THE HEART OF ASIA
Afghanistan is a land of contradictions. Take the jagged peaks of the Wakhan corridor, shaped as though clasped between the hands of a mighty god. Though awe-striking in their appearance, the cliffs mean torture on the knees and lungs of the shepherds who roam there. Or see Papaver somniferum (aka opium), which thrives in the dry Gostan valley. Its curvaceous fruit, which erupts into gorgeous blooms of silky pink and white, may have caused more misery than any other plant on earth.
This dichotomy also exists in a grander sense. Afghanistan is where mankind has waged countless bloody wars. And yet, this land has also fostered great artistic beauty, especially through its poetry. As Afghanistan's most successful athletic export to date, one of the best modern personifications of his nation's long-standing marriage of violence and poetry may be Siyar Bahadurzada.
LAND OF WARRIORS
Before you can attempt to understand Afghanistan, and its warrior culture, you must first learn about Afghaniyat.
“We have a lot of traditions,” said Bahadurzada, referring to the honor code Afghans are taught from birth. Afghaniyat is known by many names, but you won’t find it swirled on scrolls or etched into stone tablets. The code is fluid and shifts in composition from town to town, family to family, and sometimes person to person. Some tenants, however, are ever-present.
Melmastia means hospitality and few Afghans would argue against this as one of the most important and defining traits of their culture.
“We are a very hospitable people,” enforced Bahadurzada. “When people come to your house, you take them into your house.”
When practiced ideally, Melmastia compels Afghans to shelter their guests – regardless of their creed, affiliation, or social status – and protect them from all who would do them harm.
Nanawatai (forgiveness) is also a key component of Afghaniyat.
“When your enemy comes to your house and apologizes, animosity finished. Then they become your friend,” said Bahadurzada. “That’s how we handle these things, every Afghan man who knows Afghan culture, who knows the Afghan tradition and lives and dies by the Afghan rules and the Afghan code of honor and Afghan way of living, this is exactly how things go down.”
The various iterations of this code have greatly shaped the warriors of Afghanistan.
“Even in animosity, we have that side in us that we can be an honorable enemy,” said Bahadurzada. “Like, when you’re down, we will not kick you, even if we are your enemy.”
Afghans have had plenty of enemies through the years to practice such traits. Thanks to its crucial location, as a crossroads that connects all of Central Asia, Afghanistan has been prized by Emperors for over a millennium. In 516 BCE Darius I of Persia marched into Afghanistan on route to forming the largest empire in ancient history.
Two hundred years later, Alexander the Great (following his victory over Darius III) rode through Afghanistan with great difficulty, on his path to immortality. Many ancient empires followed, including the Scythians, Parthians, and Sassanids.
The Middle Ages weren’t any more peaceful for Afghans. 642 CE marked the Islamic conquest of large swathes of the country. Almost 600 years later it was Genghis Khan who stormed through the land, destroying many cities in his wake. Then it was the Timurids, and the Safavids, and so on and so on until eventually the British and Soviets forayed into the battle hardened country (to suffer costly and embarrassing defeats).
“It is kind of in the blood,” said Bahadurzada of the ‘warrior mentality’ he feels exists inside himself, as well as every other Afghan whose family has survived the centuries of bloodshed.
“We have always endured,” he added. “Afghans are brave, Afghans are courageous and Afghans endure. Anybody can break, there is a breaking point to anything and everybody, but an Afghan’s break-point is not where you expect most people’s to be.”
Bahadurzada, whose name literally means 'son of the brave', attributes some of this steel to his people's bravery (known as Turah in the Afghaniyat). But primarily, Bahadurzada said he draws strength from simply knowing who his ancestors were.
“My ancestors were warriors,” celebrated Bahadurzada. “We are a warrior people, it means a lot to me. It means the only thing I have to do is carry myself, I don’t have to show myself tougher than I am. I have to just show myself."
