“Love, madness and art are offspring of a single soul”

“Love, madness and art are offspring of a single soul,” says Latif Eshraq, who has dedicated his life to painting. Born in 1972, in a little beautiful green oblong valley enfolded by mountains in the southeastern historic province of Ghazni, Latif Eshraq describes his childhood as a paradise lost behind bygone time.

The freezing snowy winter, breezing flowery spring, warm sunny summer and cold colorful fall of his home village shaped Latif’s childhood emotion and soul.

At age seven, Latif has lost his kind smart peasant father. “It was a summer night, my father died of heart attack,” he recalls. “I got deeply saddened when my father died. Next morning, my mother, filled my teacup half with sugar, trying to comfort me forget the death of my father, and told me to go to school. “My father’s death hammered my soul. The next evening, lost in memory of father, I was filled with a deep sense of morality.”

When Latif was eight, the leftist Afghan army generals, backed by Peoples’ Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and the Soviet Union, overthrew the last royal ruler of the country: Sardar Daud Khan. The April coup of 1978 marked the beginning of a new epoch in Afghanistan and the country became a cockpit between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the western block of liberal democracy. Within a year, the Afghan mujahedeen put an end to local administration backed by the communist regime of Kabul and took control over Sang-e-Masha, the district capital Latif’s home district, Jaghori. The zealot mujahedeen, who had dedicated their lives to fight against the communist regime of Kabul and its foreign patron, changed school curriculum in a bid to Islamize all sectors of society and indoctrinate school students.

“I was in love with painting; it was part of my soul and body,” Latif Eshraq recalls his passion of art in his early 20s. “Green and red were my favorite colors when I was at primary school. I had a sketchbook, a green pen, and a blue pen, drawing everything that would come to my mind.”

“Life was simple but tough and over-politicized in my home village,” Latif said. Most elderly people had subscribed to right-wing political Islam, promoted by the Islamic regime of Iran. “Khomeini was a supernatural icon in minds of most people,” he says with a big ironic laugh. “School had little to offer in terms of what I was looking for. There was no qualified teacher, most importantly no skilled drawing teacher,” Latif says with a deep sorrow.

“I lost my faith in orthodox conviction of the family and society where I was born and raised. I stopped offering prayers. This act saddened my mother the most in the family and she told family members not having dinner and lunch with me in a single plate. In religious eyes of my mother, a Muslim, who did not offer five times prayer, was a nagis, literally unclean,” he told me. “I parted my way from conservative way of thinking about the universe.”

Photo Courtesy: Naseer Turkmani

Latif says he loves his mother beyond her imaginations.

In a summer night of 1987, Latif Eshraq left his home village for Iran, the western neighboring nation of Afghanistan. “It was a summer night, I packed my stuff, and stood before my mother to say farewell. A deep sense of anguish and sorrow touched my throat; I was about to cry aloud.

“Now that you have decided to travel to Iran, go, go like a loin,” my mother said. “Her words were like a shower of cold water that chilled my body and inspired my spirit,” Latif recalls.

With a group of friends, Latif Eshraq walked for about four hours until he arrived in Shahjoy, a small district, then serving as the first station for Hazara travelers who wanted to travel to Pakistan. From Shahjoy they—Latif and his friends—catgut a Toyota pick-up, which took them to border town of Muslim Bagh in Pakistan. “The mujahedeen were on command throughout the way to Pakistan. They had sophisticated guns and long dusty beards,” Latif recalls. From Muslim Bagh, he traveled to Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. From Quetta he caught a bus that took him to Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Balochistan province of Iran. “We paid a Baloch trafficker, who took us to Tehran,” Latif recalls.

Iran under Sayed Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, which ousted the last Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was slowly transforming. Khomeini had tightened his rule by the time Latif arrived in Tehran. He encountered anti-Islamic revolution parties at home but kept Iran’s door open for Afghan immigrants who would provide cheap labor force to reconstruction projects in post-revolution Iran. Khomeini hugged Afghan Shia guerrilla fighters, who then were fighting against the Moscow-backed Kabul government in Afghanistan—struggling to establish an Islamic rule over Afghanistan.

