FOUR large clocks tick out of sync, puncturing the silence of his Soviet-built apartment. A half-burned candle sits next to a stack of books. A small television is covered in soot.
This is where Rahnaward Zaryab, Afghanistan’s most celebrated novelist, locks himself up for weeks at a time, lost in bottles of smuggled vodka and old memories of Kabul, a capital city long transformed by war and money.
“We live in a vacuum, lacking heroes and ideals,” Mr. Zaryab reads from his latest manuscript, handwritten on the back of used paper. The smoke from his Pine cigarette, a harsh South Korean brand, clings to yellowed walls. “The heroes lie in dust, the ideals are ridiculed.”
The product of a rare period of peace and tolerance in Afghan history, Mr. Zaryab’s work first flourished in the 1970s, before the country was unraveled by invasion and civil war. Afghanistan still had a vibrant music and theater scene, and writers had a broad readership that stretched beyond just the political elite.
“Art, culture and literature have been forgotten completely,” said Rahnaward Zaryab. Credit... Bryan Denton for The New York Times
“I would receive letters from girls that would smell of perfume when you opened them,” Mr. Zaryab, who is 70, remembered fondly.
Mr. Zaryab’s stories are informed by his readings of Western philosophy and literature, the writer Homaira Qaderi said. He was educated on scholarships in New Zealand and Britain. But his heroes are indigenous and modest, delicately questioning the dogma and superstitions of a conservative society.
“He is the first writer to focus on the structure of stories, with the eye of someone well read,” Ms. Qaderi said. “We call him the father of new storytelling in Afghanistan.”
But after he became the standard-bearer for Afghan literature, Mr. Zaryab was forced to watch as Kabul, the muse he idealized as a city of music and chivalry in most of his 17 books, fell into rubble and chaos.
Some of the chaos has eased over the past decade, but that has caused him even more pain. He loathes how Kabul has been rebuilt: on a foundation of American cash and foreign values, paving over Afghan culture.
“Money, money, money,” he said, cringing. “Everyone is urged to make money, in any way they can. Art, culture and literature have been forgotten completely.”
FOR some Afghans, though, there is tragedy in the fact that one of their most renowned and enduring writers has largely withdrawn into his own memories, unable or unwilling to visualize a new identity amid a confusing and traumatic time for his country.
“Zaryab is enchanted by the past that to him is a symbol of the ideal life,” the critic and poet Mujib Mehrdad said. “He can’t disconnect from that past, he lives in the past.”
For his part, Mr. Zaryab insists that he is still looking at the problems of the day, though at times his allegories go unrecognized.
In one of his latest novels, a pompous gallant from Kabul’s old city in the early 1900s gives up his mundane routine after a chance meeting with a wise bird who introduces him to the philosophy of Socrates. He is thrown into meditation and soul-searching.
Mr. Zaryab says the bird is a symbol of the enlightenment push here in the early 20th century, and in the book, it is ceaselessly hounded by the city’s rulers and clergy — a clear and continuing theme in modern Afghanistan as well.
“Unfortunately, no one understood that part,” he said. “They thought it was an imaginative fantasy.”
For someone who reveled in his early fame, and whose international peers became global voices, translated across languages, the disconnect from an audience has not been easy.
Mr. Zaryab still enjoys minor celebrity status in public, and it once inspired him to try to reconnect to fans through a Facebook page. But he soon considered it a waste of time: Their interest was superficial, he felt; they were not after a deeper understanding of his work.
“In reality, I write for myself,” he said. “There is something inside that needs to come out, otherwise it bothers me. Not important whom I write it for.”
Born in the Rika Khana neighborhood of old Kabul in August 1944, Mr. Zaryab was one of three children. Neither his mother nor his father, a china trader, could read. A large age gap between him and his siblings meant that he grew up mostly a lone child.
After graduating from Kabul University with a degree in journalism, he went to Wales for postgraduate studies. His first job after his return was as a crime reporter for Zhwandoon Magazine, one of the prominent publications at the time. He sought the job because the details of the crime scene gave him inspirations for his stories, Mr. Zaryab said.
He continued to work as a reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines, as well as taking senior positions in the Culture Ministry, even after his fiction found acclaim.
Mr. Zaryab at his home in Kabul, where he shuts himself in for weeks at a time. Credit... Bryan Denton for The New York Times
When the civil war intensified in Kabul in the 1990s, Mr. Zaryab was briefly exiled to France; his wife and three daughters remain in Europe, not wanting to return to the violence and uncertainty of Afghanistan. After the Taliban were toppled, he returned to his old apartment in Kabul with more than 650 pounds of books and about $22 in his pocket, he said.
The city of his youth, of his stories, however, no longer existed. “I have this attachment to this place, I don’t know why,” he said. “I know there is poverty here, lies, hypocrisy, but still my heart is here.”
LITTLE of a readership culture remains these days, even in Kabul. Bookshops are saturated with bootleg copies of Iranian books. Local authors make no money from publishing their work. In return for a manuscript, Mr. Zaryab gets a number of copies from the publisher to distribute to friends.
Consider his latest work, “Qalandar Nama,” a collection of minimalist vignettes that he submitted in return for 150 free copies. The book has sold only 100 copies in the three months since its publishing, said the publisher, Wasim Amiri. In contrast, Mr. Amiri picks off the shelf a slim collection of poems by Fazel Nazari, a young poet from neighboring Iran. In its 32nd reprint over five years, the book has sold more than 80,000 copies.
Since Mr. Zaryab’s return, his daily routine has been simple, much of it spent reading and writing in his sixth-floor apartment. In the mornings, he goes for a walk around the block. If the air is too polluted already, he does yoga at home.
In the afternoons, a driver picks him up for his part-time job: For two hours a day, he edits news for Tolo TV, the country’s largest private channel. When he disconnects from the world during his weeks of solitude, his employer understands.
Mr. Zaryab’s desire for solitude has roots in his childhood. He fondly remembers walking alone along the Kabul River. “It had beautiful, clear water at the time,” he said. “Fishermen would fish with nets, not hooks. I would spend all my day along this river.” Not only has the river changed, he lamented, but also the city’s people. In a shrine on the same river, a mob recently accused a young woman of blasphemy and beat her to death in daylight. They dragged her body to the riverbed, now filled with trash, and set her on fire.
“In old Kabul’s Rika Khana, one shopkeeper had said something rude to a little girl once. Without a collective decision, the residents stopped buying from that shop and he was forced to move,” he said. “Do we have such people anymore? Today, they kill a girl and then burn her.
“How could I not be attached to the past?”