Journalism in an Oral Culture
From Homer’s Odyssey to Tolo TV
The man looked old, as if he had stepped out of a painted scroll. He wore a dark silk turban, a black waistcoat and tunic, and a big turquoise ring. His face and feet were dark as wood, his pointed gray beard stopped just short of his collar and he peered through thick glasses at our camera and tripod and audio recorders, at us, two foreign women who had come to interview him.
Mohammad Sulaiman Wakeel leaned forward as I pinned a small microphone to his lapel. He knowingly slipped the wire under his vest and laid the small box to which it was attached in a dark space near the cushion behind him. Although he was 75 years old, Wakeel was no stranger to the camera. He was something of a celebrity in Kabul, the host of a popular TV show called Chai Khanna, or Tea House, which airs on Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s most watched channel. The program had been described to me as a contemporary venue for traditional Afghan storytelling, where ordinary people gathered at one another’s houses to share tales from their own lives and accounts of things that had happened before they were born. Wakeel was a living bridge between the old and the new, between the way Afghans had for centuries preserved their history and the new Afghan media, which was straining to record current events in a way that made sense to the wider world.
We were interviewing Wakeel in his tiny shop in a Kabul neighborhood called Asheqan Arefan. His family had operated the shop for more than 200 years, and each generation had lived in the house above it, though recently one of Wakeel’s sons had moved him to a newer neighborhood near the airport, where he thought his father would be more comfortable. The shop was about 15 feet deep and 10 feet wide. In the front, near the door, stood a counter with scales to weigh purchases. Stacked on the shelves all around the room were boxes of laundry detergent and mango juice, rolls of toilet paper, bottles of Coca-Cola and trays of eggs. There were also cartons of cigarettes, one of which read: “Pleasure Lights, American Taste.” Wakeel’s father and grandfather had sold American cigarettes here, too, he told me, but in those days they had been Chesterfields.
The back of the shop was devoted to a platform covered with a carpet and lined with cushions. A tray of cups rested at one end, next to a large insulated teapot. This was where Wakeel would sit and chat with guests, and it was where he led me when I ducked into the shop late one chilly afternoon, as the impassioned voice of a muezzin rose from a neighborhood mosque. An old photo of Wakeel in a military uniform hung on the wall, near a film still from a black-and-white Hindi movie and a picture of a Sufi leader who had led mystical celebrations at a nearby shrine before the days of fundamentalism.
For as long as anyone in Kabul could remember, winter had been the season of storytelling. Days were short and it was too cold to get much work done. People gathered around piles of glowing coals, ate dried fruit, drank tea and told stories. Wakeel’s show is called Chai Khanna because the Afghan teahouse has traditionally been a place of meeting and storytelling. He started the program five years ago, after a TV executive approached him with an idea for a show about traditional Afghan social and cultural practices. Elders and local leaders invite Wakeel and his crew to their homes, and the show’s director assigns them topics of conversation. The subject matter is purposefully apolitical, Wakeel told me. People talk about how weddings are celebrated in their villages, about funerals and burial practices and historic battles.
Wakeel filmed the first episode of Chai Khanna in the mosque from which I had heard the muezzin’s call. It was known as the Ghazi Mosque, named for the early Afghan holy warriors – literally, “infidel killers"—who had fought the British in the 19th century. Ghazis were irregular fighters who dressed in flowing white robes that resembled shrouds and signified their willingness to die. They fought with swords and spears and threw themselves into battle with a religious zeal that utterly discomposed the British.
"When British forces invaded Afghanistan, the first jihad was declared from this mosque,” Wakeel told me. “And later on, when victory was claimed, it was celebrated in this mosque.” In the mosque’s courtyard stood a tree that had been planted by Wakeel’s father, a respected general.
Wakeel began to escort me through the history of his neighborhood, from the time his great-grandfather had lived there, when Kabul was a sprawling village with seven gardens, each named for a significant event or for the person who ruled over it. He told me about the Bagh-i-Qazi, or Qazi’s garden, about Timur Shah’s garden, and about a Kabul neighborhood named for one of the famous Afghan officers who had fought the British.
Somewhere along the way, I asked Wakeel a question about his TV show. He mentioned the Afghan media mogul, Saad Mohseni, who owns Tolo TV. Then Wakeel started talking faster. I waited for my translator to tell me what he was saying. “He just mentioned a warning, not to get it mixed up with the Mohseni who is a jihadi leader,” my translator told me. It would have been nearly impossible to confuse Saad Mohseni, one of the most modern and Western-oriented businessmen in Kabul, with the 75-year-old former factional leader known as Ayatollah Mohseni, who had fought the Russians and who now runs a madrassa and TV station believed to be heavily supported by Iran. In fact, Wakeel’s mention of the elder Mohseni in this context was so disorienting that until I realized who he was talking about, I was bewildered about which era this jihadi Mohseni had inhabited, whether he had fought the British or the Russians or some other invading army, whether he was alive or dead. To avoid any confusion, Wakeel named the father and grandfather of Saad Mohseni, the owner of Tolo TV. Then he continued speaking where he had left off.
