The first time I met Bashir Sakhawarz was in 2005 in Ferrara, Italy, where we were both hosts of the Migrant Literary Festival Voci del Silenzio together with other artists coming from all over the world.
Since that time Bashir and I have always kept in touch, I remember asking him to let me read his work, I remember sending him mails saying he should give space to his talent, as he is a good writer. I translated a very compelling piece for an Italian literary magazine (STILOS) which had the first full page for its reflection on 9/11 from an Afghan point of view. Then I read his first novel in English “ Maargir. The snake charmer”, and what I sensed before, I knew it for real, Bashir is a good writer. Yes, he is.
Divided between science (he is an engineer) and literature, Bashir has started in his very early years using pen and paper. He first published on Kabuli magazines at the age of 17. There were poems mostly inspired by Rumi.
It will be unfair to read his work without taking into consideration his exile experience and migration to UK from Afghanistan during the Russian invasion of the country.
I couldn’t miss the chance to interview in the occasion of the recent release of “Maargir. The snake charmer” an enlightening novel about Afghanistan the way we haven’t read yet.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Where does your story begin?
BASHIR SAKHAWARZ - I was born in Kabul. Those days when someone was born, the family celebrated the birth with joy, laughter and music. When I was born women played daff, the drum sang some songs and my mother stayed in bed for 40 days, not because she was sick, but because it was the custom and only on the 40th day which is called chela goraiz ( leaving 40 days behind in Persian language). My mother was allowed to get off the bed and start normal life of being a house wife but until then mother was allowed to relax, eat chicken soup for 40 days and let the other women do the cooking and cleaning. In those days there were plenty of aunts who were eager to help.
My uncle named me Bashir, (the good news in Arabic language) and I was indeed the god news because I was born after the death of a lovely sister who left a deep sorrow in the heart of my father. My birth, somehow, reduced the sorrow. I was the second child now but born the third after two girls which one died before I was born. My father was a simple employee of the government and my mother was a house wife.
Death in those days in Kabul was very rare and when it happened, it left a big mark in the heart of the loved ones. The first major death was the death of my uncle from my mother’s side. He was very young and died when he was crossing the road struck by a lorry. Uncle Noor left a very deep scar in the heart of mother and she never recovered after that. In those days deaths were of natural causes or car accidents. The second death of another uncle was of a natural cause. He died of appendicitis. Natural? Yes natural. He died in his village in Nijrab and was not sent to the hospital. The doctor heard of the case later and told my father that he died of a very simple illness. My mother was devastated this time. Fortunately after these two deaths that my mother lost his only brothers, there was no death but plenty of births. After me, six more children were born and we became a very big family of 8 children.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - And then?
At the age of six I went to school. I hated it because I was bullied, and started to like it after the fourth grade, when I was able to read the history of our country. The history was written in a storytelling way and since that time, history remained my favourite subject. It was history which made me to read stories.
Tell me the memory of your childhood you are more attached to?
BASHIR SAKHAWARZ - During school holiday we went to Nijrab, where my mother comes from. It was here that I learned about love, nature, poetry and music. Boys were the best singers and they dedicated their songs to beautiful girls. At night we sat on the rooftops where my cousins and relatives sang songs, girls cooked and my aunt Shahla told us amazing stories. They were love stories such as “Arab Bacha wa moghal dokhtar, the Arab boy and Moghal girl” The story was in poetry form.
I have two hundred horses
I have two hundred wild servants
With god’s will
I would give them all to Moghal dokhtar
Come my dear Moghal
Come my bunch of flowers
Moghal dokhtar is in the garden
I can see her without a warden
She is under the wine tree
Very happy and care free
Girls and boys of Nijrab were wild. They waited for the corns to grow tall in the field and they met there where no one could see them. There was no inhibition in those days. With water everywhere boys and girls bathed together. I saw firm breasts those days but did not pay attention. We did not know the difference between boys and girls. At night we gazed at the clear sky full of shiny stars. My favourite was a bunch of star called haft dokhtaraan ( seven girls). In the distance someone played flute and Khala Shahla told us that it was the sound of love. Someone was in love and could not sleep the whole night.
BASHIR SAKHAWARZ - Yes. Coming back to Kabul was a nightmare. I missed Nijrab and may be out of this feeling I found a new talent in myself. I started writing stories and sent them to our only magazine for children, Anis-e Atfaal. In those days father gave me two Afghanis as my pocket money. I kept this money until Friday when the children magazine was published. I was delighted seeing my stories published which I showed them to my classmates but none of them believed that those stories were mine. At the age of 17 my stories, poems and articles were published in grown up magazines. My articles were about history of Afghanistan, my poems were very similar to poems of Rumi because I was reading his poetry every day and my stories were influenced by leftist writers, mainly covering a topic of poor people struggling against the rich people. I continued writing until the communist regime took control of the country and restricted the publication of those materials which were written by those who were not communist. Fortunately the radio accepted my poems to be broadcasted, especially those which were influenced by Rumi.