“The only other thing I have to do is not stray]from that Afghaniyat code,” added Bahadurzada. Just as it has shaped his perception on how to act as an Afghan, so too has the Afghaniyat influenced Bahadurzada’s fighting career. “I’m going to tell you something really crazy,” said Bahadurzada before a long pause. “People might use this to my disadvantage, but I’m going to tell you, to show you what Afghaniyat I’m going to take into a fight with me.
“If I find out that my opponent has a hurt knee, and he still comes to fight me, I will be an honorable opponent. I will not kick him in the knee. I will fight him honorably and I will beat him honorably.”
Though he admitted there is no honor in losing, Bahadurzada refused the possibility that he would take victory in a manner that goes against his principles. Bahadurzada also admitted this conduct is not something explicitly laid out in the most common interpretations of Afghaniyat. However, it is part of the personal Afghaniyat he has developed for himself and hopes to promote to his countrymen and women.
Bahadurzada is looked up to by many in Afghanistan and that's not something he takes lightly.
“It is a lot of history and pressure to put on your back,” admitted Bahadurzada when talking about his goal to represent Afghanistan’s warrior culture in a positive way – through the sport of MMA. “I brought the sport to Afghanistan, I am very honored to have introduced something to my people. Something that helps them, and keeps them focused, away from drugs, gives them the idea that, if this guy can make it, we can make it. It’s for the bigger purpose. I’m fighting for my people. I’m fighting to inspire my people. I’m fighting to give them hope and give them the idea that it’s not the end if you’re still in the war. I’ve been in war, I’ve made something out of my life, and I’ve used that war to my advantage.”
LAND OF POETS
“Afghanistan loves poetry,” sighed Bahadurzada when ruminating on a subject that few realize is a core component of Afghan culture. Dr. Arezou Azad, Director of the Birmingham Centre for Study of the Middle Ages at the University of Birmingham, is a historian of Medieval Afghanistan and Iran. “Afghanistan certainly has an illustrative history of poetry,” said Dr. Azad. “For example, some of the best known medieval Persian mystical verses were composed in lands that are today circumscribed within the national boundaries of Afghanistan.”
“Poetry means everything to Afghanistan,” enthused Bahadurzada, who writes poems himself and often shares them on social media. “We have the warrior side, that’s one thing. And then there’s the poetry side and the romance side that we have had integrated in our culture for a very long time.”
In today's Afghanistan, a number of the nation's most revered historical figures are poets. Many of those figures were warriors as well. Khushal Khattak was born in Kabul Province in 1613 under the rule of a foreign king. After his father died in battle, Khattak became the chief of his tribe and then led a rebellion against the Mughal Empire. His struggle against the Mughals was marked by the galvanization of fellow Afghans through his poetry. Though his rebellion ultimately failed, his words helped define the country that Afghanistan would eventually become. But Khattak wasn’t unique.
Ahmad Shah Durrani, who was born in 1722 in Herat, was also a poet who led an army (in his case 4,000 cavalry troops) against the Mughal Empire. Nazo Tokhi, who was born in Kandahar in 1651, is known as the ‘Mother of Afghans’. She gained national prominence with her Afghaniyat-exalting poetry. When her father was killed during war with the Safavid Persians, she was left to defend her family’s fortress, which she did – sword in hand. The list goes on. However, not all of Afghanistan’s great poets were also great warriors.
“Rumi was born in Afghanistan!” declared Bahadurzada, who then singled out the famed jurist, scholar and Sufi mystic as the ‘greatest poet who ever lived.’
Though both Iran and Turkey claim him as their own, Jalal al-Din al-Balkhi was born outside of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan in the early 13th century. At that time the province of Balkh was administered by the Persian Khwarazmian Empire. Rumi, who traveled throughout Asia, spent most his life writing poems at the behest of the Seljuq Sultante of Rum (thus earning the nickname Rumi). Rumi’s impact on Central Asia’s arts can’t be overstated and today his image is found on landmarks and banknotes from Istanbul to Everest. Rumi wrote romantic, and often remorseful, works which largely centered on his longing to reach God, a common theme in Sufi Islam.
