Against All Odds, 1,000 Strong Afghan PEN Survives, Thrives

In Growth Markets by Olivia Snaije

Today, despite all odds, Afghan PEN is “progressing in an endless upward curve”, nurturing young Afghan writers and promoting freedom of expression.

By Olivia Snaije

KABUL: In the midst of the war in Afghanistan last decade, Norwegian PEN helped establish an outpost of PEN in Kabul. Today, Afghan PEN has attracted more than 1,000 members, published 50 books, and somehow, amidst the mounting insecurity and threats, survived and even thrived.


Waheed Warsata, executive director of Afghan PEN

“It’s a balancing act,” said Elisabeth Eide, a Norwegian writer, professor of journalism, and vice-president of Norwegian PEN, who first made a trip to Afganistan in 2003 to see about establishing an Afghan PEN center that would be a sister to Norwegian PEN. By gathering contacts from Afghan writers in exile, Eide and the initial delegation to Afghanistan — itself funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs — was able to meet with writers and at one event 49 poets, writers, journalists and literary scholars, all of different ethnic origins showed up.

The delegation’s report from the visit recorded one writer at the event exclaiming: “We have been waiting for you for so long, we only did not know it was you we were waiting for!”

Today, despite all odds, Afghan PEN is “progressing in an endless upward curve” said Eide, who has visited Kabul every other year to help oversee activities. She hopes to make the trip again this year.

Writer and translator Waheed Warasta has served as executive director of Afghan PEN for more than six years. He said, via email, Afghan PEN’s members write in Persian, Pashtu, Uzbek, Turkmen, Pashayi, Baluchi and Nuristani, and are often located in different parts of Afghanistan, including the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and Herat.

In Kabul, Afghan PEN’s efforts are focused on a Writer’s House (an idea originally conceived by Paris-based Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi), which serves as a physical center (including a garden) for PEN’s ongoing efforts to promote freedom of expression. Writer’s House in Kabul hosts at least one or two events per week, with a turnout varying from 40 to over 100 people. “Most of our events are poetry readings and some fiction readings,” said Warasta, adding “but they also include book reviews and critiques of newly published works.”

A recent event at Writer's House Kabul celebrated Che Guevara

Afghan PEN has also published some 50 books, in a variety of languages, including minority ones. “Through our publishing efforts we create opportunity for talented youth writers who do not have support from elsewhere to get their books published,” said Warasta. “We mainly distribute our books to the participants who come to our events, but also send [them] to other provinces, libraries and associations. We are not yet able to sell most of our books, which is a big challenge that we need to meet if we want to continue in the future.” Afghan PEN’s books were featured in a recent Kabul book fair, one jointly organized by publishers from Afghanistan, Iran and Tadjikistan.

While Warasta would like to see the organization spread further across the country, tolerance of freedom of expression is not widespread outside the capital and threats to writers are a constant, even in Kabul. “But one has to take some risk and continue working,” he said.

News and activities of the Writer’s House are posted in Persian and Pashto online at: An English version is expected shortly.

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About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.