“The lights are off, shelves are in disarray and dust has coated every single book,” says Zabihullah Ehsas, describing the current state of Khushal Baba Ketabtun, a library he helped to establish in 2012. It was his attempt to address the shortage of Pashto books in Mazar-i-Sharif, the cultural and economic hub of northern Afghanistan.
Funded by the Goethe-Institut, and holding a collection of nearly 4,000 volumes in Pashto, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan, the library quickly turned into a stomping ground for the city’s intellectuals, nurturing and hosting an array of literary programs — including literary critiques, poetry recitals and competitions, book reviews, guest speakers and anniversaries of renowned authors.
Ehsas explains that “it has been seven months that no one has peeked into the library,”.
The Taliban takeover last August hit Afghanistan’s reading culture and book industry especially hard. Libraries such as Khushal Baba Ketabtun, with its highly fertile and engaging environment, went quiet. The number of book stores is rapidly shrinking, and publishers and printing houses are in a deep economic crisis, with some already closed.
Suppressing regimes and widespread chaos over a span of 40 years squashed the public libraries and reading culture in Afghanistan.
The communists cracked down on religious books and the mujahedeen burned communist books after toppling the last communist president, Mohammad Najibullah.
In the mid-’90s, the Taliban tried to further erase the cultural elements of the country. The destruction of Buddha statues in Bamyan was the boldest example of this rampage.
And just as progress was being made, a tragic twist of history intervened: The Aug. 15, 2021, collapse of the government and the return of the Taliban turned everything upside down, bringing the country — and its reading culture and book market — to a halt. The entire book market has come to a standstill.
The Taliban have not announced their policy regarding books, but the memories of what happened to libraries and reading culture in the mid-’90s, when they first came to power, still serve.
Though some libraries are still open such as the library in Mazar-i-Sharif, the recovery of the reading culture and book industry seems a distant dream.
Ehsas describes books as being lights. With no one coming to the library and opening the books, “the lights are off.”
Afghanistan is in a blackout.