Reflections II: The Garden of My Father

JAWAN SHIR RASIKH

The garden is beside the main motorway which connects northern Afghanistan and the Kabul Valley. Local villagers, city-dwellers, nomads, and American military convoys pass by everyday when they crisscross through the Shamally plains. It stands between Kabul and my ancestral village in the Parwan province, one of the country’s most fertile regions, once part of what corridor of the Silk Road. The land was known in the past as Nehal-e-Beg (the Tree of Beg, named after a Turkic chief) and used to be a dry, pastoral highlands. The Chinese government built a modern canal system in the 1960s; dry land became productive, arable and green, yielding high quality organic grapes, ideal for wine-making, by the time the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. In the 1990s my father, a bureaucrat, lost his job as all government employees did when the Mujahideen overran Kabul. That is when my father turned his land into a garden and orchard. It has hundreds of trees now: grape, mulberry, cherry, peach, pomegranate.

6.jpg

People of my father’s village, a community of perhaps around five hundred households about twenty-five miles north of Kabul, see his identity and their relation to him — and through him their relation to us as a family — in terms of his garden. They judge our material and other kinds of status, such as our urbanity and globality, from how many times we visit the garden; whether we visit it individually or as a family; whether there is a gardener or not; who our gardener is; whether we watered it in a particular season or not; how much produce would it have in a particular season, and so on. This past summer my father built an iron-gate for it, which used to be previously one made of wood. This was seen not just as an improvement of a garden enclosed on four sides by mud-clay walls. It was a development in terms of us thinking about our garden, our village, and being part of that. It became the talk of the village: we de-urbanized ourselves by showing affection to our village garden. Indeed,  “this is,” every time the villagers pass by the garden saying, “the garden of Shir Agha. It has a new door—"Een bagh-e shir agha ast. Darwaz-e-naw darad” (Shir Agha, ‘Lion of Father,’ is my father’s nickname in the village).

What does it mean to have a garden? And to be a gardener? In one sense there is nothing less natural than a garden. In these parts the bigger or the more walled your garden, the grander you are. Are you a gardener then? Or simply an owner, an elite?


This garden and the vineyards of Parwan span out across the Shamally plains, a fertile and cosmopolitan borough of gardens, lands, newly elite and ordinary neighborhoods, all fed by three major rivers — the Panjshir, the Salang, the Ghorband — and hundreds of streams and springs.

What does it mean to have a garden? And to be a gardener? In one sense there is nothing less natural than a garden. After the construction of the Chinese canal, gardens appeared one after another in Nehal-e-Beg. In my father’s case the land, an area of 6500 square meters, was half-inherited within a cycle of seven generations, and half-purchased by my mother from her salary as a school teacher. It is an enclosed space whose walls are made of mud clay which, being cheap, is popular in the region and across the country. Rich people, however, have started, since 2001, to build cemented walls or walls built of burned bricks around their gardens across the plains. The region is itself a kind of garden within Afghanistan, where elite Kabul-based Afghan families own large land-holdings that have been turned into retreats. I have even heard, during a recent trip, that some of the powerful and wealthy have built private zoos in their gardens! These elite practices, like cemented walls, geometric landscapes, a pool, and a private zoo, have deepened an anxiety among those who don’t have gardens of their own.

Ownership of private property, whether as an entity or an idea, was for Marx the the greatest obstacle to human freedom. In these parts, certainly, your social, material, and other identity, without regard for your being and living, both in the village and in the city, is linked to what kind of a garden you have: indeed the bigger or the more walled your garden, the grander you are. Are you indeed a gardener, then? Or simply an owner, an elite?

...he was once a person of many identities: son of a Mullah who was known for having the most beautiful voice in calling to prayers, a young orphan who lost his father to an unknown disease, a hardworking-laborer... and a committed revolutionary of the Left.

It spans 6,500 square meters, but my father’s garden is extremely modest compared to other hundreds lavish gardens being built recently in the Shamally Plains. The conception of ‘garden’ and ‘garden of my father’ is a thing of both historical knowledge and social development, which will remain so in the near and far future, probably in different forms and contents. Even though, in its basic socio-spatial terms, this garden of my father has become a sort of escape, and an open space for the female members of our family who do not have access to the greater luxury of public spaces in the masculinity of urban Kabul, garden and gardening have a much longer history in the country we now call Afghanistan: it has been the locus of pleasure and as well as of produce, the stuff of society.

For example, while the main popular term for garden in Persian and Pashto (the dominant local languages) is bagh, there is a rich collection of other Persian words and phrases which denote a conception of garden as a both human and divine/natural designed space—ferdaws ‘heavenly garden,’ bostan ‘place of perfume;’ gulstan, gulzar, and gulshan, ‘place of flowers;’ chaman or chamanzar ‘meadow;’ takistanarbor;’ the list goes on. Persian and Pashto poets have been historically obsessed with descriptions of garden, gardener, landscape, property, and produce. The great medieval Persian poet Rumi says in one place that garden is a ‘secret of god/asrar-e khoda.’ Elsewhere Rumi uses garden as a metaphor for further elaboration of mystical thoughts, such as ‘garden of heart or bagh-e dil,’ ‘garden of love or bagh-e ishiq,’ ‘garden of death or bagh-e fana,’ ‘gardens of truth or bagh’ha-ye haqayiq,’ and ‘garden of heaven or bagh-e behasht as opposite of garden of the world or bagh-e jahan.’

There is no doubt that these conceptions of garden in Afghanistan have been influenced by its deep Persianate and Islamicate heritage. The Quran, the Muslim holy book, actually has also vivid descriptions of gardens throughout its pages: “O Muhammad, give glad tidings to those who believe and do righteous good deeds, that for them will be gardens under which rivers flow…Quran 2:25.” While the Quranic conception of garden is an End Space or Final Space for believers in terms of god-human relationships, gardening has been a deeply social thing among Afghans and other peoples of Persianate societies. Bagh indeed refers in Persian, from an etymological perspective, to an enclosed area for pleasure, of aesthetic and social purposes. Ancient Persian and Islamic royals and aristocracies are known in history for their patronage of gardens. Mughal garden or gardening, described often as heaven on earth, is almost an entire field of studies among scholars of South and Central Asian societies.  

Although the earthly-built garden has indeed functioned as heaven on earth and as an imagined space between god and man in many Persianate and Islamicate societies across Central and South Asia, my father, now a state bureaucrat and a self-taught public intellectual, also enjoys this great symmetry of the divine and social, living a self-exiled life in Kabul while mulling on the loss of the past and a much-desired future world, in a village in which he was once a person of many identities: son of a Mullah who was known for having the most beautiful voice in calling to prayers, a young orphan who lost his father to an unknown disease, a hardworking-laborer of the great landlords of the villages, and a committed revolutionary of the Left. ‘Garden of my father,’ probably my father himself, owes this being of contradiction in reality to his current anxiety of both having a garden, and being a gardener.

About the Author:

Jawan Shir Rasikh is a doctoral student in South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies the medieval history and culture of Persianate and Islamicate societies of Southwest Asia. His dissertation looks at the processes of Islamization of medieval Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is also interested in intellectual history, and in the problem of medieval Islamic geographical epistemology.