Business booms for ancient Afghan letter writing art

Mon May 17, 2010 5:48am EDT
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By Alistair Scrutton

KABUL (Reuters) - Scribes like Mohammad Qasim once wrote poignant love letters of Persian poetry for illiterate Afghans. Now he mostly helps people fire off forms to the government, especially complaints over abuse of power.

And business is booming.

Traditional letter writers in South Asia appear a dying breed amid rising literacy and Internet. But in Afghanistan with much criticized crime and violence under President Hamid Karzai coupled with high illiteracy levels, bad news can be good news for these writers-for-hire.

"Business is growing," said Qasim, a letter writer sitting on a traffic-clogged road in central Kabul. "People have more powers to complain ... They also have more things to complain about."

Scores of writers like Qasim sit in the sun, under the shade of parasols in Afghanistan's capital. Many are not nostalgic about the past. Their makeshift tables are full of official-looking papers that they fill in, for a few cents.

In a country where more than two thirds of a population of 27 million are illiterate, letter writers have been a way for Afghans to communicate with each other for decades.

Nowadays, many requests are letters to police from victims of crimes like robberies and kidnappings -- the kinds of cases that have stained Karzai's U.S.-backed government and have undermined his battle against the Taliban insurgency.

Others are paperwork for government ministries, some are legal matters over property. It is a sign too of the improvement in governance since the fall of the Taliban, despite widespread perceptions from Afghans that progress has been too slow.   Continued...

<p>Afghan letter writers wait for customers in Kabul May 17, 2010. REUTERS/ Omar Sobhani</p>