At Kabul's public library, using verse to make sense of a world of conflict

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At Kabul's public library, using verse to make sense of a world of conflict
Participants at a reading, hosted by poet Haidari Wujodi, of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, at the public library in Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 16, 2019. For more than 50 years, Wujodi, now 80, has kept a quiet window desk at the library, which has become an address for all kinds of visitors: musicians who need lyrics for a new composition, young poets looking for encouragement and feedback, university students who need references and street vendors who just want some wise words to get them through troubled times. Kiana Hayeri/The New York Times.

by Mujib Mashal

KABUL (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- For more than 50 years now, a mystic poet has kept a quiet window desk at the Kabul Public Library. His seat overlooks the hustle and bustle of the Afghan capital city, all but unrecognizable from the day he arrived as a young library clerk — one with a dreamy mind and stammering speech but fine calligraphic handwriting that helped land him his day job.

As governments toppled around him, Afghanistan sank deeper into flames of war that still burn. But Haidari Wujodi, 80, maintained his daily routine, switching his shoes for comfortable sandals that he wears with socks as he arrives at his desk behind stacks of fraying periodicals. His flask of tea fills and empties.

Until his official retirement a few years ago, Wujodi was in charge of the periodicals section. But his life is so intertwined with the third floor corner of the library that the Afghan government continues to pay him a small stipend, and Wujodi continues to show up every day, often the last to leave as the sound of evening prayer echoes in the dusk.

He no longer shelves magazines and newspapers; his assistants take care of that. Over the years, his desk has become an address for all kinds of visitors — musicians who need lyrics for a new composition, young poets who bring their latest publication for encouragement and feedback, university students who need references for a paper or a dissertation, and street vendors who just want some wise words to get them through troubled times.

The 80-year-old — tall, with broad shoulders and a long white beard — receives all of them the same, minister or beggar. He insists on walking each visitor to the door when they leave, despite their insistence that the ustad — “master” in Persian, as he is often called — not embarrass them by paying them such an honor.

“There’s a saying of the prophet,” Wujodi told a young poet one recent morning as he was leaving, having dropped off several collections of his recently published work. “If your friends are visiting you, try to go out seven steps to receive them. And when they are leaving, go out with them at least seven steps.”

Mondays and Wednesdays have been special in Wujodi’s routine. Twice a week for 30 years now, he has hosted a two-hour reading of the works of the Mawlana Jalaluddin Balkhi — the 13th-century Persian poet, philosopher and Sufi mystic known in the West as Rumi. The lessons typically end up being less about poetry and more about spirituality and philosophy. He calls Rumi’s body of work “a factory of human making.”

About 15 men and women, members of a group called “The Society of Lovers of Mawlana,” arrive and quietly take their seats. Wujodi looks out of the window as the room fills with the warm afternoon sun and a peaceful silence. One of the members, a middle-aged man with a narrow beard and a beautiful melodic voice, sings several verses as the rest follow along in their copies of the book. Then, in a soft but shaky voice, his head trembling, Wujodi begins explaining the verses.

On a recent Monday, lesson 405, on page 333 of one of Mawlana’s collections, focused on a conversation between a mystic and an interlocutor, with the mystic trying to explain to the man that the beauties in the outside world are simply reflections of what is inside.

The fruits and the gardens are inside the heart

What’s in this mud and water is the reflection of their grace.

Wujodi, spending an hour on these two lines, spoke of the heart as the physical “plasma on the left side of the chest,” and of the divine and spiritual capacity that he said could not be exactly defined. The way of reaching the divine is by focusing inward, he said.

“The heart is like a mirror,” Wujodi said. “If it is cleansed of the dust and fog, whichever way or object you aim it at the reflection of it would be reflected in the mirror.”

Haidari Wujodi was born in 1939, in a small village in Panjshir province in northern Afghanistan, one of five children of a cleric. In those days the Islam practiced in Afghanistan was deeply tied into Sufi traditions of poetry. His father kept about 200 books at home, many of poetry and handwritten. It was there that the young Haidari learned to read.

Wujodi has only a sixth-grade formal education. When he was completing his fifth-grade exams, he had a dream one night that he says sent him “tumbling between sanity and insanity.” Wujodi says he is unable to describe the state, but for several years he could not regain his balance. When he did, he was transformed.

At 15, Wujodi moved to Kabul and found his way to the bookbinding shop of one of the most renowned mystic poets of the time, Sufi Ashqari. While he was just a teenager and Ashqari in his 60s, their relationship shaped his life. The teenager was admitted to the small group of poets who gathered at Ashqari’s shop in old Kabul, exchanging verses as Ashqari continued to bind books.

Years later, when Ashqari was 90 and on his deathbed, he entrusted his unfinished work — the last chapters barely legible, because his hand had started trembling — to Wujodi, who spent eight months working after hours at the public library to prepare it for publication.

As his own poetry drew attention, Wujodi made sure he stuck to his quiet corner at the library — a dream job that allowed him space for his poetic endeavors and an income to support his wife, a son who is now an artist and two daughters who are both teachers.

He repeatedly rejected offers of higher positions. In the early 1990s, when the Islamic government that followed the Soviet withdrawal insisted that Haidari lead an educational foundation, he agreed to a compromise: He would continue his day job at the library, and for one hour at the end of every day he would go to the foundation’s office.

Wujodi still does not own his own home, living in a house owned by his wife’s family. One time, in the waning days of the monarchy, he refused even to meet with a member of the royal family who wanted to set him up with his own place.

“I apologized,” Wujodi recalled. “I said ‘I know, my decision is beyond logic.’”

Every morning on his way to work, Wujodi would circle the park at the heart of the city. At 80 he is still fit — “these mystics eat very little,” one member of the society said — climbing the three stories to his desk without holding the railing. But in recent years, age has cut his walk in the park in half.

Most days, Wujodi’s desk feels like an oasis at the center of chaos. One Monday last November, a suicide bomber killed a traffic cop at the roundabout just outside. From a library window, the scene was framed in a picture that went viral. The officer’s body, separated from his white cap, was sprawled under a billboard that read: “The nation that doesn’t read books will have to experience the whole of history.”

The shrapnel from the explosion flew through Wujodi’s window, where he had just finished his afternoon prayer. Had he still been standing, he might have been killed.

“What is happening in our world — is this really humane?” Wujodi asked during a recent lesson, lamenting how far the world stands from the humanist teachings of mystics like Rumi. “We don’t need philosophy for this — even a kid knows that we haven’t reached that common sense worthy of humanity.”

“The world is still blacked out on the wine of the grape — all this human killing, all this destruction, this ruin,” he added. “What is worthy of the dignity of a human, we haven’t reached that yet.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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