A Poetics of Abandonment
To write poetry for myself or someone like myself is to acknowledge my reader is in transit. She needs the most a place to rest. Through justified margins, centered text, and regular patterns, I enclose my poems and shape them into buildings. Every word, much like objects in a house, must be reliable and pleasant. I want my reader to feel secure, but given that my observations are fragmented, my lines are often enjambed, and my point of view is toward the ruin, it’s difficult to be certain unless after writing the poem I make sure that everything I possess has been given to the poem and its reader.
Growing up in an Afghan refugee family in Iran, and later in Kabul, where I spent my teenage years and early adulthood, I hated the form of etiquette known as taarof. Taarof is a Perso-Afghan ritual—an exchange of courteous words—that promotes a false sense of equality. For instance, a person with superior social status may raise the prestige of a person with subordinate social status by rhetorically lowering her own. Similarly, a person with lower social status may offer services and goods to a person of higher social status even if the offer entails a substantial or even impossible burden. Since doing a favor signifies socioeconomic stability, the subordinate feels empowered, and in return, the superior refuses to receive the item.
Though taarof framed every social interaction, I found creative ways to intervene in my parents’ communications with those I perceived as masters of taarof—people who casually slid in and out of socializing like con artists. Terrified that someone might actually accept my parents’ offerings, I often questioned taarof’s practicality. Only recently have I come to appreciate our ancient enciphering. Perhaps it’s due to my ascending to the top tiers of Maslow’s pyramid, or perhaps it’s the exile in me who’s become nostalgic about every single thing. Over the years, taarof has become a reminder, nagging me to be generous to my reader, or else it’s going to pull my ears.
The poetic lesson I’ve learned from this form of radical politeness is that I’m indebted to my reader, and, in return, I must surrender my belongings to them. Even if that abandonment comes at the expense of losing my mother’s tongue, my country, and my body. In my debut poetry collection, Disbound (forthcoming from University of Iowa Press), these losses culminate in an approach to poetry that I want to call a “poetics of abandonment.” I choose “abandonment” because it amplifies the circumstance in which the poet writes, rather than the generosity she tries to exemplify.
If one could summarize their own poetry collection, I’d say Disbound is an account of how I perform and partake in multiple personal and political abandonments. I’ve had to abandon the Persian language to write in English; I’ve abandoned Kabul to come to the United States; I abandoned my family, followed by the death of both of my parents—them abandoning me; the empire abandoning my country; the Afghan government abandoning its people; a cluster of domestic and foreign fascists and fanatics alike abandoning the mountains to rule over our abandoned Kabul; and in a subversive act, I abandon my own body, the body of an Afghan woman that is now abandoned by the US and its allies in the region but which used to be the justification of a war on terror.
Accustomed to this business of becoming a front, my body mirrors the traces of Afghanistan’s recent sociopolitical history, and in this way, my subjectivity emerges to blur the line between identity and legal identification. Ironically, in the Dari dialect, تذکره (or the word for national identity card) also means a hospital cot. Perhaps for this reason I have developed affinities for poems that provide a space to rest. This is not to say that poetry can or should avert one’s eyes from political realities, but it might preserve for the reader a place where she can find some forms of repair.
I finished my first English-language poem in fall 2013. Outside the poem, the anticipation and fear of Obama’s 2014 promise of withdrawal dominated most Afghan conversations. Our mischievous tea drinkers cornered diverse compatriots in various social settings, asking, what do you think? What does your social milieu predict? Some would reply by reciting a couplet from Hafez, and others would choose a vulgar idiomatic expression. Those were the days when “abandon” came up, often and a lot. Is the US abandoning Afghanistan? Are they going to abandon million-dollar bases? On local television channels, Afghan activists, politicians, and journalists fiercely debated the pros and cons of Afghanistan without the West.
