L'affaire Bagh-e-Bedil continues. This should interest even those who otherwise don't care much about history or poetry, as it is a fascinating story by itself. While filling us in on matters of grave concerns, Naim saab had also pointed us to a Wall Street Journal (July 10, 2006) article by Masood Farivar which described a war of words between two Afghan poetry groups. The very first sentence was captivating enough to want to read on: "There aren't many places in the U.S. that can count poetry societies run by Afghan cab drivers. Washington has two. And they don't like each other."
It seems very appropriate to focus here not on the war of words, but on one of the groups, "An Evening with the Dervishes" that apparently "prefers what it calls the serious, scholarly pursuit of poetry. The group views itself as a literary clique focusing on masters such as Abdul Qadir Bedil, a 17th century poet and Islamic mystic, or Sufi. Its gatherings feature top scholars and poets."
And since we have been discussing popular-acceptance of the current site of Bagh-e-Bedil as the tomb of Bedil, perhaps it is appropriate to begin with this quote from one of the members, Yusuf Bakhtary, who quotes Bedil: "Hypnotized by the spell of popular acceptance, how long shall I keep on uttering [a] vulgarity?"
The poetry debate goes back to the early 1980s, when Maroof Popal, who left Afghanistan in 1978, began driving a taxi at Washington D.C.'s National Airport. There, he met other Afghan cabbies once or twice a week to read the poems of Bedil in any available space: the back of a furniture store, the showroom of an Afghan-owned car dealership.
At the end of 12-hour shifts, dog-tired and sometimes hungry, they'd sit cross-legged in a circle. Over cups of tea and candies, they tackled some of the most technically difficult poems written by the great Sufi poets, occasionally pausing for philosophical reflection over individual words -- "fog," "mirror," "silence."
Every now and then, when they found themselves stumped, they'd call upon a poet and Bedil scholar, M. I. Negargar. Calls to the former Kabul University professor -- who had taught one of the cabbies and lives in England -- soon became an integral part of their readings. Chipping in 25 to 50 cents each, they'd buy a phone card and hunch over the speakerphone as the professor brought the poems to life.
As Afghanistan degenerated into civil war in the 1990s, ethnic tensions flared among the exiled Afghans. Hoping that poetry would unite the community, the cabbies joined other like-minded Afghans to underwrite monthly public readings.
"People were revolted by politics," says Hashim Rayiq, a local Afghan civil engineer who helped formalize the poetry sessions. "I said, 'Let's have at least one night without politics.'"
The group they formed in summer 2000 -- "An Evening of Sufism" -- was quickly a hit. Within months it was holding monthly gatherings attended by hundreds, first in a banquet hall and later in a church and eventually in the Masonic Lodge. As the Taliban fell in 2001, it thrived.
"No Afghan organization has lasted six years," Mr. Rayiq says proudly.
Unless you count a 2004 rupture, that is. Maroof Popal and others say "An Evening of Sufism" was infiltrated by Tajik nationalists who supported the Northern Alliance, as well as former Afghan Communists. The newcomers, they say, tried to exclude the works of Pashtuns -- Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, from which the Taliban hailed -- from the proceedings.
Wali Popal, the moderator of "An Evening of Sufism," denies the charges.
Yet even before politics intruded, some of the cabbies, who were never comfortable with the proliferation of poets and the size of the new group, had been itching to return to the Bedil readings and scholarly debates. Along with Maroof Popal, they broke away and founded "An Evening with the Dervishes" in late 2004.