“You cannot find two people who see one poem the same way, because for everybody it means something different. And Rumi was a genius at that,” said Bahadurzada, who like a lot of Afghans, has spent countless hours debating poetry.
In Afghanistan today, it is quite common to come across groups of men discussing poems or gathering to hear a reading or recording. In rural Afghanistan women whisper short rhymes to each other, deriding the strict patriarchy they are forced to endure. These ‘landays’ are often satirical or comedic, but many are also vengeful. Though it has declined since the total reign of the Taliban ended, violence against women still plagues Afghanistan. And as is often the way of Afghan culture, that violence begets poetry as well as suffering.
“My family is very fascinated by poetry,” claimed Bahadurzada. “It’s just in our culture, people in my village are also fascinated with poetry, I love talking with them and discussing poems. Like, how they perceive specific poems, the way they see it. Everybody sees it in their own way, that’s the best thing about poems.”
Bahadurzada said he especially enjoys debating poetry with one of his cousins, because the two of them have such divergent views on practically every poem they discuss.
“I understand his perspective and he understands mine, and it’s very fascinating to see many different people look at the same poem, and talk about different things about it, and what it means to them. It’s beautiful.”
A BEAUTIFUL CONTRADICTION
As it has been throughout its history, Afghanistan is presently in a state of war. Internal conflict currently rages between the government of Afghanistan, supported by various militias and an international coalition, and the Taliban, supported by al-Qaeda and other groups. More recently, the Islamic State has attempted to hold territory within the country, warring with both sides in the pre-existing conflict. IS has claimed responsibility for a wave of bombings and massacres targeting civilians throughout 2016.
“Let’s not see Afghanistan in terms of what happened in the last thirty-five years,” said Bahadurzada. “Because any country that has had thirty-five years of war, it will turn them into a fierce animal.”
It was civil conflict that raged in Afghanistan when Bahadurzada was born. He endured fifteen years of turmoil before he was able to immigrate to the Netherlands. Despite escaping the warzone, part of it remained with him.
“War affects you in horrible ways, in ways that you could not possibly imagine,” said Bahadurzada. “Soldiers who go to countries like Afghanistan or Iraq, who go there for six months or a year, they come back with all sorts of PTSD, and they are eighteen or older. We have seen these things when we were little kids.”
“I remember when I was a little kid, when I was like three or four years old, I would walk over body parts and dead people to get home safe in the war. That’s what I have been through as a little kid. And these things, you take them with you. It creates a dark side inside of you that you will never get rid of, and you try to get rid of that dark side in positive ways.” Bahadurzada believes an Afghan national passion could be key to fading the ‘dark side’ that was bore into him and countless others.
“I think poetry heals a lot of wounds that have been caused by war,” he said.
“We should try to listen to some great poets that inspire you,” continued Bahadurzada. “There is nothing that inspires me more than poetry. If you can find poems that are about the thing that you are dealing with, nothing can inspire you more.”
Bahadurzada knows full well that much more than poetry is needed to repair what has been devastated in Afghanistan by war and other ills. However, he hopes that a marriage between Afghanistan’s two sides, war and poetry, and using the latter to try and heal the former is a good place to start.
Bahadurzada also understands that some people, those outside of where he comes from, may struggle to see how poetry and violence can relate to one another – but that’s ok with him.
“I have this thing with being a warrior and a poet. They are two opposites of each other," said Bahadurzada. "In the Western culture, they are opposite of each other, like, if you’re a warrior and a tough man and you go out there and fight, then you show the soft side of your love for poetry, it contradicts your warrior side."
And while the west may struggle with images of a man who finds his essence both in artistic expression and prize fighting, Bahadurzada summed up his thoughts with an observation that could be stretched to not just himself, but all of Afghanistan.
"This contradiction is the thing that makes it beautiful."