Sunday, October 25, 2009

Afghan Women's Writing Project


Seeta on Long Island

Posted: 24 Oct 2009 11:07 PM PDT

In the cozy Long Island beach town where I live, everyone goes to an old-fashioned soft ice cream stand called Marvel. Not Carvel. It was still open for the season on a chilly evening in October when I arrived with a brand new customer, a confident, petite young woman who wore a red trench coat over blue jeans and a black head scarf.

"She's never been here before," I told Anthony, the kindly, gray-haired owner. By "here," I meant America.

As far as Anthony was concerned, "here" meant Marvel.

"Never?" he asked, looking hurt. For Anthony – and many of us – Marvel is to Long Beach, Long Island, what Rick's was to Casablanca.

"I am from Afghanistan," Seeta explained.

"Oh," the owner replied, a big smile exploding across his face. "Well, that explains everything."

Seeta smiled back. Anthony handed her a strawberry and pistachio swirl with "house sprinkles."

And I contemplated the beautiful simplicity of this exchange.

Back home, in addition to writing for the Afghan Women's Writing Project (AWWP), Seeta regularly risks her life to report and write in Dari and English – which she taught herself – for a local newspaper. Simplicity is not a word one would use in describing her work in that tightly-controlled Taliban province. As a journalist, her job is to ask questions. There are also many she is challenged to answer – and they are as misguided as they are complicated. Questions about why she works, not what she writes. Incessantly, she is asked why a woman would want to work. She is asked why a woman should be permitted to interview men.

Since the late summer, through AWWP, I have been mentoring Seeta by reading her stories and offering reporting and writing suggestions. I have, I believe, learned more from her than she from me. In September, when the course I teach in feature writing at Hofstra University began, I invited her to join as guest from afar and to correspond with my students by email. We all thought this would be merely an online experience – and were nevertheless thrilled and intrigued. Then Seeta wrote that she had been awarded a fellowship to spend three weeks in the United States as a participant in the U.S. State Department's Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists. She was also the only participant from Afghanistan and the youngest one as well.

When the program concluded, Seeta was able to spend a few days at my home, travel to the Bronx for a meeting with Galen D. Kirkland, Commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights and, best of all, to meet my students – in person.

That meeting was beautifully documented by Joye Brown, a columnist for Newsday. And Seeta, in the months and years to come will, I am certain, tell her own version of her experiences here.

What I'd like to mention, though, is how nervous I was about how Seeta would be received on Long Island, a place that has its own tribal divisions, many of them based on ethnicity, race and religion, Here, too – although the risks are nothing in comparison to Afghanistan – boundaries can be difficult to decipher. Rush Limbaugh may be on the radio in one house, Bill Maher on the television next door. Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report that described Suffolk County, the eastern of Long Island's two counties, as a place with a pronounced – and sometimes officially sanctioned – atmosphere of hate, suspicion and prejudice specifically aimed at Latino residents..

What, I wondered, would put someone at more risk in this suburb, a Spanish accent or a head scarf? During Ramadan a Muslim woman, in a scarf like Seeta's, was taunted on a Long Island street in what was clearly identified as a hate crime.

But like most places, including Afghanistan, the deities are sometimes with us and good does triumph. Days after that Muslim woman was accosted, a rabbi, a Catholic priest and an iman – I know this sounds like a bad joke but I promise it is anything but that – all met at a mosque to discuss the concept of fasting in their different religions.

The reaction on my Long Island to Seeta was also heartening. A woman who was only a casual acquaintance of mine – until now – helped Seeta make an international call to her own mother in the Afghan provinces. A quintessential "white guy hockey coach" welcomed her to her first ice rink with open arms and enthusiasm. And the day before she was due to depart, an Orthodox Jewish woman physician gave Seeta a check-up on very short notice and without a bill, with the doctor's most senior nurse offering sensitive encouragement.

At Marvel, Seeta – who does not have a large appetite – finished her ice cream and declared it "very good." Anthony, the owner, warmly wished her a safe trip home and said he hoped she would return. I do too. Her next step will be to look for a scholarship to an American undergraduate program in journalism – and then return to Afghanistan to use her skills to write more about her country. By then I hope we can figure out how to get ice cream that is made in Long Island on a plane to Kabul – and that with the help of reporters like Seeta we can figure out so many other things as well.