In Iran, like his fellow Afghans, Latif was a labor who would work from dawn to dusk to earn a living. After almost a year of working, he developed a skill and became a mason. His new skill helped him spare time and pursue his dream profession: painting.

“I was a dreamer and madly in love with art of painting”

“I was a dreamer and madly in love with the art of painting,” Latif says.  

It was in Tehran where Latif Eshraq chose to study fine arts. He enrolled in private art schools. “Ustad Saheer was my first teacher in Tehran,” he recalls. Latif said he learned a lot from him. “Ali Khorami was my second painting teacher. He was running a private school of painting located in busy Tajrish Square. Khorami taught me just for a week. He left Iran forever and got settlement in Austria.”

Ali Khorami introduces Latif Eshraq to a qualified hearty painting teacher: Mehdi Alizadah. Then a young modernist artist, Alizadah was working with medium famous as oil and acrylic paints. A member of Iran’s Union of Artists, Mr. Alizadah is now busy teaching painting in Tehran. “I learned many things from Mehdi Alizadah,” Latif acknowledges with a deep sense of gratitude. Latif has worked under direct guide of Alizadah for more than two years.

“As a successful foreman, I was working in a suburb of Tehran. One day, a cousin of mine, who had a work visa of Kuwait, came to me. He convinced me to travel to oil-rich Kuwait,” Eshraq recalls. “I collected my money and handed it over to him to send me a Kuwait visa but he went with cash and never showed up. But I decided to travel to Kuwait.

In the summer of 1993, Latif Eshraq packed his luggage and left Tehran for Kuwait. “As a mason, I first worked on construction in Kuwait. Kuwait summer was as hot as hell. I decided to change my profession,” Latif says. “One day I happened to meet a non-Arab Kuwait national who was running a painting gallery. I asked him if he could offer me a job there. He tested my painting skill and offered me job on the spot. That was how I escaped hard laboring under the burning sun in long summer days of Kuwait.” 

The oil-rich Kuwait, then backed by the United States of America and United Kingdom, was resisting against Saddam Hussain’s expansionist policies. “Kuwaitis were afraid of Saddam, fearing that Iraq may fire chemical missile on Kuwait.”

In Kuwait, Latif Eshraq pursued his dream profession like his shadow following him. “I carried a story in my mind for 10 years, from Iran to Kuwait and from Kuwait to Afghanistan, until I painted it on a canvas.”

Photo Courtesy: Naseer Turkmani

In 2003, Latif Eshraq, tired of living in Kuwait and homesick, made a comeback to his home country Afghanistan. “I went to my home village, got married and joined teaching at a high school in a village, teaching drawing and Dari. I would enjoy teaching,” he says.

A tall, long-haired artist with a cap, a Hazara from central Afghanistan, Latif Eshraq has been teaching painting in his art gallery: Gallery Sharq, the East Gallery for the last 12 years. With a thick mustache and typically Mongolian beard, he has a pair of sharp almond-like eyes, good knowledge of folklore, and keen eyes to follow up history. He speaks fluent Arabic and loves Buddha’s teachings.                        

“History and folklore of my people are sources of inspiration to me,” Latif told me on a cup of green tea in his gallery—located in a sprawling four-story building in Barchi, a slum area in the neighborhood of Kabul.

“Life was simple in the village but there was title space for my career. I left my home village again, this time with my spouse, and came to Kabul.”

Photo Courtesy: Naseer Turkmani

In his famous art paintings, Latif Eshraq has created characters who tell a sad story. Though by nature he is optimist about the future of humans on the earth, his paintings reflect sad stories of a sad history of a sad nation.

In the painting Farkhunda, which he created after the tragic death of Farkhunda in March 2015, the evil, in face of angry blind men, kills an innocent woman. Latif Eshraq is a sheer social artist whose artistic being and aesthetic have been shaped in his society.