice of a woman as a man? I picture the old man with the image of the woman in his mind and I am wondering what the difference is between that and writing in the voice of the woman?
AR: Ah! Well, in the beginning I wanted to be inside this man. I wanted to write about what this man thinks when his wife tells him everything because she is not a good character, Parwaneh. She tells him too much sometimes, you know? She tells him the children are not his, that every time he was not there she was sleeping around and betraying him. Why? Because she cannot express herself and if you do not have access to voice these types of things will happen. So I wanted to think about how, if I was a man and I had to listen to everything like this what it would be like but when I started writing I could not do it. I was possessed by this woman and every time I wrote the woman came inside of me and would enter my head, my heart and tell me that she wanted to talk about herself, not this man [laughter]. And because I don’t really like all the Afghan traditions, it was this woman that I wanted in Afghanistan. To be, to be present.
JK: What was the reception of The Patience Stone in Afghanistan? What did women say?
AR: Yeah, some women liked it very much and thanked me. One woman really did not like it and asked how I could present all Afghan women as prostitutes and all Afghan men as helpless or powerless. Impotent. And in Europe all the time people said they didn’t believe in this Afghan woman because Afghan women cannot be like her. But when you read Madame Bovary do you think to yourself that all French women are like this? Or if I see a film of Scorsese like Taxi Driver, can I say that all taxi drivers are like that? Every time we make our image the stereotype unfortunately. As if by talking about this Afghan woman, I am talking about all Afghan women. No, this is one case. One novel. But this is my hope.
JK: And this gets me to my next question which is, do you ever feel that writing is an act of reverie? Of dream? There is a lot of dream imagery in your works.
AR: Yes. Nietzsche said, “We have art so that we shall not die by reality.” I don’t want to say my novel is about Afghanistan, about all Afghan women. I don’t know. Maybe there are some women like that. Of course, I have listened to so many stories. The quote that the novel is not reality but the possibility. For me, everything that I write is a possibility. This is a possible world.
JK: Right. The element of time. Not now but the could-be.
AR: Right. I am not an anthropologue, I am not an ethnologue, I am not a sociologue, not a journalist. Not to say that this is the Afghan reality. No, I cannot do that. This is a woman dreamed by me, hoped by me. That’s all. Any time you write, you hope to give the world something. A new hope, a new image. So I hope to find this kind of woman in Afghanistan.
JK: I want to talk about home because you left home really when you were 17/18 and yet for the 18 years you were in France, you continued to write about Afghanistan. Where is home for you and talk a little bit about home as dream.
AR: Mm. I will tell you a tale. A very good tale. Do you know Mullah Nasruddin? This is a very legendary character in our culture. And he said that one night, a man saw Mullah near a streetlamp looking for something. And he said, “Mullah, have you lost something?” “Yah! I lost the key to my house.” “Can I help you?” “Sure.” And this man looked for they key to Mullah’s house. Five minutes later, he had still not found the key and asked Mullah, “Are you sure you lost your key here?” And Mullah said, “No, I lost it in my home.” Surprised, the man said, “Then why are you looking for it here?” And Mullah said, “Because in my home there is no light.” A wonderful story, no?
For me, this is my story. My home was in the dark of terror, the dark of war. It was in the darkness of fundamentalism. Darkness everywhere. And there in my house, I lost the key to my identity, my liberty, the key to my independence. So I went somewhere where there was light, where there was liberty, where there was independence. France. And I was looking for my key. But of course I could not find it because I left it in my country. But I created it in my imagination. Writing about Afghanistan is like creating my key. This is my opinion, you know? So where am I now? When I am in France, I am an Afghan. When I am in Afghanistan, I am French. Now I say that I don’t live within a country. I live within the world. Now my country is a white page...
JK: A home within your head.
AR: Yeah [laughter].
JK: La maison du tete?
AR: Oui, la maison du tete. And my heart. But every year I am looking for this key. From ’98 until today I cannot stay in one place longer than three weeks. I have to leave. I have to travel.
JK: I am the same [laughing]. You start to go stir-crazy as well?
AR: Yeah [laughing].
JK: I wanted to talk more about this liberation of women. In the States here and I know in Europe as well, there is a big drive to liberate women, give voice to women. I don’t know what that means, liberation, as I think it differs for everyone. So I would be interested to know what you think that is. The other part of that is, if we liberate somebody or a group of people, does that person or group not enter into a new form of oppression?
AR: This is a very important question because it is not only about people from Afghanistan. It is about the human condition. Some things: for a long time we talked a lot about the characteristics of each culture. We said, “Okay, liberty cannot be in this culture or civilization cannot be in this country.” I don’t believe that because all humans have rights. There is some universality, some universal sentiments like love. If you’re American, if you’re Afghan, if your Pakistani, if you’re Japanese, love is love. But my love is different than your love and this is the other thing of course but the sentiment of love is the same. I think it is the same with liberty too. Of course, sometimes some people have a different idea of liberty but for me it is similar to love. People have different ideas of love. But when I see an Afghan woman who cannot eulogize her husband. Of course there are so many women in Afghanistan who accept that. Why? Because they do not have any other idea of liberty. Because she doesn’t know outside of her village, outside of her country. Because she doesn’t know. She thinks that this is the reality, this is everything so everything is the same everywhere else. This is the problem. The problem is the choice, not liberty. When you have the choice, then you can have the liberty. Without choice it is impossible. Of course everybody has their own idea of liberty. My liberty is not the same as this other person but one thing is important: this guy has to have some idea of my liberty and our liberty just to choose between them. Liberty as a concept means nothing to me because we cannot define it, we cannot explain it. Love: we cannot explain what love is. We have to have the choice because this is all based in experience. Then we can have an idea of what liberty is.
