Mohibullah ZEGHAM (IWP 2012), born in Khost, Afghanistan, in 1973, is a writer, translator, and editor working in Pashto and Dari. Among his 17 published works are novels, story collections, children’s books, a travelogue, and collections of essays. He has also translated into Pashto books on psychology, medicine, literature, and on a moderate version of Islamic practice. In 2016, the President of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan awarded him the Sayed Jamaluddin Afghan medal, the nation’s highest cultural award. His young-adult novel Kabay and Monok won the first prize in the ABLE competition sponsored by the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (AKCU); its English translation appeared in 2020. For almost two decades, he practiced medicine in Kabul; in 2019-20, he also actively participated in Afghanistan’s school curriculum reforms and development of learning materials. As of 2022, he and his family live in Germany.
1. What have the past 12 months been like for you—as an Afghani citizen, as a writer, as a doctor, as a human being?
MZ: If I were to describe this time in one sentence, it was a journey from many restrictions and self-censorship to absolute disappointment and then toward total freedom.
As an Afghani citizen, I was witness to an increasing number of assassinations by the Taliban, and as someone who used to write or translate work that could challenge the ideology of fundamentalism and religious extremism, a potential target. In March of 2020, I was driving from my house in Chehel Setoon in the south of Kabul toward my office when I heard a blast, and two minutes later reached the wreck of the vehicle belonging to the Attorney General exploded by a magnetic bomb. Before this event, a friend had warned me that the military commission of the Taliban had included my name on the list of targets of assassination. A few days later, I rented an apartment near my office so that I could avoid driving, deactivated my Facebook account to conceal it from the eyes of the Taliban, and restricted my movements to a minimum. My movements were limited to going to the office and coming home. I stopped almost completely going to literary events and readings. During that whole time my four children kept insisting on leaving the country and moving through Turkey toward Europe. But being conservative, I didn’t date to take such a risk because I had heard that human traffickers were dangerous people, usually overloading the boats which often resulted in refugees drowning. When my children saw that some of their friends and classmates and also many of our friends and relatives along with their families traveled to Turkey, Iran, India or other countries, their quarrel with me grew. I knew that they worried about me and the fear of losing me could be easily seen in their faces. My wife Nazifa agreed with me that we shouldn’t be taking the risk but her concern was no lesser than that of our sons. She advised me to resign from my job to be safe until we could find a better route to get out of the country. Finally, in May 2021, as the Taliban were marching across the provinces, Nazifa and I could not resist the appeal of our children. We decided to apply for a visa to Turkey, but with so many applications, our appointment wasn’t scheduled until 8/18. As the Taliban progressed, we thought about traveling to any neighboring country, but every one of them had already closed their doors: hardly any consulates were issuing visa anymore.
Meanwhile, the Nancy Dupree Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU) invited me to join a project documenting the stories of Covid-19. Writing fact-based narratives from southeastern Afghanistan was a new experience. My journalist friends interviewed a number of people in seven provinces and sent me the voice files, on the basis of which I then wrote 15 stories. The collection was translated from Pashto into Dari and Uzbek, and intense work was going on to publish it, but in mid-August 2021 the disaster occurred: the government collapsed, and Taliban entered Kabul. Every intellectual, every writer, anyone who fought against Taliban felt their lives were finished. Obviously, my friends around the world experienced the same feelings. My IWP fellows, Chris Merrill included, were emailing frequently to ask about my safety, everyone trying to find me a way out of the country. I was checking my inbox every 30 minutes, even during the night, looking for good news about possible evacuation.
In the very first week of their governing, the Taliban arrested the Herat bookseller who carried the writings of scholar and author Mohammad Muheq and tortured him. Reading this report, our fear increased because those books were translated into Pashto by me. Whenever a Taliban vehicle passed in the street of our rented house, we imagined they were coming to arrest me. “Don’t go to the balcony! Don’t stand near the window!” Nazifa was shouting at our kids. When we heard that some of our relatives and friends were evacuated by the US troops, my children complained: “What are you looking for? Why don’t you go to the airport? Ask your American friends to evacuate us! Nobody will roll out the red carpet for you, so try to do something by yourself!” One day, without asking my permission, my youngest son sent a message to Ms. Nancy Szalwinski at the US State Department, using my email address, and asked her for help.
During the last days of the evacuation, my brother told us that his son, my sons’ close friend, was taken to Qatar. One of our relatives had the official documents needed for evacuation and seven more, including my nephew, came with her though they didn’t have any document. So my sons tried to convince me to go to the airport but couldn’t. A few hours later many people were killed exactly where the boys wanted to go.