I create you
Through the sadness of the time
Through the heat of evaporation
Through the dust of none returned caravans
Through the soul of stone
Through oceans of stillness.
I create you
Behind my closed window
Behind sleepy eyes
In the darkness of being
In the boundary of shadows.
Just two syllabus
Just two syllabus and yet an ocean
Without it oceans are empty
The highest fortress
An old man with crashed shoulders
Shaky faulty tower
Once a nest of singing birds
Today naked without soul
Naked without song
Raped by avalanche
A hanging garden
A hanged life
I create you like a poet
On the back of my poetry book
On my walks
On my talks
On my deserted Island
I create you with poetry, wine, dust, stillness, happiness, time, laughter, repetition, sadness.
My mistress hidden in torn clothes
My lover in my cold bed
I create you with a single tear
A two syllabus word
A journey of history
Without you Rustam not born
Without you Buddha in sky
Without you Mahabarat not written
A silent eye
In a quiet sky
A virgin in solitude
A raped widow
A picnic garden of the Americans
A goal post of Russians
A melting pot of bad guys Taliban
Good guys Mujahideen
A rainbow of peace
A laughter ha ha ha
Haha and ha ha ha
A laughter of a drunken man with no tune
A forgotten woman
A bride of thousand men
A diary of adventures
A travelling man
Racing through curves
A book of tragedy
A story within story
I see you in distance
I feel you under my skin
Tonight I sleep with you Kabul.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Life went smooth till...
BASHIR SAKHAWARZ - It was a very cold December morning when I got up from bed to go to the bakery to buy some freshly baked bread for the family. As I reached the roundabout near our house I saw a big army tank with a man who was wearing a Russian hat on top of it. I stared at the man and he stared back. I bought the bread, went back home and told father about the tank and the man with the Russian hat. “God has mercy up on us,” father said.
“What happened?” I asked. “Go and bring the radio.” I brought the radio and father switched it on. It was Babrak Karmal the communist leader who was saying that the Soviet Union army has come to Afghanistan to save revolution from the hand of enemy. My father said that Babrak Karmal was in Tajikistan and he was broadcasting his message from there. Amazing the man himself was in Soviet Union and the Red Army was in Kabul in full control of our streets. I knew Babrak Karmal very well. Many years ago he came to our mosque during Friday prayer and told us about danger of enemies behind the mountains who were trying to invade our country. Ironically the person, who warned us about the enemy, brought the enemy from across the river. With Red Army on the streets, revolution started to heat up. I was university student at that time and very angry young man. My anger was not directed to Soviet Union. I was angry with my mother for forcing me to study science. There were only eight girls in my class of 120 students while classes of the faculty of literature had more than 60% girls. With the invasion of my country by the Soviet Union there was no time for romance. My classmates were put to prison and I never saw them again. Villages were bombed and refugees left out country for Iran and Pakistan. But I didn’t have any plan to leave the country. After university I even joined the army. Fortunately I was not active in fighting anybody. I was posted in army publishing house writing articles for the army. My service supposed to be 6 months. I served 8 months and then I heard that the communists wanted all graduates to serve for at least 3 years. That was it. I decided to leave. I did not want to fight on either side. I did not believe in Russian communism and in Mujahidin jihad.
VALENTINA ACAVA MAKA - How did you escape?
BASHIR SAKHAWARZ - The night that I decided to leave Kabul was snowing heavily. I was in my army compound. I waited until my turn for guarding the compound started. Midway during my duty, I left my papasha gun under my blanket and left the dormitory. Outside a guide to take me to Pakistan was waiting for me. We walked for five days and night to cross the border and many times I cursed myself for leaving the country like this. I was exhausted. The only thing which was pushing me to walk was the fear of being captured by the army. If was captured I would have been shot at the spot for deserting my army post.
After reaching Pakistan I realised what I have done to myself. I saw tugs on the streets of Peshawar called themselves Mujahidin. They had long hair, long beard and some of them holding hands with young boys. It was worse than any western movie and more dangerous than anywhere in the world.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA -What hurted you most of that time?