By Barbara Fischkin (AWWP Instructor)

My Home Province

Posted: 24 Oct 2009 10:59 PM PDT

The last time I went to Dashte Abdaan was two years ago. After my sister's engagement party, we went to Dashte Abdaan straight from the wedding hall. It is a desert located between Kunduz and Imam Sahib. It is fruitless; no one uses it for farming.

It was evening. The sun was sitting down when we got there. The end of the sky had the mixture of orange and reddish colors. The tulip flowers were everywhere like the whole desert wore a red cloth. I stood on a bed of tulips. The wind was blowing very slowly and softly. I loved standing there and just breathing. I loved looking at the sunset as the sun was saying goodbye to everyone. The smell of the tulips was pleasant. I could see the cars that were going back to the city. The desert was getting empty of people, but I really didn't want to leave. It was the first time that I felt this way. I could see hundreds of kites flying in the sky; they had different signs, colors, and faces and more on them. Some of the kites were fighting with each other until one cuts the opponent's kite free. The kids were running to get the azadi ("freed" kites.) They all had smiles in their faces. It is a place that people can come with their families and freely have fun because the desert is big and even though some factories have been built there in recent years, there is always a space which has fewer people or even no one else, and there is a lot to do. Some people even spend the night there. During spring, most guests who come to Kunduz go to the desert. One of the best ideas is to hold a wedding there.

Kunduz, along with some other northern provinces, is famous for holding the buzkashi event. It is one of the traditional, national sports of Afghanistan. It is played by others like Turkmens and Uzbeks, but their version is a little bit different. Buzkashi is played on special occasions only, like Eid, New Year, and some weddings. Once during Eid, I remember watching a buzkashi match from the roof of one of my friend's house, which was very close to the buzkashi ring. The area was like a stadium. Two sides of the ring were surrounded by hills. On the both sides, people stood or sat, and there was a special place for the high position people, though I didn't like this idea.

All the horse riders wore "chapan" (coats of intricate design) and thick hats. The horse riders are called "chapandaz." It is a very difficult sport and some riders begin learning and practicing when they are children. Someone brought the body of a goat with its head cut off. The announcer read out the names of the horses, the riders and the owners. People were cheering the horses and riders. They often called the horse by its color, like "ghqra" (black) or "ghezel" (red) and so on. The announcer said the prizes for the winners would be a chapan and some money.

The game is played like this: the horse riders all want to get the goat, which weighs about 65 pounds or more. They lean down to the ground while they are riding their horses, and then they have to grab the goat and throw it into a circle or over a line. Sometimes they use a calf instead of a goat because it weighs more, but the traditional way of playing is to use a goat. In fact, the name of the game, literally translated, means "goat killing" or "goat grabbing."

The buzkashi horses are treated and fed differently from other horses, and given lots of exercise. They are very valued and some people will even trade their best cars to get such a horse.

By Fatima

Night of Lovers

Posted: 24 Oct 2009 10:53 PM PDT

I would like to be a sparrow

flying round the

tree in the yard of your house

watching you

sitting on the wooden chair,

drinking coffee,

reading poems

in front of the mirror,

lighting candles

to brighten the dark

night of lovers.

By Roya

Winter School Days in Kandahar

Posted: 24 Oct 2009 10:51 PM PDT

The arrival of winter reminds me of those rainy days when I was going to school

Sleepless from the cold nights and the tup-tup sound of raindrops leaking from the roof

Cold air through the broken windows waking me up from my warm bed

Each morning my mother making me hot tea and naan (bread) with her kind, soft hands

Walking in my burqa through the long, narrow streets of our neighborhood

Holding my blowing burqa tightly to cover my school uniform from unwanted views

Folding it around myself to warm up my cold hands and red running nose

Bundling up my white pants and burqa to jump over puddles across a broken bridge

Cheering in my heart like an Olympic champion for succeeding in crossing the broken bridge

My burqa flying in the wind like small birds learning to fly in the sky

Slipping and getting my school uniform and shoes muddy before reaching the bus station

Pleased to arrive at school, like a lost bird returning to the nest after a long voyage

Being punished by the school's monitors for being late and wearing a messy uniform

Those freezing classrooms with hollow windows and doors giving me flu and fever

Finding raindrops on each page of my books, like the shabnam (dew drops) Spring brings to leaves and flowers

The cracked benches like rocks freezing in the mountain

Snuggling with my friends and classmates to warm each other against the cold

Praying for sunshine to melt our frozen muscles

The arrival of winter giving us a lesson on how to be strong against hardship

The end of winter giving us a blossom of hope for Spring

By Sofia

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