Surrounded by stress, distress, worry, and anxiety, still I was hopeful, until the suicide attack near the airport gate destroyed all hopes, and total disappointment replaced all other feelings. Sometimes disappointment can calm you down and this happened to me as well. Disappointment is somehow better than anxiety. There was no hope, and nowhere to flee. Just like the custom of asking one about to be hanged about his last wish, I had to take care of the most important thing before being killed. So I went back to begin work on Hell in Paradise, my incomplete novel, which I began six or seven years ago. I shared the new version with writer friends living abroad, asking them to publish it should something happen to me. I imagined I wouldn’t have the opportunity to finish it, but fortunately that could happen a few months later, in Germany.
In September of 2021, Pakistan’s consulate in Kabul began issuing visa, not directly to the applicants but through travel agents, for almost three hundred dollars though normally and legally the visa was free: a profitable business to the consulate. Pakistan was our last choice but at that time the only available option so we decided to buy the visa. On 9/19, flights to Islamabad resumed but the tickets were too expensive, $900 per person, when two months ago the same trip was $150. The other choice was to cross the land border via Torkham gate, at $400per person for a gate pass but the fear of being arrested or tortured by the Taliban somewhere between Kabul and Nangahar was real. On the other hand, tens of thousands of people were already waiting to pass the Torkham gate. So we decided to buy the flight tickets. Our flight was to be checked for wanted people by border control officers. When the official stamped my passport, I relaxed but that feeling did not last long for, after a short take-off on the runway, the plane suddenly slowed down and returned to the gate “because of a technical problem.” What if the flight was canceled forever, the problem was just an excuse, and the reality was something else? After an hour we got on another aircraft. Arriving at the Islamabad airport another concern arose: what if the documents I had bought were fake? A Pakistani visa is only a piece of paper with some numbers and some dates, without a photo, entirely unsecured and unreliable. Travel agents in Afghanistan falsified it often, for profit. This fear grew stronger as the immigration officer made me stand at the counter for almost an hour.
Staying in Islamabad for over five months was full of stress as well. My 2009 novel [The Suicide Bomber], which had been translated into Urdu, would have been a good reason for the Pakistani security service ISI to arrest me. The US Embassy in Islamabad was not issuing appointments for J-1 visa applicants, so my hope to travel to the US on a City of Asylum scholarship faded. Chris Merrill recommended me for the P-1, newly approved for Afghan citizens not eligible for SIV but candidates for the US Refugee Admissions Program, but that would be a long process, of months or even years. Instead, the Kabul office of the Goethe-Institut had referred me to the German Foreign Ministry as a partner at risk. Here, the big concern was leaving my three adult children behind: according to the German law, only unmarried children under 18 are considered as the immediate family members, so the a visa would only be possible for my youngest son. Fortunately, there was an exception for those who could provide a reasonable justification, the German Ministry granted approval for all of my family members, and on 3/2/2022, we traveled to this big-hearted country in a feeling of total freedom. It was here that I since could complete Hell in Paradise.
2. What reading do you open for solace, what books are at your disposal, what books do you miss most?
MZ: We have a WhatsApp group with some Afghan writers where everyone shares his/her new writings, and this is a source of solace. I could only bring a few books from Afghanistan including The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway”, Naming the World, The Old Man and the Sea, and Flash Fiction International. I bought these books from Hemingway’s home in Chicago and feel a nostalgic sense with them. My plan A was to travel to USA and reading such interesting English stories during my stay in Pakistan could improve my English. I also wished I could translate some of Hemingway’s stories into Pashto.
[Once Upon a Time There Was a Shpoon], the autobiography of the first Afghan writer who participated in IWP, Saaduddin Shpoon, is one of the books I miss, because of its unique language. The works of Nasir Ahmad Ahmadi, a most productive novelist who passed away a year ago due to COVID-19, are missed as well. Some Afghan writers living elsewhere in Germany for almost three decades now own their personal libraries and perhaps I will have access to them in the future.
3. You have often in the past spoken about the unique needs of children—in particular, children in Afghanistan—when it comes to literature. What prompted you? And what were your children reading in Kabul—and now in Germany?
