The special qualities of Afghanistan folklore are like the special flavors of Afghanistan cuisine in the mouth when it is well prepared from local ingredients: Mi
The special qualities of Afghanistan folklore are like the special flavors of Afghanistan cuisine in the mouth when it is well prepared from local ingredients: Mills
This interview was recorded at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU) before the collapse of the Republican government in 2021. Our colleague, Mr. Kazim Hamidi Rasa, engaged in a lengthy conversation with Professor Mills about the Persian cultural heritage of Afghanistan, and her remarkable work on the country’s oral history and folklore.
Although a Farsi/Persian translation of the interview was published in a local newspaper a while ago, the original version has not yet been released. With Mr. Kazim Hamidi Rasa’s permission, Noon Weekly has decided to publish the original version for public use. This interview is highly recommended for the Afghanistan diaspora, particularly those with a nostalgia for 1960 and 1970s Afghanistan.
Take a moment to enjoy this insightful interview below:
Could you please tell us about yourself and your scholarship?
My name is Margaret Mills. I was born and educated in the United States, where I learned in the 1960’s about the existence of folklore studies from a wonderful professor, Albert B. Lord, who developed an important theory of oral epic poetry, its poetic qualities and its transmission, how people could remember and share such long, complex poems without writing. His specialization was on epic, long narrative poems, especially Greek and Serbo-Croatian epic, but he introduced his students to many other types of oral tradition, including folktales, proverbs, legends, magic and charms, and more.
How do you describe folklore?
There are two key qualities of folklore, that the different forms of knowledge pass from person to person at the informal social level (both oral and sometimes also in written forms), informal even when the knowledge may be considered very important, and that the knowledge exists in variants. That is, there is no one identified correct form, but many related variations of a story, a song, even a charm or a prayer used as part of a home ritual offering, or a recipe for a traditional food.
Is folklore about literary arts or an anthropological fact?
Really it is right in the middle between the verbal/literary (interest in style of words as texts) and the anthropological (interested in the forms of social organization that support the transmission, preservation and use of the knowledge). I think we cannot sufficiently understand the formal qualities of traditional knowledge unless we can also learn about the people who support it, what they value and how they judge knowledge to which they have access, and vice versa also.
How did it happen that you find yourself in love with Afghanistan’s intangible cultural heritage?
As it happened, I was also interested in archeology in college and after graduation I got a chance to join a dig project in southern Iran, near Takht-i Jamshid. In the village where we stayed, I became very interested in the living Persian language tradition. One important day, when I was working at the house, a man in full dervish dress came to our gate singing poetry – I am thinking now maybe it was some masnavi of the poet Jami but at the time, I did not know. I just wanted to hear more. With that and other experiences, I decided the living people were more interesting than the dead people, because they would TALK to you! I visited Herat at Nauroz holiday and there I realized that the Persian language oral tradition was very much alive, with less influence of mass media (radio and television, film at the time).
Tell us about your scholarship on Afghanistan.
It depends on how you count- at least two books with only my name on them, plus two more small ones with co-authors including the one that ACBAR/ABLE just published, and maybe 30+ articles in different journals and chapters in books. Also, I was co-editor of an encyclopedia of South Asian folklore that had short articles about Afghanistan, but really Afghanistan should have its own encyclopedia of folklore, there is so much!
When did you visit Afghanistan? what was the purpose of visiting?
My first visit to Afghanistan was just as far as Herat, at Nauroz, 1969. I was on vacation when I came from Iran where I was teaching English language and literature in a Tehran high school and studying Farsi / Persian. I fell in love with Herat, an ancient and beautiful city, and I decided that if I could get into graduate school in folklore studies, my research would be in Afghanistan and in the Persian language.
What were the interesting things that you saw in Afghanistan on the first visit?