I’m aware of the danger and limitations of “abandonment” as a literary concept because, at least in a legal sense, it suggests ownership. Sartre, in Colonialism as a System, critiqued this implication when the Parisian media used “abandonment” as a pretext to keep Algiers French. He wrote, “People who talk of the abandonment of Algeria are imbeciles. There is no abandoning what we have never owned.” My American friends, whom I meet in writing workshops, bars, and readings, who read about imperialism and decolonialization, have little curiosity for what is going on over there. Our chats last a few minutes, composed of trivial remarks about this or that article that may have appeared in The Times. Some inquire about the Taliban’s popularity while others seem to have already decided that the Taliban is a legitimate indigenous movement. I say that those who talk of the Taliban’s indigeneity are imbeciles, at best naïve, and at worst racist. There is no owning of a neocolonial globally affiliated terror assembly.
“Abandon” or ترک گفتن has been used by countless political analysts. Afghans understood abandonment in a historical context—a warning against history repeating itself, a reminder that Afghanistan was once abandoned after the Cold War, that during the war of 1979–1989 it lost 9% of its population and another 1.5 million to wounds, and of the remaining people, more than half were displaced. All these sacrifices to win a war for the West. In return, the West left Afghanistan to suffer through its subsequent civil wars (1989–1996), losing another 30,000 lives in sectarian conflicts waged by Mujaheddin—an army formed and armed by the West. Not to mention the Western silence about Pakistan recruiting, training, and harboring the Taliban—a group that made the years of 1996–2001 unlivable for Afghans and continuously disrupted the relative peace that was achieved after 2001.
“Abandonment” has been used to provoke and urge the West to take responsibility for the pain it has inflicted on Afghans. Afghan representatives have advocated for a de-escalation of violence by imposing diplomatic and economic pressure on Pakistan, and sustainable economic support for the Afghan government that would bypass the US military and its private contractors. Afghan activists reclaimed “abandonment” as the beginning of a political consciousness: a portal to emerge from and to mobilize in the realization that we are the only ones capable of rebuilding our nation. Meanwhile, the left and right establishments in DC and their war-mongering media industry have used “abandonment” to argue against relinquishing an empire they built on Afghan soil, mobilizing neo-Orientalist imagery to prolong the war on terror and maintain its status quo.
My use of “abandonment” is metaphorical. I am interested in its multiplicity. Abandonment has an intrinsic connection with both dependency and with power. Whenever one says abandonment, it already implies power, an unjust structure, and the dependency of one on another. It is unsympathetic in its propositions: one party can let go of the other if they so wish, and the other must face a great burden once they are abandoned. There is always a binary opposition: a dependent and an independent. What saddens me are the ways in which those positions are determined.
Afghanistan’s dependency on foreign configurations is metaphorical. It’s not that the Afghan government hasn’t been dependent on Western aid and military support. The country obviously collapsed after the American withdrawal—but Afghanistan’s existence never depended on the US because it existed well before the US did. Could one argue that it was in fact the US and the West that depended on Afghanistan and the blood of its people? Wasn’t it because of Afghanistan that the West’s neoliberal order was emancipated from the threat of its immanent enemy—the Soviet Union and communism? Wasn’t it because of Afghanistan that the West could inaugurate its highest stage of capitalism? Wasn’t it all because of the bodies of Afghan women?
The reason I think of taarof as a generative force for poetry is because it halts power. Through it, I’ve learned about hierarchical structures without having to disclose my own position. I was taught to conceal my insecurities and understand how others’ sense of security relies on me. Taarof helped me ease disparities through deciphering our interdependencies. I learned that even though we live in communities brimming with injustice and systematic racism we don’t have to concede that only the powerful have power or that the wretched are irretrievably broken. There are in fact many ambiguities: the powerful suffer from a pathological desire for more, more lands to grab, more missiles to drop, more money to steal, and yet they are always faced with their own lack, and the wretched, even if stripped bare of her humanity, history, and culture, may trust that all things depend on her.
1. The continual use of the word “abandonment” by the international media in the context of US occupation of Afghanistan, and the relation of the word to colonial discourse, was first brought to my attention by Richard Seymour in 2015, in one of his Media Review YouTube videos broadcasted by TeleSUR English Channel.
2. Amrullah Saleh, the former vice president of Afghanistan, makes a similar point about the US’s dependence on “Afghan blood” in a 2019 BBC World News interview that went viral on Afghan social media.