Kabul and Peshawar Are the Closest of Friends


The poet, Rahmat Shah Sayel, is a political activist campaigning through his poetry for the rights of his fellow Pashtoons. Pashtoons (Pakhtoons/Pakhtuns), also known as Afghans, Pathans, are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the second biggest in Pakistan.

Historically, the Pashtoon inhabited areas of today’s Pakistan were part of Afghanistan. In 1893, the British colonialists forced the King of Afghanistan to surrender these strategic territories, which were then included in British India – at least on paper.

The Pashtoons showed some of the toughest resistance to the British Raj in the Indian sub-continent and fought bravely for freedom and rights both militarily and politically. The Khudai Khidmatgar Movement (meaning the servants of God,) represented a non-violent struggle against the British Empire by the Pashtoons in the North-West Frontier Province (with Peshawar as its capital) of British India. The Movement was founded and led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (known locally as Bacha Khan or Badshah Khan) who was also called “the Frontier Gandhi” due to his non-violent approach and philosophy. 

After the partition of India in 1947, these Pashtoon areas incorporated in British India became part of the newly created state of Pakistan.  Since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the struggle for the rights of the Pashtoons living inside the country has continued in different ways.

Pashtoon ethno-nationalist politicians in Pakistan complain that they have been oppressed and exploited by successive Pakistani governments and that they have been deliberately held back. They also criticise the Pakistani state for “violating” their political, economic and cultural rights. But Pakistani government officials usually reject these allegations. Some Pashtoon nationalists have even called for the re-unification of all the Pashtoon territories (today’s Afghanistan and Pashtoon inhabited parts of Pakistan) in one state.

In the 1980s, the Pashtoon region in Pakistan was used as a launchpad to wage Jihad against the occupying Soviet forces in Afghanistan. As a result, militancy and violence increased in the region. In recent years, the Pashtoon areas in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have become a major theatre of the US-led ‘War on Terror’.

Dawood Azami, Literal Translator


This beautiful ghazal by Rahmat Shah Sayel, was, in parts, very difficult to translate. The ghazal is a verse form that first developed in Arabic but which arguably reached its peak in the ghazals of the great poet Ghalib (1797 – 1869), the preeminent Indian Urdu and Persian-language poet during the last years of the Mughal Empire.

The ghazal a genre/form in which poets usually talk about love. Each couplet is different from the other and stands alone. But this ghazal has a single mood as all couplets have the same theme.

Ghazals are made up of between five and 25 couplets, each one of which is complete in itself. The couplets are linked by mood, rather than forming an unfolding narrative. In the original, the couplets are also connected by rhyme: if you look at the Pashto poem, you’ll notice that the final word of both lines of the first couplet, and then the final line of each couplet, is the same. We didn’t attempt to impose a rhyme-scheme on this poem which would have sacrificed the delicacy of the poem to a mechanical sound.

For clarity, I’ve numbered the notes to each couplet.

1. Title: The subject of the poem is the inviolable connection between Kabul  (in present-day Afghanistan) and Peshawar (in present-day Pakistan) for the Pashtoon people. Before the British invasion, Kabul was the summer, and Peshawar the winter, capital of Afghanistan. Traditionally, ghazals don’t have titles, instead they’re known by their first line, as we’ve done here.

2. The second couplet was difficult to get into English because we don’t (anymore) talk about being killed by love, whereas this is a common sentiment in Pashto poetry. However, we do use the term ‘heartbreaking’ as a metaphor which seems close to the Pastoon. ‘Slays’ is a less bald word than ‘kills’ that allows for a more poetic and suggestive meaning

3. Again, for conceptual reasons, this couplet was very tricky. In the first line, Sayel is saying that the Pashtoon people are like words that consist of letters but in reality have a meaning/essence; they look dead but their meaning makes them alive. He then follows it by another metaphor comparing them to a scent that travels far from its source.

4. This couplet was very easy – in comparison! The word-play of ‘lies’ (an untruth and to lie down) was an added bonus that sometimes happens in translation into English.

5. I changed ‘murderers surround me’ to ‘murderers circle around me’ because of the sense of movement (I also thought of vultures circling above).

6. The difficulty with this couplet was finding a way to make it compact. In Dawood’s literal version the chadors are embroidered with silver thread; I changed this to ‘sequinned chadors’ both for reasons of concision and to get the star-like ‘flash’ that sequins make.

7. Another couplet with concrete imagery that made it much simpler to get into English.

8. I changed the ‘realm or place’ of separation to ‘zone’ which makes it sound more alien and forbidding

9. I started off with ‘signal’ – which sounded too emphatic – in the first line and later changed it to ‘intimate’ because it’s more subtle and suggestive, like a beauty spot.

10. The botanist in me got slightly hung up on the fact that narcissi bloom long before butterflies arrive but, in the end, I allowed Sayel poetic leeway.

11. I’ve added in the narrative progression of the second line – from ‘first’ to ‘then’ because concrete details work best in English.

12. We reversed the lines in the final couplet because – for those of us brought up in northern Europe – the idea of a shadow being desirable needed the prompting of the desert climate.

Sarah Maguire, Workshop Facilitator

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