In the west of Kabul, a group gathers around the warmth of a gas heater in a room with shelves full of books. Eager to share their stories each reader comes to such gatherings once in a week.
According to The Guardian, one of the youngest reading club in Afghanistan, the Book Cottage, the age ranges from four to 13 year-old. In the spirit to revive back the culture of reading which was once lost, various reading circles have started springing around the capital with more vibrant, liberal are expanding once again.
“You have to start them young,” explains the initiative’s founder, 25-year-old Mashed Mahjor. “The country is still at war, so children don’t have a lot of opportunities to talk freely and ask questions, especially girls. We have to bring our book culture back to life.”
Mahjor started the reading club six years ago, now she has 20 regular members – and hundreds of book donated from across the world.
With a long history of literary tradition, Afghanistan has also a history of destroying and burning books. During the time when Taliban took over the country, libraries were burned and demolished. With limited access to books, the books that would make it inside the country remained subject to a rigorous censorship process.
However, trends are now favouring of reviving back the literary circles among the educated.
In west Kabul, some changes are seen slowly sprouting with laid-back coffee shops, small startup businesses and a quick growing dating scene and at its core Kabul University, where reading circles from all ages and gender are expanding.
This has also provided a medium and a platform for Afghans to discuss, in a mixed gender environment, issues not on the public agenda of a conservative society.
“We talk about topics such as hedonism, pleasure, even sex and desire. In a segregated, conservative society, these discussions can’t happen without an agenda, and books provide just that,” says Syeda Quratulain Masood, who has been researching Kabul’s book culture for her PhD at Brown University in the US.
“Books clubs are an indicator of a young generation that has come of age after 9/11. Many have liberal leanings and seek a space where they can talk openly. During the Taliban, Kabul University’s library was destroyed, but it has come back to life.”
With so much enthusiasm to participate, one such space is found in a basement room of one of the city’s universities where a group of 20 book lovers meet on weekly basis.
“It’s worth it,” says Attash Mashal, a civil engineer and government employee. “Most of the books we read can’t be accessed in Afghanistan, so we search for them online and print out copies. We read novels, poetry and philosophy.
“This one is censored though,” he adds, holding a copy of Albert Camus’ The Fall. “We just found out.”
Plenty of books in Iran translated from English to Persian, censorship is one of the agenda to discuss each week. Tabooed topics regarding sex and religion- whole chapters – are often entirely removed from such translated books.
“The abrupt silence gives an indication and a curiosity to dig deeper,” says Masood. “We always compare the translations with the original texts and they can vary significantly.”
Yet many people rely on such translated books as it can be difficult to read books in English or other languages.
One of Kabul’s biggest and most diverse bookstore, readers are seen reading and examining new books, reading in corners or taking selfies against a backdrop of bookshelves. Books are the new trend.
Aksos holds anything from The Kite Runner – another book previously banned in the country – to The Daydreams of Ashraf Ghani, the country’s president.
“Once again, the city is boasting poets, writers and creatives pushing against the recent norm,” says Masood.
“I think it’s because in book clubs, or when writing poetry, we can share our ideas and beliefs without restrictions,” says Yalda Heideri, a student in her twenties who attends a university book club.
“Afghanistan has restricted us a lot, especially us women, so we found a way to have discussions that would be embarrassing or even impossible outside.”
For Heideri, literature has also become an escape from daily life in a wartorn country where 3,804 civilian deaths were reported last year, according to the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan. “When I get tired of it all, I escape into poetry. It’s a whole different world. Kabul is improving and becoming more open, which makes me hopeful. But regardless of where peace negotiations are going, we have to find our own way to cope, and books are just that for me.”
According to Masood, it’s exactly such discussions about conflict and terrorist attacks that can help people on a daily basis. “People connect books to their own lives. They learn how Europeans have also lived through conflict and take messages from it,” she says.
Qanbar Ali Zareh, a 43-year-old father who has taken his daughters to the Book Cottage, says that books help him understand his own life better. While waiting for his children, he sits in a corner, reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming. “It’s the same story, but a different face,” he says. “I faced isolation and discriminations throughout, so this books speaks to me. It’s very personal. She’s a remarkable woman and I want just that for my daughters: for them to raise their voices and to read books.”
The story originally appeared in The Guardian.