Wakeel was an old man, I thought. Maybe he was confused about the chronology of the events he was describing, and that was why he kept drifting back and forth in time. But the more I listened, the more I became convinced that Wakeel knew exactly what he was doing. Indeed, he was not the first person I had heard do it. His habit of describing an event or mentioning a name, then dropping back to tell how that event or person came to be, reminded me of the unwritten literature of an earlier time. Wakeel’s recitation of genealogies – his frustrating inability to answer a question directly, because so many stories intervened – was odd and discursive, but hardly unfamiliar.
Near the beginning of Homer’s Odyssey, Athena asks Zeus to end Odysseus’s wanderings and bring him home to Ithaka. In a passage that resembles hundreds of others in the poem, Zeus replies:
Could I forget that kingly man, Odysseus?
There is no mortal half so wise; no mortal
gave so much to the lords of the open sky.
Only the god who laps the land in water,
Poseidon, bears the fighter an old grudge
since he poked out the eye of Polyphêmos,
brawniest of the Kyklopês. Who bore
that giant lout? Thoösa, daughter of Phorkys,
an offshore sea lord: for this nymph had lain
with Lord Poseidon in her hollow caves.
Naturally, the god, after the blinding –
mind you, he does not kill the man;
he only buffets him away from home.
But come now, we are all at leisure here,
let us take up this matter of his return,
that he may sail. Poseidon must relent
for being quarrelsome will get him nowhere,
one god, flouting the will of all the gods.1
This was exactly the way Wakeel talked, though he talked of ordinary Afghans, not gods and heroes. In Wakeel’s account of something as simple as the layout of his neighborhood, the present was infused with meaning by historic events and lines of ancestry that his Afghan listeners had probably forgotten, and that a foreigner like me had never known. Wakeel was not a poet as Homer had been. But like Homer, he inhabited an oral culture, and he was deeply engaged with preserving the stories of the past. Because nothing was written down, the only way to remember those stories was to tell them, to build them into other stories, to create small set pieces that could be spoken in the midst of ordinary conversation.
“I remember the stories of very ancient times, however there is no book about it,” Wakeel told me. On Chai Khanna, guests shared “the realities they have heard from their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers.” The stories were “realities,” not artifacts. An Afghan king, Amir Amanullah Khan, had stood in front of a famous mosque in Kabul, raised his sword and said, “I won’t rest until I earn the independence of this country.” Wakeel knew this had happened because his father had told him, and his father knew it because he had worked in the palace as a young man, bringing tea to commanders in Amanullah’s army. Wakeel was convinced that the stories he and others told on Chai Khanna were true because he and the show’s producers got calls from Afghans all over the world, thanking them for mentioning the names of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, for publicly telling stories they themselves had heard long ago.
Wakeel had collected more stories than most people, he told me, because his parents had lived a very long time. His father had died at 110, his mother at 135. The average life expectancy in Afghanistan is 44, but when I suggested that Wakeel might be mistaken about his parents' ages, he waved my questions away. As always in Afghanistan, a story was one thing, facts were something else. A listener bent on realism would be dissatisfied with Homer’s poems, in which mortals speak, fight and copulate with gods. The point wasn’t whether Wakeel’s mother had actually lived to be 135. The interesting thing was what Wakeel conveyed by saying, and apparently believing, that she had.
Wakeel mentioned that one of his sons had worked as an interpreter and cameraman for Al Jazeera. “A journalist does an important job,” Wakeel said. “If there is no journalist, nobody will know what is going on, what is happening, what is the news and what are the realities on the ground.” I asked if he saw any similarity between what Afghan journalists did in covering the news and what his father and grandfather had done in telling the stories around the fire in wintertime. Were his forefathers the journalists of their day? “Yes, I would say that was journalism,” Wakeel told me. “Because we had only one radio station, a government radio station.” And then he told me about the first radio station Afghanistan had ever had in the time of Amanullah Khan, and how it had been powered by electricity from Shiberghan, a city far to the north of Kabul.
Dusk had crept into the streets, and the men outside hugged themselves against the cold. We packed up our gear. “Are there any long poems that are memorized by people and sung at the fireside?” I asked Wakeel. I couldn’t understand his answer, but I could hear the rhythms of his speech change. My translator told me that Wakeel was reciting an old poem about his neighborhood, Asheqan Arefan. He translated some of the lines:
What a wind, what a climate has Kabul – and here, Wakeel interjected that the city’s climate had worsened, and the air was no longer fresh –
What a Hoja Safa we have – “It’s a shrine in Kabul,” my translator told me, “but now it’s destroyed” –
Kabul has very fresh youth – “How would you say ‘fresh’?” my translator asked. “I don’t want to call it naughty…”
“Do you mean ‘rude’?” I asked.
“No, it means energetic, not rude. It’s a positive compliment.”
Wakeel interrupted. In the days when the poem had been composed, he said, the youth of Kabul would best have been described as “brave.” But the Dari word for “brave” didn’t fit the meter, so the word “fresh” had been substituted. I thought about how meter had become a crutch in the creation of oral epic. Poets like Homer had to remember thousands of lines at a time. Scholars believe these poets would memorize “formulae” – lines and pieces of lines that fit the meter – to fill gaps and buy time in case they forgot a passage and had to re-compose the poem on the spot.
“Are there any poems in Afghanistan about wars and heroes?” I asked Wakeel.
The old man was moving toward the front of his shop, where customers waited. “There are many,” he told me. “But to be honest, I can’t remember them now.”
1. The Odyssey of Homer, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Vintage, 1963). ↩