It was my first visit to a more traditional central Asian city. I loved the sounds, the sights of beautiful traditional architecture (homes, mosques, the covered bazaar, Gazur Gah, and other historical places), the green and flowering spring, and the ways people celebrated that. I went to the Bagh-e Zananeh with all the ladies and their children on Sizdeh bedar holiday. I saw that people in Afghanistan were hospitable, kind, and patient to many foreigners who were coming there as tourists, even if tourists didn’t always act politely. Life was simpler then economically, but people were very dignified and thoughtful. I wanted to spend more time with them, to learn to speak more Persian (Dari), and to learn as much as I could about culturally matters, especially everyday knowledge, and values of folklore.
Although you had some folkloric studies on Kabul’s cultural heritages, that is not comparable with Herat. It means Herat has something special which attracted you.
Maybe because Herat was the first great Afghanistan city that I saw, and it was in a way less complex than Kabul – Kabul had people from every part of the country living there, even in the 1960s. Kabul is a place where you can meet people from every part of the country, and also it has its own neighborhood cultures and histories. Herat’s deep history goes back before the Greeks, its name is even mentioned in the sacred books of the Zoroastrians, perhaps more than 2,500 years old. Each city has its own rich history – I think I fell in love with Herat because it was my first experience in Afghanistan.
What makes the Persian folklore heritage of Afghanistan so special?
Every group of people who hold and use their own oral traditions locally put their own flavor into it. Place names, foods, even small things like how you give commands to farm animals, histories of local events, and local practices for holidays or religious celebrations are both local and part of a shared human practice of traditional knowledge. The special qualities of Afghanistan folklore are like the special flavors of Afghanistan food and cuisine in the mouth when it is well prepared from local ingredients. All food may sustain life in similar ways, but the foods of one place (and the folklore of one place) speak about the place in many different, small and large ways. Having local knowledge and memories of their own is very important to people’s psychological well-being.
How long have you studied Afghanistan folklore and what was your achievement?
I was interested in folklore studies from about 1965 or even before that, and I found Afghanistan in 1969. I never have achieved enough knowledge about Afghanistan tradition, it is limitless, but every little cultural detail that I am able to see and understand better, with help from Afghanistan scholars and ordinary people, is a pleasure. If I can make people outside Afghanistan better understand and appreciate Afghanistan’s cultural wealth and their own value as human beings, that is the main job.
As also we know, there are over 450 hours of records of Afghanistan’s oral history. How do you plan to analyze them? And how important it is to transcribe and publish?
Actually, my collection now at ACBAR Archives has 450 or more hours of recordings is quite a mixture. I made the recordings mostly in Herat and Kabul, plus some recordings made with refugees in Peshawar in the 1980s, which are a mixture of folk stories (afsana, legends, some stories from epic) and also interviews with people, especially the storytellers, about people’s own life experiences and about larger issues in Afghan society. Because the making of the recordings goes back as far as the 1970s before the Soviet wars, and they record people’s memories and lives from their birth, those interviews have become the basic oral history of some ordinary people after all the many changes in Afghanistan since then. I myself have only been able to publish a small sample in full detail – maybe a total of 20-25 hours of the recordings. I still need to create a good index for all to use, so that others can find things of interest in the collection and write their own interpretations.
Who is going to transcribe them?
For most of the time, up to now, I would choose some piece of recording and do the first drafts of transcriptions from the recordings myself but I made sure if possible to find native speakers of Dari who could check my work and correct some errors each time. My Dari language will never be like a native speaker’s language so the mistakes are always there. These days my co-author and transcription specialist is Professor Faridon Sorush, formerly of the Law Faculty of Herat University. He makes the first Dari transcription of a story or interview in exact detail, I do the first translation into English, and then we work together on all the questions and uncertainties in my knowledge. He now lives with his family in Seattle, USA, a city about 3-4 hours travel from my US home. It is a great pleasure to be able to work with him. He and my other teacher/assistants over the years have taught me a lot.
Recently you had a visit in Afghanistan, what was the purpose of the trip?
In August-September 2018 I was turning over to ABLE/ACBAR the texts for a small folktale book with stories (afsana) told by one of the excellent traditional storytellers I knew in Herat in the 1970’s. Mr. Kazim Rasa and colleagues at ACBAR did a beautiful job of correcting and printing the texts (in English, Pashtu, and Dari) and placing them in a very fine visual design for the whole book. We are hoping the book will appeal to both at home and people outside Afghanistan who want to know about Afghanistan’s traditional folk stories and to practice reading in Dari (Persian), Pashtu, or English.
How do you explain this country during the passage of time you visited?
That is such an enormous story. I never dreamed that Afghanistan which I first met in 1969, which was quiet, dignified, and making its own progress in the world, would be swept up in such ugly global politics, war, and drug cultures. I just wish that the next generations of Afghans could have a country at peace, making its own way in the world. This will be hard to achieve after 40 years of interference from various outside forces, which have distorted and damaged Afghans’ abilities to organize and create their own future. I think it is also important to try to remember and value Afghan folklore and oral literature. Not all practices in the past were good – there are plenty of stories and oral history about injustice and how things go wrong – but it is important to remember one’s own country’s history, good and bad.
Recently you wrote two papers about Afghanistan, what is the main idea of those papers?
I have written three or four in the last 2 years I think – the two latest that I am still finalizing for publication are about two different main subjects:
One is about how different types of traditional folk narrative- afsana, legend, epic – get local content in the hands of local storytellers and how that local knowledge relates to the international content and forms of these types of narrative.
The second is about legends of threats of capture and escape. Mainly these legends connected with sacred places where people (especially women) were in danger of capture by enemies, prayed for protection and were rescued. Such women and girls were often taken into the ground or turned into stones so that the enemies could not capture them. I also mention for comparison some of the real threats to Afghan youth (both girls and boys) in recent wartime.
Anything else, you would like to say about what you did or what you want to do?
I just wish I had more time in Afghanistan with colleagues and friends. Learning about Afghanistan’s oral culture is a lifetime project and I feel like I have only begun. Forty years is not nearly long enough. It would not have been long enough in peacetime. The effects of war and radical social change make it even harder to understand to even a small degree what people have experienced and what cultural resources there are for dealing with these most difficult times.
About Professor Margaret Mills:
Emerita Professor Department of Near East and South Asian Languages and Cultures,
PhD Harvard University, 1978: General Folklore and Iranian Studies (Comparative Literature and Near
Eastern Languages and Cultures, with Cultural Anthropology). Dissertation: Oral Narrative in
Afghanistan: The Individual in Tradition. (Supervisor: Albert B. Lord)
BA Radcliffe College, Harvard University, 1968. Cum Laude in General Studies (English Literature, with Anthropology and Archeology.
Selected Relevant Fellowships and Awards
Dupree Foundation publication grant 2014-2018; American Institute of Afghanistan Studies 2010.
ACTR/ACCELS US Dept of State Title VIII Fellowship, Tajikistan 2005; Christensen Foundation Grant
for Tajikistan, 2004; 2004-2006 Mershon Center Grants in Support of Conference: Afghan Women
Leaders Speak, at Ohio State University Nov. 2005; 1993-94: John Simon Guggenheim Foundation
Fellowship; 1993: Chicago Folklore Prize, for best academic book in folklore; 1974-76: Fulbright-Hays
Dissertation Fellowship and US NSF Grant, Herat, Afghanistan.
۲۰۱۸ Tales of Two Heroes of Justice (Persian title: Afsaneh-e Du Qahraman-e Adel).
With Faridon Sorush. Oral folktales from Afghanistan in Dari Persian/English and Pashto/English
bilingual editions, Kabul: ACKU ABLE.
۲۰۰۳ South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopedia, co-edited with Peter Claus and Sarah Diamond, New
York: Routledge Publishers / Taylor and Francis.
۲۰۰۰ Conversations with Davlat Khalav: Oral Narratives from Tajikistan, with Ravshan Rahmoni.
Moscow: Humanitary Press (Academy of Humanitarian Research / Institute of Asian and African