Hazaran origins are much debated. Their name comes from a Persian word meaning "thousand". Current theory favours descent from Mongol soldiers left behind by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, with considerable Turkish admixture. Prior to the 19th century, Haraza were 67% of the total population, the largest Afghan ethnic group. More than half were massacred in 1893 when their autonomy was lost as a result of political action. Later fundamentalist governments, including the Taliban, attempted to dismiss them historically, politically and culturally. Estimates today number the Afghan Hazara at around 2.6 million, about 20% of the country's population.
Persian literature was little known in the West before the 19th century. It became much better known following the publication of several translations from the works of late medieval Persian poets, and inspired works by various Western poets and writers, such as Matthew Arnold's poem Sohrab and Rustam.
Khayyam's poetry is familiar to the Western reader because of the well-known Edward FitzGerald rendering of his Rubaiyat. Less well known is the fact that Khayyam was also a mathematician, scientist, astronomer and philosopher. Amongst his contributions are the Jalali Calendar (more accurate than the Julian, and almost as accurate as the Gregorian intercalation system), contributions to algebra (geometric solution of cubic equations) and astronomical tables.
Rumi transcends national and ethnic borders. Over the centuries, he has had a significant influence on Persian as well as Urdu and Turkish literature. His poems have been widely translated into many languages.
The springtime of Lovers has come,
that this dust bowl may become a garden;
the proclamation of heaven has come,
that the bird of the soul may rise in flight.
Buzkashi (lit. goat grabbing) is a traditional Central Asian team sport played on horseback. Skilled riders compete to grab a dead goat or calf from the ground while riding a horse at full gallop. The challenge is to pitch the carcass across a goal line or into a target circle.
The Kochi are the gypsies of Afghanistan. They normally spend the winter in Pakistan and head back to Afghanistan for the summer. This lifestyle has been practised for centuries. Recent US military activity on the border has posed a significant threat to their way of life.
Shahnamah is a monumental creation myth and history of Persia, written by the poet Ferdowsi around 1000AD. It details the ancient culture and legends of Persian, and is known as "The Persian Book of Kings". Because of the purity of its text, it has been used to recreate the original Persian language following the influx of Arabic that accompanied the Islamization of the region.
Rostam and Sohrab – a summary
It begins: “Give ear unto the combat of Sohrab against Rostam, though it be a tale replete with tears.” The theft of his horse, Raksh, takes the famous warrior Rostam to the city ruled by the King of Samengan. While he is waiting for searchers to find his horse, Rostam stays in the palace. During the night, a beautiful young woman comes to him. She is the king's daughter, Tamineh, awed by his reputation as a warrior. They fall in love.
Despite his love for Tamineh, Rostam is keen to be off when his horse is returned to him. But before he goes, he gives her an “onyx that was known unto all the world", telling her that if she has a son, she should “fasten it upon his arm”.
Sohrab is born, “a babe whose mouth was filled with smiles” and grows to great height and strength. On hearing about his father, Sohrab determines that he will “go forth with an army of brave Turks” and lead them against Afrasiyab, the ruler of Turan and an enemy of his father. He chooses a “foal sprung from Rakhsh, the swift of foot”.
Meanwhile, the evil ruler Afrasiyab hears of this and determines to trick Sohrab, commanding his generals to gather an army and join the ranks of Sohrab. Rostam must not hear of this, he orders, then one of them will kill the other.
When Sohrab attacks the castle again, he finds it empty, not knowing that they had fled by “a passage that was hidden under the earth”. By now, “his heart yearned after her in love”.
Rostam arrives with his army and, dressed as a Turk, gets a good look at the young man whose courage is renowned. It does not occur to him that this is his son, whom he believes is too young for battle. This is the last chance for the father to reveal himself but, although Sohrab begs to know if he is Rostam, he does not.
After a long struggle, Sohrab is finally defeated. As he lies on the ground dying, he asks that Rostam be told how his son had perished “in the quest after his face." Rostam is “shaken with dismay. And there broke from his heart a groan as of one whose heart was racked with anguish.” Sohrab whose “misery was boundless” chided his father for not telling him who he was. “Yet open, I beseech thee, mine armour, and regard the jewel upon mine arm. For it is an onyx given unto me by my father, as a token whereby he should know me."Sohrab begs his father to prevent the Shah from falling on the men of Turan. “I desire not that they should perish when I can defend them no longer. As for me, I came like the thunder and I vanish like the wind, but perchance it is given unto us to meet again above."
Quotes from the story by Hakim Abol Qasem Ferdowsi Tousi
Translated by: Helen Zimmern