Wasif Bakhtari





Written by Latif Nazemi

Translated by Sharif Fayez


Wasif Bakhtari is considered as a foremost Afghan poet and literary scholar in contemporary Farsi/Dari literature in Afghanistan. He is widely known in Afghanistan and among the Afghan Diaspora literati abroad for his sophisticated modern poetry and scholarly works on Farsi/Dari literature. As a leading modern poet, Bakhtari has had enormous influence on hundreds of young Afghan poets and writers in Afghanistan and abroad. He is revered by many of his fellow poets and writers as one of the founders of modern Afghan poetry.  


Wasif Bakhtari was born in 1943 in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital city of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, where he completed his primary and secondary education. In 1967, he received his bachelor degree in Farsi/Dari literature from Kabul University. In 1976, he received his master degree in education from Teachers College Columbia University in New York.


For about 15 years, he wrote and edited school textbooks for the Afghan Ministry of Education in Kabul. In the 1980s, he was the editor of a popular magazine called Zhawandoon (Life) and the newsletter of the Society of Afghan Writers. After the Communist Coup, he was imprisoned for two years on charges of his dissident political views.  Following the Soviet pullout, the invasion of Kabul by the Taliban militants forced him to escape to Peshawar and later to immigrate to California, where he is living now with his wife and children in Los Angeles.


He was one of the leading Afghan poets who wrote Nima-style and modern poetry.

Bakhtari was influenced by a number of important Iranian poets, particularly Nima Yoshij, Mehdi Ikhwan Thaleth, Farukh Farukhzad, Nadir Nadirpur, and Ahmad Shamlu. Later, he developed his own distinct poetic style and language. He also acquired a good knowledge of world literature in English translation while studying at Columbia University and later translated into Farsi a number of poems from world literature in English.  


For a deeper understanding of the poet and his works, I like to continue this introduction with a summary of an article on Bakhtari by Latif Nazemi, an equally eminent modern poet and critic in Farsi/Dari literature. In his recent article “In the Pineland of Wasif Bakhtari’s Verse and Intellect,” Nazemi says:   


“Wasif has tested his talent in many poetic forms and proven his skill and success in all of them. He is a poet with an intellectual and social inclination, often blending his words with new images in an attempt to explore the use of literature in social life. In many of his works, his art appears as part of social reality, to which he has devoted much of his literary life. The social subjects of his poetry can be classified into the followings:


In the later part of the 1960s after graduating from Kabul University and later in the 1970s, the poet witnessed a period of intense political changes and crises in his country, which led to the drafting of a new constitution and press law and thus paving the way for a new society. At that time, about 30 new independent newspapers, often with ideological and utopian trends, were published. Street demonstrations and strikes, with the closure of Kabul University, were staged in the same years. Furthermore, leftist, conservative, and centrist political parties became engaged in riotous and sometimes violent political activities. Obviously the literature of the time could not remain unaffected by the political atmosphere of the time.


In 1969, two of his revolutionary poems “Song of the Village” and “Epic of the Flame” were published in Shula-e-Jawid newsletter (the mouthpiece of the pro-Maoist Shula-e-Jawid party) at a time when political turmoil was escalating in the country. Wasif’s voice in the two pieces resembles that of Lahoti (an Iranian leftist poet) when inviting his country’s masses to rise, break the shackles of oppression and slavery, and raise the flag of liberation. In those days, “the Epic of the Flame” passed from hand to hand, with his party and ideological comrades fervently declaiming them in their street demonstrations. However, Wasif has not included those poems in any of the seven collections he has published up to now. 


In 1962-1972, ideological and political literature became popular in Afghanistan, but in his poetry the manifestations of this feverish time are rarely reflected. Only in the first three collections of his poetry, some footprints of the events and his ideological, political and philosophical thoughts are visible.  This was a time when he was a poet of utopian visions, with the hope that someday the masses would be in power and justice prevail. In his “Passage from Purgatory” he says:


May absurdity, bestiality, and hostility end!

What is evident, what is hidden, belongs to the masses

The earth belongs to the masses, time belongs to the masses.

