Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Atiq Rahimi at Harvard University, April 29

This past Thursday I was able to attend a talk given by Afghan writer, teacher and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi. The talk was given at Harvard University's Department of Comparative Literature as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. The afternoon event consisted of a talk by Rahimi followed by a Q&A and a signing and reception.

Rahimi, a native Afghan who moved to France via Pakistan following the Soviet invasion, spoke at length (and in French, translated extemporaneously by his publisher, Judith Gurewich of Other Press, who did an A+ job) about his Prix Goncourt-winning novel The Patience Stone. He began by reciting a well-known folktale often used to comic effect but which he turned into a bittersweet allegory about exile. A man looks for a lost key on an illuminated sidewalk, at night. The key isn't there- he knows the key is at home but says he's looking on the street because "that's where the light is."

Rahimi went on to talk about the differences for him of writing and speaking in different languages, especially French and his native Persian, and about how the rules of grammar dictate writing choices and methods. He talked about his experience of returning to Afghanistan for the first time after the fall of the Taliban and being "shocked" by the decline in Afghan culture and the corruption in politics. He talked about his work in television, where he's helping to produce a soap opera (and train young men and women in filmmaking) as a means of influencing a "cultural revolution" among the people, especially the women. He said television was his medium of communication to the Afghan people because of the country's low literacy level, and said he tried to get his show, peppered with subversive messages about politics and gender, broadcast at a time when women would be alone in the house and have the opportunity to reflect without someone watching them. Cultural revolution via soap opera sounds a little funny but I found his reasoning quite astute.

Overall I found him to be brilliant, inspiring and fascinating. The problems in Afghanistan resonate worldwide and I admire and applaud his efforts to effect change through art and culture. Rahimi said that changing the political system requires changing the culture- and that changing the culture requires changes in the political system. I will definitely look out for his earlier novel, Earth and Ashes, and would encourage anyone to give him a try.

Sponsored by PEN America, the event was technically open to the public but unfamiliar as I am with the Harvard campus it was a little difficult for me to find, and it seemed like a very Harvard-only audience. And although Gurewitch did a fantastic job translating off the cuff (not easy!) I was glad that my French was good enough to understand him without her assistance. Having to pay such close attention to his words helped engage me that much more in his talk.

You can watch the opening credits to his soap, "Raz ha een Khana" (Secrets of this House) here: