It has been weeks in lockdown for Hoda Khamosh, but the 23-year-old has managed to stick to a routine. This includes sitting down in the afternoons to write poetry, mostly with an erotic spin to it.
In the absence of touch and seeing friends and loved ones, she – along with many others – has turned to erotic poetry, convinced that, “it will help to get through these difficult days”.
The country of 38 million people has just passed an official coronavirus infection toll of 4,033 with 115 reported deaths, but as testing is limited the true numbers are thought to be much higher.
has a long and flourishing literary tradition that faced challenges during the Taliban era, when libraries were looted and burned. The country is considered conservative but a liberal underground culture has existed for a long time, and has further developed since the US-led invasion in 2001, exposing a different side of the war-torn nation.
Love poetry has been one of the most cherished aspects of the millennium-old Persian poetic tradition
“In addition to public culture, we also have a private culture,” says Yaman Hekmat, a professor at Kabul University with a PhD in Dari Persian literature. “We have a dual structure. Our culture is that of two persons; two parts, with an outward face, and a face that must remain hidden. Public culture doesn’t allow our private culture to emerge and flourish in society.”
Nonetheless, Persian erotic poetry has a very long tradition. “Love poetry, including poetry that emphasises physical love and love-making, has been one of the most cherished aspects of the millennium-old Persian poetic tradition, of which Dari [the Afghan dialect of the Persian language] literature is part,” explains Zuzanna Olszewska, author of The Pearl of Dari: and Personhood Among Young Afghans in Iran and associate professor at the University of Oxford.
For the past four years Khamosh, who lives in Kabul, has been writing poetry covering topics of love, war and women. She admits that it’s been hard to stay indoors and not see friends, but poetry has been constantly by her side, helping her process the pandemic and the fears that come with it.
“Each woman has the right to speak about her internal feelings, just as men are permitted to write about their desires and thoughts,” she says.
“When you grab me I get naked. Hotter than the sun,” a line in her notebook reads.
Hundreds of young poets have emerged in Afghanistan over the past decades, with many of them – including Khamosh – sharing their work on .
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While she has faced a backlash, especially in the form of abusive messages, Khamosh is determined to press on, hoping that one day her poetry will be accepted.
There is no official government censorship in Afghanistan, creating an open environment for experimental literature, with a growing number of women publishing their work.
While Afghanistan’s public culture might still be getting accustomed to hearing about women’s emotions and physical desires, social media has offered a new platform to women such as Khamosh.
“Because of this opportunity, our secret culture is gradually disappearing and is also changing the public culture,” says Hekmat, adding that poetry is an important format for expressing transient emotions in the midst of historical and personal crises such as the pandemic.
In the last two decades, it has become more direct. People talk about their desires; their bodies
At home in self-isolation, Jalal Nazari, 24, says poetry has encouraged him throughout the coronavirus outbreak. He has been writing for the past six years, initially influenced by his father, a professor of Persian literature.
Living in a flatshare with friends, Nazari has used the time away from meetings and gatherings to delve into reading and writing more poetry, including the erotic kind.
“Literary eroticism has always been part of Persian writings, often communicated through metaphors. In the last two decades, it has become more direct. People talk about their desires; their bodies. It’s a fine balance, mixing love and desire, a bird with two wings,” he says, hoping to break the dominant rules and values of Afghan society with his words.
Nazari’s poems are rhythmic, following a classic pattern of Persian verse called ghazal.
Persian literature has an abundance of metaphors, but, Hekmat explains, this is another proof of “hidden culture”, of topics that are rarely addressed in the public realm. “Metaphors communicate the anxiety and fear, or articulate the realities of life to explicitly state what one wants,” he says.
“,” Nazari writes, referring to the Afghan province where, in 2001, the Taliban blew up two Buddha statues carved into the side of a cliff about 2,000 years ago.
Poetry has brought a welcome distraction to Nazari’s life in lockdown, a scenario that is likely to be extended as the number of infections rises in the Afghan capital.
“The Covid-19 crisis will indeed produce some very interesting poetry, some of it erotic, some of it not,” Olszewska explained. “As the number of deaths increases, there will certainly be more angry political poems and poems of mourning, both of which are sadly too common in Afghanistan.”