JK: War and conflict brings death and destruction but also tends to bring new ideas. Talk a little bit about the role of war and conflict in introducing new conceptions of sentiments such as liberty.
AR: You know, war will never end. Humanity is better off with war. Literature began with war unfortunately. Really. Think of the Iliad. All the war literature of Greece. Odyssey. They all talk about war. Mahabharata in India. It’s war. The Shah-nama. Art of War from Japan. All the literature of the world begin with literature. We cannot get away from war.
JK: We are stuck with it.
AR: Unfortunately, yes.
JK: War is featured in all of your works as well. You would have to find something else to write about if war disappeared.
AR: Right [laughter]. I don’t believe we can transfer our violence into other things. In theory of course, we try to do it through peace, etc. Maybe for three years, maybe at most fifty. But then the economy needs war. Unfortunately, this is part of life. We cannot change it. So many people come and say, we don’t want war, we don’t want violence and they themselves can then become very violent and start war.
JK: In September of 2001 we started to watch the build-up in the States and the likely possibility of the States going into Afghanistan. Watching this and knowing that it was likely going to happen, what were your feelings and thoughts at the time? Did you say, “Again!?”
AR: You know, I just want to say some words about this war in Afghanistan. We talked about this violence and this civil war in Afghanistan in ’92 just after the Russian invasion. And at this time, I watched as everyone yelled, “Why doesn’t America do something for Afghanistan? Why don’t they send their military to Afghanistan?” Everybody was saying this. From commoners to intellectuals. They were saying, “You do these things for people in Yugoslavia. Why not in Afghanistan?” And as soon as the Americans came to Afghanistan, everyone said, “Why are they in Afghanistan!?” [laughter].
JK: Never happy.
AR: Never happy, never happy. We have to see everything through some distance. First, this war in Afghanistan is not for the Afghan people. This is the war between humanity and some fundamentalist movement. International fundamentalists. Because it is not only the American force in Afghanistan but an international force, the UN, etc. And same with the other side. They are Taliban but they are not only Taliban. Pakistani Taliban. Saudian Taliban. There are so many people from Pakistan with the Afghan people. And so this is between two movements, you know. This is not an Afghan war unfortunately. But in the beginning they had the international forces of course that came into Afghanistan to do this war, to chase the Taliban, al Qaeda, etc. But after there were so many political mistakes like war in Iraq. And this is important: when they pushed the Taliban from Afghanistan it was finished there for three or four years but in three or four years they were in Pakistan and this time they organized themselves. They found an army, money, arms, everything to organize and come back to Afghanistan. But they thought it was finished and moved to focus on Iraq. And this was a very big mistake. Because as you know, in Pakistan there is the secret service called ICI. The army of Pakistan is controlled by fundamentalists. But you know, Pakistan is our friend and this was a mistake. Because for Pakistan people, Afghanistan (and for Iran too) is good for negotiations with the United States. I remember very well in 2004 when the United States Senate asked why they were helping Pakistan people. There is no Democracy, there is no liberty, we give them money every year, etc. And one week later America was in Afghanistan in the beginning of September and this time Pakistan said, “Okay. If you don’t help me, you will see.” For Pakistan and also the Chinese, Afghanistan is a place to change money, to negotiate. And when you go to Afghanistan, there are so many Chinese restaurants. So many of the commercial items, even our traditional items, come from China and there is so much espionage occurring through the restaurants there. It’s not only the fundamentalists. There is also this other war. There is the war of business, the commercial war. So Afghanistan is in the middle of all of this between Chinese, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia. And we have two civilizations. One I have named Abrahimic civilization (Judeo-Christian) and they have a different idea of the afterlife. The Indians and the Chinese do not have the same ideas, the same civilization. It is another logic, another vision of the world, another vision of life, another vision of death. There is another vision of business. And Afghanistan is in the middle of all of this. And we cannot separate Afghanistan from the world. If something is wrong in the world, it is wrong in Afghanistan too.
JK: And we come back to the idea of voice. In this case, giving a place voice. Before we go, are there projects that you are working on that people can look forward to?
AR: Literally just now, my fifth book has been sent to press and on March 10th, it will be on the shelves in France. The title is Damned Dostoevsky and also in May I will shoot my film, the adaptation of The Patience Stone in Morocco. I also have an opera of Earth and Ashes in Lyon. So many others [laughter].
JK: Thank you very much.
Bio of Atiq Rahimi
French-Afghan writer and filmmaker, Atiq Rahimi fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and relocated to France. After studying at the Sorbonne, he joined a production company and made several documentaries for French television. He began writing in the late 1990s, with his first novel, Earth and Ashes, written in Persian, becoming an instant bestseller in Europe and South America. The film version of Rahimi’s book has won 25 awards, including the Prix du Regard vers l'Avenir at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. In 2008, Rahimi won the Prix Goncourt for Syngué Sabour (translated into English as The Patience Stone), his fourth book but first written in French. Rahimi returned to his native Afghanistan in 2002. As Senior Creative Advisor for that nation’s largest media group, Moby Group, he developed programs and genres for its various media outlets, and helped develop and train a new generation of Afghan filmmakers and directors. Rahimi is currently in pre-production of the film version of Syngué Sabour, which he will direct from his screenplay.