The voices of Afghan women, through a collection of stories put together in the book My pen is the wing of a bird (Hachette), touch your heart with the two powerful and contrasting emotions they express — violence and yearning… violence is their reality and yearning is their world of make-believe, dreams.
Dreams such as the one Zahra has. Married as a second wife to a man who is prone to extreme violence, she feels constantly ridiculed and undermined by the first wife, who wears a shining ruby ring on her finger. Zahra is convinced that her power and importance comes from that ring, and is slowly and stealthily saving up a big bunch of soft almonds, to be traded with the local goldsmith for a ring.
But her reality is in stark contrast to her dream world. In that, she is tortured and beaten by her husband, cruelly taunted and ridiculed by his son and first wife. It is inevitable that her secret will be exposed, and the punishment?
Find out about it in the story titled ‘Falling from the summit of dream’, originally written in Dari by Parand.
My pen is the wing of a bird; it will tell you those thoughts we are not allowed to think, those dreams we are not allowed to dream.
– Batool Haidari, writer
All the stories in this collection are written by Afghan women in Afghanistan’s two dominant languages Dari and Pashto and translated into English for this book; the initiative of Untold and the British Council. The title comes from the writer Batool Haidari, who said on International Women’s Day 2021: “My pen is the wing of a bird; it will tell you those thoughts we are not allowed to think, those dreams we are not allowed to dream.”
This gut-wrenching statement sums up the plight of millions of helpless women across the world; oh yes, they can be found in every country, however “developed” it might be considered, but most prominently in Taliban’s Afghanistan.
When the Taliban reclaimed Afghanistan last year, the collective groan from the entire world was: “Oh god, what new ways will the Taliban find to torture Afghanistan’s women.”
The stories penned by these women give us a glimpse into what has been happening, and continues, to happen, to the majority of Afghan women. Slogging through the day in a life filled with misery, want, poverty and violence, these women face the heat in the kitchen as they prepare fresh meals for the family, even as their thoughts wander into a world and life which can never be theirs.
Let’s peep in to Freshta Ghani’s story titled Daughter Number Eight, where the eight-month pregnant protagonist is fasting, but has to prepare a huge meal for a houseful of guests, including her husband’s mother and sister, who don’t move an inch to help her. In the “messy” kitchen, as she cooks the meat, chopping the spinach and other vegetables… “sometimes it is easy to take out all my anger on the vegetables, chopping vigorously… my legs are weak, my hands are shaking.” Though eight months pregnant, she hasn’t been for a single check-up and hopes that Allah will accept her fast and make at least this eighth child a boy. While cooking the rice, she thinks: “My life is like the boiling water in this pot, happiness evaporating from it like the steam.” Disaster is only waiting to happen…
Deep in her heart she wishes for an explosion to tear her body into piecaes and free her from this wretched life forever. Then she remembers her children and husband, curses herself and utters, ‘God you are great’.
– An Afghan woman’s voice
Batool Haidari’s I don’t have the flying wings is the poignant story of a gay teenager trying to find his identity in a country where homosexuality is considered a sin, except, ironically, in the mosque. Thrashed brutally by his father whenever he is caught wearing his mother’s red velvet beret over his head or trying out his sister’s floral headband, the son hates being taken by his father to all-male gatherings so he could act like a ‘man’. “I cannot tell him that I don’t want to be like a man, I do not want to be a man. So I have picked a new style.” This is to wear his best clothes, oil his hair and use perfume when he goes to the mosque. Here the Mullah admiringly invites him to stand directly behind him during the prayer, shakes his hand, touches his hair. “That is the only time I feel beautiful,” he adds.
We read about Zarghoona in the Black Crow of winter, who is returning home after a day’s hard work on a harsh winter evening and is begging for a lift home from the vehicles passing by, as she has only 5 and not 10 Afghanis, required for a bus/van ticket. “She cannot stand on her legs. They are refusing to walk her home. Deep in her heart she wishes for an explosion to tear her body into pieces and free her from this wretched life forever. Then she remembers her children and husband, curses herself and utters, ‘God you are great’. A kind conductor stops the vehicle and offers her a free ride, and she gratefully decides to use the 5 Afghanis to buy a lollipop that her little son has been craving for long.”
As BBC’s famed war correspondent Lyse Doucet, who has been reporting out of Afghanistan for long years, says in the introduction, for a long time the world has been asking ‘what do Afghan women want?’ Well, some of the answers can be found in this collection, brought out by Untold: bringing Afghan writers together through a translation into English so that their voices can reach the rest of the world. For most of these writers, even finding the space and peace of mind to write is a daily struggle. Literature is resilience, a release…
In this storytelling and joy of writing effort, she adds, “We smell onions frying in kitchens. We hear the jingle of an ice cream cart. We hold a purple handbag. We sit on the ‘soft chocolate-covered seat of a luxury car’ belonging to someone else.”
But there are also stories of cruelty and torture which will make you recoil, of dread and hatred and women and child suicide bombers, of love and longing that are so cruelly crushed. Turkish writer Elif Shafak sums it up neatly when she says, “Powerful, profound and deeply moving, these stories will expand your mind and elevate your heart.”