Happy the time when the masses will rule over these lands,

Over these times with justice

(This Broken Mirror of History, p. 12)


In another poem, he claims that the desert is not a wasteland, the desert guardian is not silent, and deliverance comes from the sword:


Oh children of the street!

On this desert the desert traveler

Still plants voices

With the throat of all phoenixes

The desert traveler

Has still an orchard of red apples

In his sleeve

(An Introduction at the End, p. 50)



His poetry in those years of political crises, occupation and conflicts assumes a social dimension. In his youth, he was obsessed with a utopia he never attained, but he has not given up his hope.  Even in 1964 when he was hopeless and dejected, he wrote “The Glad Tidings,” in which he awaits the sound of a trumpet to herald the coming of a hero from the east. He is a poet in search of a hero and sees his imaginary hero riding a galloping steed:


A trumpet from a city in the east is coming

Heralding the coming  

Of the army lord of the lands of ambergris and light

May this be a good omen!

For the eyes to see the birth of anemones coming 

The kingly Siyawash from a far city of fire is coming.  

                                            (And the Sun Doesn’t Die, p. 570)


 The 1970s was a decade of despair and philosophical pessimism, with a nostalgic longing for the remote past.  He sees that his fellow poets, like the citizens of the ancient Babylon, don’t understand their words. The symbolic poem “Eagle from Heights…,” which he composed in 1973, is a sharp sarcasm against the intellectuals of the time, who have turned their backs against the sun, while facing the night. However, he still calls on those who still speak the same language to become a gushing river.


In the poem “On the Bed of Silence,” Bakhtari longs for the return of the mythical Ferhad to strike his axe on the head of the evil Parwiz. In “Passage from Purgatory” he looks for Buddha, Mazdak, Zoroaster, and other mythical heroes.


Where are Buddha, Mazdak, and Zoroaster?

Where is Sam to smash heads of the demons?

Where is that ancient wise man, the old Jamaseb?

to close the book of the Devil?

(This Broken Mirror of History, p. 11)


In general, his seven collections of poems present two types of world views. The first one is reflected in his ideological and political poetry from 1967 to 1977.  His second one, which reflects his deeper wisdom of life, with a strong sense of protest against injustice, is reflected in his 1973-1983’s poems. During the second period, his outlook, while avoiding an ideological and one-dimensional view, manifests an intellectual and humanistic attitude, with a strong sense of protest.  If his perspectives are not alike in all of the collections, it is because innumerable incidents have taken place in his country and the poet turns the pages of his time with a realistic view.


Although he is no longer an ideological poet, his voice of protest and anger has not subsided against injustice, war, and occupation during the last quarter of the 20th century. Every time he sees oppression, he starts an incantation of curses:


Oh all leaves of the world over

more than your numbers

I have pebbles in my cursing fling.


I have passed by burned lilacs

and by the most empty windows

and have heard whispers of prisoners

from the depth of their throats

 (Until the Pentagonal City of Freedom, p. 1)


Unfortunately, except for the first three collections of poems published in Kabul, the composition dates of his poems in the other four collections are missing; therefore the reader cannot understand easily the evolutionary course of the poet’s thoughts in his works. In the conclusion of the fifth collection of his poems, Wasif writes: “I removed all the dates from the ends of the poems except in a few cases, which will become obvious. Due to his concern over censorship and surveillance, he changed the dates of some of his poems, which has confused some of his readers and critics who want to understand his thought process in the course of time. It is evident that most of his poems, in which the foot-prints of the country’s historical events and phenomena could be discerned, were composed during the last quarter of the 20th century.


Bakhtari turns a historical event into an artistic one to make us ponder and speculate. If in his earlier works he identifies art with life; in his later works he recognizes art as a mirror of life and never attempts to separate his art from history , and he doesn’t slip from realism to formalism even though he places a special importance on form and language. Nevertheless, he cannot be a formalistic poet by any means.