MZ: In Afghanistan, children’s’ literature has to do the work our education system and its learning materials don’t, i.e., equip children with essential life competencies, especially critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and innovation … The lack of critical thinking is the main cause of the growth of extremism and religious fundamentalism in my country. Hundreds of adolescents and youth destroyed their own lives and that of many innocent people by suicide attacks growing out of extremism, and unfortunately, thousands more are ready to do so. Few months ago, a group of Uzbek Taliban rioted against Islamic Emirate because their leader was arrested and taken to Kabul by Taliban leadership. In response, an army of suicide bombers was sent to Jawzjan to suppress the protesters. Suicide bombers can be used anywhere and against any enemy. Thousands of young Talibs are waiting for their turn to commit suicide attacks, which according to them will obviously be rewarded with paradise. A writer cannot just witness the destruction of children’s lives and forget his/her responsibility and commitment. Fortunately, during the last decade Afghan writers published dozens of good books for children, and my kids were reading them. My youngest, Mojibullah, who is 11, used to read English stories on the internet as well. Now, in Germany, they spend most of their time learning German. Surprisingly, here the texts of schoolbooks (math, biology, history, geography) that Mojib studies from in grade 6 are narratives. A lesson in biology might go like this: The parents want to buy a gift for their daughter in her birthday. She would like to have a pet and they buy a mouse. Then they need to ask their landlord whether they are allowed to keep a pet. Then the characteristics of the mouse as an animal that sleeps during the day and is awake at night, what she eats, what other needs she has …Mojib is lucky to study in Germany, from such interesting books full of narratives.
4. You must now rearrange your linguistic world. How do Dari, English, and German cohabit in your head? In your household? On the page?
MZ: It has some advantages and of course some disadvantages as well. Many of German words are similar to English with minor change in spelling and/or pronunciation or with no change at all. This helps me to memorize vocabulary. Pashto has a wide range of sounds, diphthongs and clusters compared to Dari and English, so knowing Pashto enables me to pronounce certain sounds, such as /z/ and /ch/ in German, correctly. Pashto grammar is complicated. For example, the nouns are gendered, and noun and pronoun cases make Pashto in some ways similar to German, making German grammar relatively easy to understand. And some German words exist in Russian as well, such as kino t, i.e., cinema. I studied Russian in school for almost three years and learned a little. But there is a lot of confusion as well. The interference of English sentence structures and English words when speaking German is a big problem, and in turn in the words shared by German and English, replacing the English pronunciation by German is not easy.
Although my mother language is Dari and I learned Pashto as a second language, mainly in adulthood but it is my imagination language. It’s much easier to think in Dari but it cannot provoke my imagination. So, I think I will write in Pashto forever.
However, I wish I knew English and German at the level that I could translate some of my works. Last week, I wrote a short story that might have equal attraction for Pashto and German readers. On the other hand, I am connected to my readers via internet and social media. A publisher in Quetta expressed his willingness to publish my new novel as soon as I posted about it on Facebook.
5. What has the medical profession meant for you?
MZ: After I began to write, I felt that medical profession is of secondary importance to me. I have never been a top physician, even though I had good scores (76%) in medical school. My passion for literature and writing made me limit my medical practice to a small area of diagnostic cardiology (performing echocardiography and vascular doppler studies, which were then new in Afghanistan) so that I would have enough time to think and write. From 2019, I was working with the Ministry of Education as a curriculum development and language specialist. And not practicing medicine during the last three and a half years without missing it confirms to me that writing is my first profession.
6. Soon after you returned from Iowa, you wrote a book about your stay here. What did it talk about, and in retrospect, what Iowa memories do you retain?
MZ: Well, the IWP residency was a unique experience and left a strong impression. My travelogue [The City of Literature] begins from the event in Kabul where Chris talked about the International Writing Program and the University of Iowa. It recounts my travel from Kabul to Iowa and the different cities in the US and ends with my return home. It talks about the history of the program, Iowa as the City of Literature, the IWP management team, how writers are selected for the residency, its programming and events, as well as introducing briefly my fellow participants along with translations of Hae Yisoo’s and Lucy Fricke’s short stories and an article by Motti Lerner. The main approach was to compare different aspects of life in Afghanistan and USA in such a way that ideas would be combined with pleasure. Fortunately, the reader feedback expressed as much: “While reading this book I imagined I was walking in the US.”
Iowa is an important part of my good memories and the best days of my life. I remember everything: the barn dance, the Fox Head, Talib’s love story and Andrei’s “A Belarusian Man,” his guitar performance in the International Literature Today class, the Cinematheque evening when Milagro Socorro showed the Venezuelan film Hermano, which made me so emotional that I couldn’t stop my tears and you tried to calm me, the kindness of Mary Nazareth whom in my travelogue I call “mom of 31 kids,” the farewell party—and finally the Iowa river, which represents the generosity, the courtesy, and the helpfulness of the Iowa people.
