May 17, 2010 / 5:36 AM / 9 years ago

Business booms for ancient Afghan letter writing art

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.

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

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.

But few are personal messages.

“Few people want personal letters nowadays. We didn’t have this then,” said Mohammad Arif, a 62-year-old former army officer, pointing to his mobile phone.

One of the few customers that day that recited her personal message to Arif attracted several nosy onlookers.

Despite being one of the world’s poorest countries, mobile phone use has boomed and is one of the few commercial success stories during the nine-year war with the Taliban.

From middle class Kabul residents to poor villagers in strife-torn provinces like Kandahar and Helmand, the mobile phone can seem an almost obligatory accessory.

“I haven’t written a love letter since before the civil war,” said Qasim, a 48-year-old graduate and scribe. He referred to the 1992-1996 civil war after the withdrawal of the Soviet army.

“Before the boys were freer, the girls were freer. Some would not wear headscarves.” said Qasim. “It was freer then.

He worked through the 1996-2001 Taliban rule, With many ministries closed, he wrote letters to Taliban commanders.

As he talked, two blue burqa-dressed women arrived at his desk. One widow, a slightly-stooped figure named Afghan Gul whose husband was killed by the Taliban several years ago, asked Qasim to fill in a form requesting identification for a child.

An Afghan letter writer (R) writes for his customer in Kabul May 17, 2010. REUTERS/ Omar Sobhani

“Life would be much more difficult without these people,” Gul said.

But many literate Afghans also use the scribes’ services. They value these writers for knowing the style of how to address officials, and having the right forms to fill in.

Arif said business was up by over half in the last four years. “Now there is an opportunity to make complaints. Ten years ago there were no such opportunities.”

Editing by Megan Goldin

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