There is a legend about a Persian traveler who comes to an Afghan village in search of a good poet. First, he visits the shopkeeper who tells him he is a poet but that the farmer is a better one; then the farmer sends the visitor to the tailor, assuring him that he is really the best poet in the village. And on it goes. Poetry, memoir, fables, proverbs, and stories sit at the heart of Afghanistan, a nation founded by a poet, Ahmad Shah Abdali (also known as Ahmad Shah Durrani), and the birthplace of Rumi.
In modern Afghanistan, years of chronic instability and internal displacement have created a challenging environment for writers of all kinds. Twenty different flags have flown over the country since the beginning of the twentieth century. Changes in rulers, monarchs, emirs, and presidents, as well as revolution, Soviet invasion, and Taliban rule, have led to clashing political ideologies and the imposition of widespread restrictions not only on everyday life but on freedom of speech and expression, particularly for women.
Although there are twenty-two publishers in Kabul alone, Afghanistan has minimal infrastructure for local literary translators and editors, and there is little translation of literary work between language communities and ethnic groups. The majority of Afghan writers who have appeared in English translation are men; most live outside the country, as do the few Afghan women who have carved out lives as writers elsewhere.
What about those writers who cannot leave home, whose imaginative worlds draw on the immediate experience of their day-to-day life? In post-Taliban Afghanistan, the literacy rate of women is still disproportionately low and those who want to write struggle to find support. Yet many of these women sense that it is here, in Afghanistan, with all its insecurity and political volatility, that ideas and themes can flourish. A nation’s upheaval cannot be understood without women's perspectives.
Over the past few years, various one-off projects have encouraged these writers, and some women have featured in anthologies of contemporary writing from Afghanistan. However, it is hard to establish initiatives in what is still a challenging working environment. As a result, the voices of emerging women writers stay unheard.
The four writers featured here come via Untold, a UK-based development program offering writers in areas of conflict and postconflict a space in which to speak for themselves. Untold’s current project, Write Afghanistan, was prompted by a conversation with scriptwriters on Afghanistan’s long-running radio soap opera New Home, New Life. One or two had self-published stories on social media, under pseudonyms for safety’s sake, and only in Dari.
So last year, with support from the British Council, Untold put out a countrywide open call asking for short pieces of fiction from women. We were told to expect about thirty submissions. In fact, more than one hundred and twenty women writers from across Afghanistan sent in stories written in both Dari and Pashto. The stories were sent from internet cafes or home computers; some were written by hand. They explored subjects from the domestic sphere to women’s social and political rights, employing narrative techniques including reportage, folk tales, fables, and allegory. And most were clearly inspired by personal experience.
The bulk of the writers lived in metropolitan areas, including three of those featured here, but a significant number came from more remote, volatile provinces. Some women had never shared their work beyond their households. Maryam Mahjube was inspired by the open call to write two new stories, but it was her sister who actually sent them in, because the author felt she was too inexperienced for her work to be taken seriously. She had had no experience of editing or sharing her work, had never before even rewritten anything, and had not been able to attend any of the rare writers' meetings in the capital.
A team of readers from the Afghan literary community in the UK and Untold’s project manager, Will Forrester, drew up a longlist of twenty writers selected for their strong, original voices and stories with the potential to be developed for a local and a global readership. Budget restrictions meant selecting just ten from this list, in order to work with the writers one on one. Of those ten, four have been selected to appear here. An experienced editor in Sri Lanka, Sunila Galappatti, and Dari and Pashto translators in the UK worked with each writer on her story via WhatsApp; sensitivity to the writer’s safety was of paramount concern.
All four writers mentioned the difficulty of finding the peace and space required to concentrate on writing. Finding the space to write is but one challenge; the war-scarred country feels permanently on edge, locked down long before the pandemic. This atmosphere is conveyed in Sharifa Pasun’s "The Decision," and Maryam Mahjube’s "Turn This Air Conditioner On, Sir," where just leaving the house can be a matter of life or death.
Freshta Ghani had to flee across the border to Tajikistan recently after the radio station where she worked was threatened by the Taliban. She’s been using a pen name since she first began writing secretly at school. Her story, “Daughter Number Eight,” translated from Pashto, reflects her family’s traditional values and the devastating costs of expectations not met. Batool Heydari addresses another tradition in her tale of a man presumed martyred who returns to a painful domestic surprise.
Even in Kabul, opportunities for women to connect with other writers, and to discuss and, eventually, publish work, remain limited. One of Untold’s aims is to help establish a local support framework for women writers and build the capacity of local fiction editors and translators. Write Afghanistan’s remote editorial process continues with the support of the Bagri Foundation. Meanwhile, Batool Heydari now leads a weekly WhatsApp session for the ten writers to share ideas and challenge each other to develop their work.
Maryam Mahjube says she has found a sense of belonging from writing that has eased her isolation. “Among all this, we still carry on with our lives, we pass our days, we read, we dance, we buy books, we write poetry, we write stories, we see friends and family. Stories are like a mirror we hold up to ourselves.”
© 2020 by Lucy Hannah. All rights reserved.