II. LITERARY GENERAL
1. What were some literary highpoints during the two past decades in Afghanistan?
MZ: Last two decades were a golden era for literature in Afghanistan. The first short stories and novels in Pashto and Dari were written in early- to mid-twentieth century, and by the end of that century the total number of published novels and short story collections barely reached a few dozen. But in the past two decades, hundreds of novels and thousands of short stories have been written. We witnessed that a thousand copies of a novel were sold out within two or three weeks and republished several times. This was [The Baghdadi Sage], a historical fiction in Pashto by the late Nasir Ahmad Ahmadi, published by Soroosh Publishing. It’s the story of an English spy, David Johns, who comes to Afghanistan during the reign of Amanullah Khan (the king who won the country’s independence from Great Britain) disguised as a “Baghdadi Sage” so as to provoke people’s religious feelings against the king.
It might surprise you that the author was threatened by the followers of a Jihadist leader, who said that the leader’s grandfather was from Baghdad and the story is an insult to him. For the second edition, the author had to change the title from “Baghdadi Sage” to “David Johns.” The book was a big success. Obviously, this was an exception but overall, the business of printing and book selling was incomparably superior to any time before. Children’s literature went from near zero to a peak in 2020, when 52 books were published in one year by the National Child Literature Foundation. Other aspects of this golden era are a significant increase in the number of male and female poets and writers, as well as public readings and literary festivals.
2. What—if any—has been the presence/place/relevance of Persian-language literature to Dari readers in Afghanistan in the recent past?
MZ: Dari and Persian are actually two dialects of the same language. Persian (Iranian) literature has always been dominant for Dari speakers in Afghanistan. The quantity and quality of literary works in Persian (Iranian) is superior to Dari and they are widely read in Afghanistan. Many Afghans are affected by Persian literature and by translation of international literature into Persian. Hugo, Balzac, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many other classic and contemporary writers from around the world reached Afghanistan through Iran and in translation. This has been so until today, will continue.
3. One of your main preoccupations in Afghanistan has been education—its content, its institutions, its development. What were you aiming for?
MZ: Well, I believe that the majority of problems in Afghanistan is due to inappropriate curriculum and learning materials as well as wrong thinking on the part of parents, teachers, and mullahs: almost every Afghan child, boy or girl, starts learning to read between 5 and 7 at the mosques by reading the Quran and other Islamic teachings. It’s a parallel education and in most cases begins ahead of schooling proper. The children are trained so that they should only obey the elders rather than logic and reasoning; they are insulted, tortured, and sometimes sexually abused by the mullahs. Our aim was to develop a competency-based curriculum that equips the children with life skills known as “21st century competences”; another objective was to introduce different genres and enable the students to comprehend, analyze, produce and change expository, persuasive, and narrative texts along with their sub-genres. UNESCO was supporting the project technically and financially. Unfortunately, everything was destroyed even before Kabul collapsed. In late 2021, one Rangina Hamidi, was appointed as the Minister of Education; it was she who destroyed the ongoing reform process by firing some experts and the head of the Curriculum Development Directorate. Though she knew nothing about pedagogy, she wanted to make some extravagant changes to the education system, proposing for example that all students between grades 1-3 should be studying in the mosques, taught by Mullahs, and the schooling itself should begin in grade 4.
I strongly believe that had a good basic curriculum been developed in 2001, everything would be different today.
1. What is it that you see in Germany?
MZ: First of all, I see a great nation that, after being totally destroyed, could manage not only to survive but to overcome many challenges and problems; also a country that has provided a safe space for too many homeless people, a brilliant future for my children, and ambiguity for myself. I’m not sure about my own future. Learning new things is very difficult at my age. To work as a physician, I would need to get a C1 grade in German and pass several professional exams. I would like work as writer or editor for a German institution broadcasting in Pashto but it isn’t clear whether I will have the opportunity.
2. What are some preoccupations today of the Afghani diaspora—in Germany, in Europe, elsewhere in Asia, in the US?
MZ: To be honest, they are wasting their time with endless quarrels, abusing each other on social media. A survey showed that only 40% of Afghans in Germany are employed; the rest are receiving money from the government, doing nothing. Perhaps that is the case in any country, and it is a disaster. The disaster of living a saprophyte or a parasite life. In many European countries, Afghan and other refugees don’t want to work or work on the black market so they can get money from the government. Yet in the rapid evacuation process, a large number of scholars and intellectuals also fled the country. They can play an important role in enlightening the new generations inside Afghanistan by producing and/or translating thought-provoking works.
3. What do you expect for Afghanistan in the next few years?
MZ: Darkness. I wish I could expect something good.
Interviewer: Nataša Ďurovičová