Wasif’s poetry written in those painful years of exile in Islamabad and Peshawar is an elegy about the death of freedom and the torching of his land. Here I prefer to quote the poem “You Who Say How It Happened” to demonstrate that Bakhtari has captured in verse the calendar of more than twenty-years of his country. The words “snow, fireplace, fire-wood, and burner” in this poem are symbols standing for two occupations, two invasions, and two surprise attacks:     


For you, who ask how it happened


For you who ask

how it happened

I have a short answer:

That winter, I remember well,

caravans came from faraway cities.

Dwellers of this city had their blood

frozen by the winter’s cold and snow

However, those merchants who owned

the merchandise on mules and camels,

opened ice-selling booths

in all of the city’s streets

Leaders of the caravans called in deep voices:

Oh people!

never underestimate our heroism

Half of the city’s dwellers died

the other half

wished death as a permanent peace

in spite of this, leaders of the caravans called in deep voices:

Oh people!

We have brought you fresh, fresh snow

to release you from the pain of this cold

Later the caravans went back to their city and land


The following year in the summer

when it was too hot even for the fish to survive in water

other caravans came

Leaders of these caravans also cried in every city street:

Oh people!

We have brought you fire wood, fireplace and fire burner

and hot water from the history’s bath

to release you from the pain of this heat

And remember,

never underestimate our bravery!

Such was the event

and it was bloody


(The Grief of the Lost Isfandiyar, pp. 6-8)



In “The Wasteland,” T. S. Eliot has a poem, in which he calls April the cruelest month:

April is the cruelest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain


Wasif also has two poems about the month of April: “From the Purgatory of Calendar” and “The City of Calendar,” in both of which April is called an ominous month. The poems “Introduction to the Book of Brutality” and “The Red Volcano” are devoted to this subject. Only his compatriots know why this month is so ominous and cruel. At the end of this month – April 27 and April 28 – the stories of blood and attack begin.


When April comes

every drop of blood running in the vessels of flowers

becomes a river of delirium and pain

as if this month

until the last page of history

will be an

introduction to the book of brutality

of the volcano of the purgatory …

and an umbrella of the throne of the ignoble

                      (Up to the Pentagonal City of Freedom, p. 35)


Eliot attacks April in a sentimental way; Wasif attacks it from a historical perspective. For Wasif, another month is more ominous than April and that is the month of September, when the locusts (Taliban) of the south attacked the lands of his fellow countrymen; therefore the poet must have a bitter memory of this month in his heart:


For a long time I have thought that


Have been the exiles of April

And this ominous and hellish month

Is the most disgraceful street

In the city calendar

But I didn’t know at that time

That there should be bitter anger

In our hearts from “September”

                      (The Grief of Isfandiyar, pp. 9-10)


With this summary of Nazemi’s critique, I would like to mention that my translation of Bakhtari’s poetry is only a start, with obvious shortcomings.  His poetry, loaded with symbolism, myth, and historical allusions, poses many problems for a translator. His profound knowledge of classical Farsi/Dari literature, history and mythology, with his own sophisticated literary style and outlook, makes it very difficult to fully understand the deeper layers of his poetry, particularly in translation. In this small collection, I have selected the ones that pose fewer problems for translation.


The first poem “Eagle from Heights” is selected from a collection of poems titled The Closed Gates of Calendar. Bakhtari wrote this poem in 1973 before the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when he was still an idealistic poet. His image of Kabul as an ancient Babylon, whose leaders caused its destruction because of their arrogance and lack of understanding, is a very powerful image symbolizing the plight of this city during the last three decades of war.   


Eagle from Heights…


Ancient myths have it that

when Babylon, that splendid city,

that old poplar of the field of history conquered other lands

its leaders insolently indulged in arrogance

to an extent that they saw themselves as deities

And its citizens’ pride outdid that of the leaders

And these incited the wrath of God

who punished them in such an odd way

that they could not comprehend their own talks

If one uttered some greeting song

to another it would be a cursing call.

Thus an ominous cloud hung over Babylon

with its citizens’ tongues darting out as those of snakes

their souls inflated with intense malice,

and foreheads furrowed from extreme grimace

And with the sound of fury ringing all around,

words of kindness were no longer said.

