Justin Marozzi was “bewitched” by Afghanistan on his first trip there more than a quarter of a century ago. So captivated was he by the “savage grandeur” of the place and the generosity of its people that he returned again and again over the years.
He crossed the country to research a biography of the nomadic conqueror Timur; he admired the lay of the land from the top of one of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – three weeks before the Taliban destroyed them; and he worked with young Afghans whose high hopes for their western-backed government turned out to be tragically misplaced.
An acclaimed author (his magisterial Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood won the 2015 Ondaatje Prize) and a contributor to The National, Marozzi has edited a new book that celebrates 2,500 years of writing about Afghanistan. A Thousand Golden Cities is a stunning treasure trove.
Marozzi set out to include a broad range of writers, from ancient times to the present day. The selection process was a labour of love.
“A lot of these writers really chose themselves, be it Herodotus in the fifth century BC, Babur in the sixteenth century AD, or Amir Abdur Rahman, who united Afghanistan in the late nineteenth century,” Marozzi says. “Likewise, in more modern times, you couldn’t have an anthology of writing about Afghanistan without, say, Khaled Hosseini and Ahmed Rashid.
“And that’s without the poets!” he adds. “Rumi, Attar, Saadi, Rabia Balkhi, Alisher Navoi, again, they chose themselves. And then you have all the many contemporary, incredibly talented Afghan poets whose writings illuminate, shock and, all too often, break your heart.”
Marozzi tried to highlight as many Afghan voices as possible. “This is a book especially for English language readers and there are never as many translations of Afghan writers as you would like.”
Some of those voices belong to unsung female Afghan writers. They deserve to be heard, not least because there were risks in speaking out.
“The very act of writing in Afghanistan can be a death sentence for women today,” says Marozzi. “This anthology celebrates the heart-stopping literary contributions of women like Nadia Anjuman, a 25-year-old poet and rising star who was beaten to death by her husband, who considered her poetry a disgrace to the family’s honour.
“There are also trailblazing female writers like Fawzia Koofi, the astonishingly brave first female speaker of parliament, whose memoir provides an unflinching insight into the horrendous challenges faced by Afghan women. One of my favourite contributions comes from a woman we only know as Roya, whose poem Not an Afghan Woman is a piercing cri de coeur.”
The book contains several standout personal stories. Abdul Salam Zaeef provides an eye-opening narrative of his life in the Taliban. Equally absorbing is Qais Akbar Omar’s account of staging Shakespeare in Kabul.
But this isn’t solely an anthology of Afghan writers. Marozzi has also incorporated the likes of Marco Polo, Rudyard Kipling, Norwegian author Asne Seierstad and Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.
“I also think it’s important to include non-Afghan writers,” Marozzi says, “both to demonstrate how outsiders, who have often brought terrible wars to Afghanistan, have looked at the country over the ages, and to showcase fine writing plain and simple.
“As a British writer, I can’t help enjoying the contributions of Eric Newby and Robert Byron, who both inject a welcome dose of madcap humour into the book. Apart from being a very affectionate portrait of Afghanistan and Afghans, Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is also laugh-out-loud hilarious.”
Another of Marozzi’s favourites is the “genre-bending warrior-poet-king” Babur, who “still sings off the page” five hundred years on.
“The immediacy and colour of his memoirs are completely wonderful, whether he is writing about the flora and fauna of Kabul, the poets he admires and despises, or the dangers of mixing wine with hashish at parties. For anyone who hasn’t already come across the Baburnama, I can guarantee you are in for a treat.”
Marozzi also includes a piece of his own writing based on one of his most memorable experiences as a journalist – an interview in 1996 with the great guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir”.
“To say Massoud was charismatic would be a massive understatement,” says Marozzi. “I found him completely captivating and clearly all the men who followed him into battle felt the same. My photographer and I had to work hard for that interview. It took several days to pin him down.
“To listen to Massoud talking about his love of the great Persian poet Hafiz – in the middle of a war that he was leading against the Taliban – was unforgettable.”
Marozzi hopes the wide variety of writing in this anthology will show readers that there is more to Afghanistan than the “terribly reductive portrait the western media typically provides – which is all about war, terrorism, poverty and fundamentalism.
“Perhaps the book will open a door on to an incredibly rich body of literature about this wonderful, poorly understood, country.”
A Thousand Golden Cities: 2,500 Years of Writing from Afghanistan and its People by Justin Marozzi is out now