PEN America Calls for Protection of Writers, Cultural Actors in Afghanistan

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The cultural heritage of Afghanistan, like its people and their allies, is newly at risk, PEN America warns, in the unfolding crisis.

The empty cliff-hewn alcove in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, where the larger of two irreplaceable sixth-century UNESCO World Heritage-designated ‘standing Buddhas’ was carved. Both the 38-meter ‘Eastern Buddha’ and the 55-meter ‘Western Buddha’ were destroyed in 2001, dynamited by the Taliban. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Piccasos

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Lopez: ‘Broad Action Is Necessary’
In its statement today (August 17), PEN America in New York City has issued a call “for the United States to act swiftly to offer protection to writers and cultural actors in Afghanistan.”

PEN America is calling on its “members and allies” to write to their members of Congress appealing for immediate support.

Summer Lopez, who directs the organization’s free-expression programs, is quoted, saying, “As the Taliban reclaims power in Afghanistan, the many courageous Afghan writers, cultural actors, journalists, and activists—especially women—who have exercised and defended the right to freedom of expression are facing grave and imminent threats.

Summer Lopez

“PEN America calls on the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to work to swiftly offer safe harbor to these people, through the expansion and expediting of visa processing and the granting of humanitarian parole.

“The prospects for freedom of expression and human rights in Afghanistan under Taliban rule are deeply alarming, and broad action is necessary from the United States and the international community to protect those who are most likely to be targeted, as well as to defend the fundamental rights of the Afghan people.”

The US chapter of PEN writes, “In the weeks leading up to the country’s collapse, Taliban forces murdered two members of Afghanistan PEN, highlighting the grave threat writers and others in the country may now face.”

And PEN International on August 9 published an article of its own, expressing the world organization’s “outrage at the murder of Afghanistan PEN member, Dawa Khan Menapal.”

Formerly a journalist and presidential spokesman, PEN International wrote, Menapal at the time of his death worked as the chief of the now-collapsed media and information center. “The day before his death, Menapal spoke out against the killing of poet and fellow Afghanistan PEN member, Abdullah Atefi.

“PEN International,” the statement goes on, “continues to call on the international community, the Afghan government, and the United Nations Security Council to hold the Taliban to account for their persecution of poets, writers and other unarmed civilians who engage in peaceful expression in Afghanistan.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Monday (August 16) also issued a call, demanding safe passage out of the country for Afghan journalists. In its statement, the organization said it has registered and vetted cases of almost 300 journalists who are trying to get to safety.

“The United States has a special responsibility to Afghan journalists,” CPJ executive director Joel Simon writes, “who created a thriving and vibrant information space and covered events in their country for international media. The Biden administration can and should do all within its power to protect press freedom and stand up for the rights of the vulnerable Afghan reporters, photographers, and media workers.”

Questions About Cultural Agencies, Treasures, and Safety

In the outskirts of Kabul, a photo taken early this month. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Trent Inness

So unstable is the situation around the collapse of the Afghan government and military, that at this writing much reportage has had to focus, of course, on the central effort to remove tens of thousands from the Taliban-held country.

At The Art Newspaper, Gareth Harris and Dorian Batycka write today (August 17), however, that international culture and heritage organizations are, of course, in limbo, at best.

“The British Council, for instance,” Harris and Batycka write, “says that all of its heritage projects in Afghanistan have been suspended and its office in Kabul has closed. Larger questions also remain about the status of the country’s priceless ancient heritage, museums, and artefacts. At the time of writing, The Art Newspaper understands that the holdings of the National Museum of Afghanistan are safe.”

It’s worth remembering that the Taliban dynamited the sixth-century “standing Buddhas” at Bamiyan in 2001, destroying the two largest known figures of their kind on Earth.

There’s little consolation, of course, at this point, with the Biden administration and Pentagon so far unable to articulate plans to open safe corridors for citizens, and while Hamid Karzai International Airport is operational only under an increasingly robust infusion of US troops. Intended evacuees—Afghan nationals, third-country operatives, and Americans—may not be able to reach the airbase because the country’s own protective military structure has collapsed.

In his August 16 analysis for the Council on Foreign Relations, Max Boot—historian, political commentator, and the author of The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right from WW Norton’s Liveright imprint—writes, “In recent months, the Afghan military was unable to provide vital supplies such as food and ammunition to outposts scattered around the country. Some Afghan units, particularly the elite commandos, fought hard nearly to the end. But seeing the writing on the wall, most troops chose to cut deals with the Taliban, surrender, or simply melt away rather than risk their lives for a hopeless cause.”

And in PEN America’s and PEN International’s concern, those who support and promote literature in translation are reminded that linguistic interpreters are among the biggest classes of Afghan-national special aides and support staff to the efforts in-country of both the Americans and their allies. Interpreters are translators, and many can and do operate in the literary space. That’s one access point for world publishing, then, to the gravity of the situation and the importance of those who will chronicle it in literature.


More from Publishing Perspectives on PEN America is here. More on the freedom to publish and freedom of speech is here.

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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