Except the futile cursing weed,

nothing was shooting forth in the gardens of their hearts.

They spoke of war and slashing:

every word they said was a poisoned spike

Oh warriors, like ivies twisting on branches of hatred,

have you not turned this city into a Babylon of the bewildered

whose hatred and vengeance have borne these bitter fruits

in this garden of raw dreams?

You are fighting as if not understanding your words

How ignorantly we have become a discordant band!

our spirits, like mirrors stained with poison of pain;

our words, like grass shriveled from autumn frost;

our hearts, like cradles vacant of children of hope;

Like witches, carrying their spells,

before the night,

we have turned against the sun.


If they have cast fire in our pine-land,

if scorching winds rise to respond to the cry of the grass,

consider this not as a wasteland,

this land of perpetual bubbling springs.  

The stain on the mirrors will not last forever.

If nothing other than the cursing weed grows

in the garden of hearts,

consider it not as harmful to growth.

For every ending is a beginning and

the path leads to the boundless

Never mind if the traveler does not look for another path

other than the old trodden and tiring one.


Why should we be like a stained mirror?

We should be flowing like a river.

We should be solidly standing like a mountain,

Weakness comes from a tree standing alone.

Creative pride comes from trees standing together.


The eagle from heights is screaming:

though the horizons have no ending in sight.

I must fly from the city’s dark ramparts

Lest the Devil of the nights of heavy steps

raise its flag on the last stronghold;

Lest this bird of fire-wing and golden gait --

called moments of life --

fly away from our fleeting life’s trembling twig;

Lest they leave us like a dried flower

inside the pages of the history book

Lest the history’s ashes fall from the crest of fire

burning from our souls’ pure fire-wood.

For if this burning fire went off

there would not be a word of hope for Arash the Archer.

If the peace light breaks this night into a new dawn 

then let me set a red stone from my own blood --

the dew on the flower leaf of life --

into the history’s ring.    



In the Shadow of Horizontal Seasons


A tree must have an upright figure

so must a forest and walls


Oh horizontal trees!

Oh horizontal forests!

Oh horizontal walls!

with horizontal assumptions

with horizontal voices and

even horizontal screams!


Oh horizontal generations!

Resting for so many years

in the shadows of horizontal seasons

Should one count you

as martyrs of the red progeny?

Or from the rootless generation

who has undermined its roots

with its fingers and teeth?

Have you not heard this from your heroes  

when calling on you to drive out

invading elephants from the land?


A bird is fond of its nest

Men of elephant power needed to frighten invading elephants

And watch guards

must watch from watch towers

for every thorn-bud shooting from earth

as a potential enemy in the field

as astronomers scan the sky for sinister stars


Alas, if tomorrow’s trees are also horizontal 

Alas, if tomorrow’s forests are also horizontal

Alas, if tomorrow’s walls are also horizontal

Where would birds build their nests?

Then there would not be anyone to prevent a flood

And how can one target the hearts of human beasts?


Oh horizontal trees!

Oh horizontal walls!

Oh horizontal forests!

Oh horizontal generations!

Resting so long in the shadows of horizontal seasons

                      in the drift of rabid moments

Must you pay these tributes forever?



Frames and Pictures


Frames on walls

Isolated from days and nights

Silently complaining

At the curves of their corners 

About being tired of holding

These vile and shameful figures 


…And I Cried


The night was passing through an ambush land

On a terrace edge, a small lantern was burning   

And in the blow of the wind’s lashing syllables  

a woman was tearfully talking about a bird

that never returned from a jungle of storms 


The bird that from high over the night’s essence

heard the sound of the tragedy of the yellowing grass  

and passed it on to the river, mountain, forest, and desert

The bird that from high over the night’s essence

riding the rain’s steed and the night’s horse,

was heading to guard the new sprouts’ sleep. 


The bird that from high, high over the night’s essence

screamed across the sky:

Oh larks,

Guardians of sleep!