BASHIR SAKHAWARZ - Poverty was another thing which was crashing my soul. I came to Pakistan without money and getting a job was impossible. How could I get a job in a country where half of its population was out of job? I was forced to eat rotten bananas. I could get 6 bananas for the price of ata aana or half rupee. Poverty, depression and lack of good food and clean water to drink made me seriously sick and I became of a victim of typhoid. Just by miracle when I was almost dead because my body temperature reached 42 degree Celsius, a friend met an Afghan doctor who lived in USA and had come to Pakistan to work as a doctor, helping Afghan refugees. The doctor came to my house which was a shack and immediately diagnosed that I was suffering from typhoid. He asked me to come to his clinic which was a very hard thing to do because I could not walk. That was 1982. I want to see that doctor to thank him because he saved my life, but so far I have not found him. I was cured of the illness but not finding job and poverty made me very depressed. One day I heard that a friend from school had arrived in Peshawar. I went to see him. He was a very intelligent man. When we met we both started to complain about communists in Afghanistan and the Mujahidin in Pakistan. “You know there is a cow with big eyes but almost blind and there is eagle with tiny eyes which can see the fish in the sea from the sky. Unfortunately our people belong to the cow type. We are people with big eyes but all of us blind,” - He said. And then he gave me an address of a famous Afghan writer called Majroh and advised me to see him to get a job with him. Majroh had also come from USA and opened an office to produce magazines in three languages, Farsi, Pashto and English. He was covering the war in Afghanistan.
Majroh had a very beautiful house at the middle of expensive area of Peshawar where foreigners lived. People told me some international organisations helped him to pay for his expenses. I didn’t care who was paying him. All I wanted was to have a job and to have a job as a writer was most desirable for me. Majroh interviewed me and agreed to give me a job provided I pass written examination whereby he would choose a topic and I would write about that topic. I was ready to take the test there and then but he told me that he was not free at that moment and I could come next week. When I left Majroh's house, for the first time I was excited. I knew that I would pass the test easily. As usual I walked towards home which was a distance of more than 10 kilometres under hot sun, when my mind went blank. The next time that I opened my eyes I was in the hospital. It was after three days. Apparently on the way home a car hit me on the pedestrian path. How that can happen? Pedestrian path is only for the pedestrian. But this was Peshawar, the wildest part of the world and anything could happen. The driver had disappeared and I was brought to the hospital by some kind people.
It took me long time to recover and during this time another friend give me the address of a construction company to apply for a job of foreman to supervise the activities of the labourers. The payment was slightly more than what the labourers were getting. I worked there for more than six months but when the construction of the building that I was working on was over, I lost my job. By this time I was tired of life all together, let alone being tired of Peshawar. So I decided to do what only a madman would do. I used half of my saving and bought a bicycle and the other half paid for the membership of the only swimming pool in Peshawar which was in Intercontinental Hotel. The bicycle was bought for me to cycle there because there was no bus going that way. Total madness. Spending all my money on bicycle and swimming pool membership had one meaning. It was like destroying all the bridges behind. Basically I wanted to spend whatever I had and then go back to Afghanistan and I knew going there meant death but somehow that death seemed to be with dignity. In less than two weeks I lost my bicycle. Some thieves stolen it from where I locked it near the entrance of the hotel, but I did not care anymore. It was going to disappear soon anyway once I left Pakistan which was going to be after my membership was expired and that was for one month only.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - How did you feel when you reached England?
BASHIR SAKHAWARZ - I felt I have come to paradise when I reached South Devon in UK. Beaches were full of naked women and pubs full of beer but my happiness was short because soon my whole family, my parents with seven children became refugees in Pakistan and I had to study and then work in restaurants until midnight to save money and send it to them in Pakistan. Ten years later when I had a good job in England, I started writing again. But my writing sometimes became secondary to my work . I worked in England for five years and then I went to work in many developing countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kosovo and Belize. Now I am in Geneva and the beauty tranquillity of this country helped me to write none stop. I am writing every day, thanks to Geneva.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA -What were your feelings leaving Afghanistan, being an exiled?
BASHIR SAKHAWARZ - I was worried mainly about my writing. Will I be able to write again after leaving Afghanistan? I was worried about my books that I will not see them anymore. I had developed my own library. It was small but had the best books available at the time. And of course I left my child there and by that I mean my first collection of poetry. I never saw that child again.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - What did you feel when you returned to your country?
BASHIR SAKHAWARZ - It was not the country that I lived 21 years ago. The war replaced kindness, generosity, love, humanity that the Afghans were famous for with hate, cheat, corruption, lie and many other problems. Going back to Afghanistan, helped me to accept the world as my homeland. Now I love UK. While before I was always homesick. I don’t call Afghanistan as my home any more.