Pull your wet wings from the wandering winds

and come down from your bloody nests

Let’s pour the event’s poison into the night’s throat

like raindrops dripping on the night’s face

Let’s pour it from the red anemones’ rooftop

into the night’s street

Let’s pour the night’s honor

on the twilight’s threshold 


The bird that from high over the night’s essence

mourned over every storm-blasted branch

swooped down, curled up, and cried:

Where is that forest’s breath whose voice is green!


The night was passing through an ambush land

On a terrace edge, a small lantern was burning  

And in the blow of the wind’s lashing syllables 

a woman was tearfully talking about a bird

that never returned from a jungle of storms

 . . . And I had cried


(December 30, 1979)


Beware, Oh Beware!


My mother’s tongue was a night-letter dropped in exile alleys

which I read it everyday,

hiding it from father’s watching eyes

And sometimes, urged by Father,

I rode Rustem’s horse

on the green plain of my childhood

from Sharsanzal Zar to old Afrasiyab’s castle

Afrasiyab from his high terrace

threw before me crystal coins of smiles

instead of his poisoned arrows

And I stayed there

thinking that perhaps he was afraid of me

At midnights, however, Mother in her enigmatic words whispered to me:

Oh child, so lost in the swirling dust of the tribes’ caravans,

has it ever occurred to you that  that desert-born, desert-wandering chief

has vowed to discern his tribe’s blood-mix

in every vein of the young and old of this great world

as wine drinkers taste wines from outside their bottles?

With a laughter grown on the black text of his malice,

which he has against your forefathers of yesterday and yore,

he is beckoning you toward his castle

considering you one of his and

of his own


I have a silken tongue

However this gossamer has a drop of steel blood

in its every thread

Don’t ever come to fight with me!   





Oh people, do you know anything?

I am telling you the truth, no more, no less

of what I am, what I saw

Oh people, I wish I were drunk tonight

unaware of what it was and what it is

Oh people

to liquor sellers of this city –

the city that was mine, but not anymore—

I was always knee deep in debt for my drinking frenzy

Now, however,

the clerical police are blood-thirsty and  

I have no choice but head toward the green but cold opium streets

Oh, people,

we have been driven out of the history’s threshold

although the false minstrel of our songs keeps telling:

We have been

the moon of Nakhshab, the moon of history, etc.

But have we ever held in our hand the history’s pulse?

Oh people, shame on us!

if once again we sit idle, not rising in defiance

another Holakoo will come from a foreign land

to retaliate against the Abasites for the murder of Abu Muslim  


Oh! People, I am telling the truth though half-drunk

There is no other way.

Either we should continue sitting parched

on edges of crystal and pure ponds

as we are while the enemy is ruling us

Or we should thrust our swords

deep in the enemy’s heart


Oh people, I am telling the truth

of what I know

of what we see

No more, no less.


The Nest Remained Empty…


At that time

At that ominous time in favor of the enemy

we were two, two bleeding wings

We were two when crossing the barbed wires of that border

I don’t know with what wings

we traveled that eventful and unwanted trail

Our nest remained empty of joy and warmth forever

I don’t know which one we deserve –

Admiration or imprecation!

However suddenly one of us, one of the two bleeding wings

flew to the faraway borders,

not to return anymore

without a prayer


Oh migrating birds across the horizon,

I don’t know if you have ever seen

a mark, a name inscription on a pigeon’s grave!


Oh God, I wish a kind wind would carry

a handful of thorn and straw

from their nests

to graves of pigeons in love

And inscribe on the black epitaph of the earth

their names and those of their kin  

in a writing that only the migrating birds could read

so that in the limbo of their exile

their spirits might rest from the smell of their nests





Oh all leaves of the world’s trees

more than your numbers

I have stones in my cursing fling


I have passed by burned Judas-trees

and the most empty windows

and have heard whispers of prisoners of sounds

in the tunnels of their vocal cords


I have seen

on the other side of false smiles,

paper flowers of assurance,

glasses filled with the poison of doubt

I have seen

that the poetry’s intellectual lantern

has become a way of finding a crumb of bread

that poetesses hang themselves

with the rotting rope of the songs of the desert’s ancient priests

That stars borrow masks from one another

That the earth is raining stars

That in the crowd of words

the lash has a tall figure

That color children are being born

so that their bones may become tools

for beautifying the most disfigured faces

That palm groves have become accustomed to the ax

That forests dream of ashes

That the crystal bowl of the tribe’s pride

in the bitter pain of migration

breaks at the surrender’s threshold

That artificial suns kneel before the night,

before the sunset

That on the silk’ ID it is written:

a girl slave from the race of rags

Oh all leaves of the world’s trees

more than your numbers

I have stones in my cursing fling 



…And the Sun Doesn’t Die


The shadow asked the wind:

What happened to that city

that vibrant city of rising glory,

once a vigorous fighting fist and

with its streets like arteries of a living body

that now it has fallen to pieces

with its streets like the severed veins of a wounded soldier?

What happened to those stone-breaking iron-hearts

now standing behind the window of time

like statues, paintings and dolls?

As though the warriors have all become fossilized,

And the faces, all like thick mirrors of disfiguration

                      And the feet, all like the pulse of the centuries’ dead

                      And the hands, like rusted swords

                      And the names -- all slave, slave-born, and servant

                      And the eyes, all like stained glasses

                      And their anger, sterile

                      And their sleep, heavy

False dawns prevailing over eyes

Look, how the desert hungry are infatuated with the bread picture

The unfortunate clowns are riding the stead of shame

The prostitute is embracing her desire

No wind rose from the east

No cloud mourned the sun

For so many crows of deceit

nested in the jungle of truths

Don’t be in the fever of your turbid dreams

On the supposition tower, the drowsy guard

has closed the door before the morning messenger

And the most mournful bird

the only lover of the jungle

builds its nest on the scaffold

And the shadow, the wandering woeful shadow,

heard from the wind the answer to its cry:

Until when crying for the plain of red flowers of innocence and

for the green sleep of plants?

Visit the century’s garden

where the pine blue sunshade and

the blue bezel of the leaf

invite you to the green jungle of hope

if your star became a flashing meteorite

another star would become the sun

And the sun doesn’t die

Go and ask from the birds of dark woods

from the bleeding messengers of storms

from the nest-bearers of the deserts of pride

if they know the path to the green forest of hope

Go and ask if there is another path?

Go and ask if there is a traveler on the path?

And the shadow told its companion, yes there is.


As Far As the Five-Sided Freedom City  


On which stone of this desert shall I engrave your name?

There will not be any caravan of these tough travelers

to cross this desert anymore

Oh magnificent lady of Baghdad,

oh lady of sublime beliefs!

Oh Shahrazad of legends,

oh quintessence of patience!


For more than one thousand and one nights

I have invoked your name on this plain

On a fleeting ascension 

I put your name on the storm’s stair

But would the wind that you desire open its wings

to waft the fragrance of your name

as far as the end of this desert

as far as the five-sided freedom city?

Alas, guardians of the disaster

are hiding all over this fearful desert,

even the storm’s feet are manacled

within this fortress of bronze-built walls


I see your name among the sparrows

of perching words

on the conquest’s branch of the night-bound city

How suddenly it fell down!

Which hand, with what rock of spiteful word,

brought it down to bleed in the dust?


In the villages of silent fires

the poems’ pigeons of thousands of unknown poets

flew in pursuit of picking the seed of your name

to spread it on the land

in order to create everlasting green fields

Unfortunately they always returned

hopeless and empty-handed and

thus have chosen to nest

in the memory’s saffron-colored groves

For long no drop of happiness has trickled down

even into the throats of the poems’ pigeons

of thousands of unknown poets

And now the disheveled drummer of the storm

is boisterously celebrating your absence

by beating on the drum of rocks


Oh magnificent lady of Baghdad,

lady of sublime beliefs!

Would you not rise again with another name?

Look, how these rotten fruits of the grove of guillotines

like those bloody one thousand and one nights

have congregated

at the crowded crossroads of the five-sided city!


Oh fiery pink spirit

Rise again in the corral word of retribution!