It is with great pleasure and honor that I write to you all for the first time as the new director of the Afghan Women's Writing Project (AWWP). Since Masha Hamilton hatched this project one year ago, it has leapt forward, wrapped its arms around so many people-- myself included. After my last reporting trip to Afghanistan in 2007, I have longed to stay connected to the country and its women, and I'm honored to embrace the project, now, and continue the journey that Masha has started.
We move into June with a strong collection of pieces submitted to us by our Afghan writers and workshopped by our talented group of US artists. The work includes: Freshta's powerful piece on sexual assault of a male prisoner, written from a man's perspective; Emaan's touching story of charity in "Taxi Driver"; Shogofa's open letter to President Obama; Roya's tribute to her grandmother and Afghanistan's ubiquitous pomegrantes; among many others.
Under the mentorship of rotating authors whose work is supported by a strong team of editors Jordan Schneider, Rachel de Baere and Bridget Fitzgerald, our Afghan writers depict a society confronting an uncertain future with courage, humor and trepidation. Please comment on a piece or two today. Our brave writers are grateful to know they are being heard.
May brought us a stunning performance of "Out of Silence" at the Theater J in Washington DC. Following on our debut in Los Angeles, nine actresses did dramatic readings of our writers pieces in front of a packed audience that included members from the US State Department, Capitol Hill, the Afghan Embassy, media, scholars and activists. Several of the actresses were Muslim, and under the sharp, creative direction of Jessica Lefkow, the pieces came to life and moved the audience to laughter and tears.
We have an update about our anonymous writer who courageously wrote her story in "I Am For Sale" in January. Eighty-seven donations from seven countries have enabled her in recent weeks to free herself from an unwanted marriage and pursue her dream of independence. Thank you for reading her work and responding.
AWWP continues to grow with new mentors, interns and connections. Creative Outreach Director Jeff Lyons continues to pursue theatrical opportunities, so be in touch with him if you have an idea. And if you're an author who wants to mentor the Afghan writers, contact Elisabeth Lehr.
After the dreamy days of my childhood, I went to school far from Uncle Sha Agha's ice cream shop. During the war years, everything changed. Years passed and one day I heard that Uncle Ice Cream was killed when a rocket hit his shop.
The most difficult time for me to eat ice cream was during the Taliban era. There were ice cream shops, but only for men. My kind father bought ice cream for me and brought it home on his bicycle. Sometimes it was all water, melting because of the hot weather. He felt sorry for me. Finally one day he said, "Daughter, wear your burqa and come with me." It sounded strange to me. For the past five years, I could leave the house only for weddings or when I was sick and had to see the doctor. Otherwise, I feared the Taliban would hit me with cables.
I felt good when I saw President Barack Obama on TV. Everyone here was so happy to see him win. Everyone admired his speech and said he would be better than the previous president. They said he would be smart about Afghanistan and end the war and the killing. I saw faces full of happiness and hope. The reason I want to meet President Obama is to share with him all the tears of my people. I know I can't write about all our problems in one or two pages, and I know my letter can't clean the tears from my people's eyes. But I write it anyway.
. . .He paused for a minute; his tears did not allow him to carry on. After a short silence, he continued: "Since then, my mother became sick. We took her to the doctors every day. I am a driver; I don't make enough money. This taxi is not mine. The owner pays me 200 Afs per day. (About $4.30) I have a family with children. We live in a poor neighborhood. All my income used to go to my mother's medications. Whenever I got her prescriptions, I used to buy less than half because I couldn't afford to buy it all. Most nights we go to bed with empty stomachs. I deceive the kids by telling them tomorrow they will get good food with fruit. But how can they sleep after being hungry all day?" He stopped the car for a few second and put his head on the steering wheel. . .
. . . On the tree, the pomegranates looked like lovely girls wearing red dresses. I was in love with them. I couldn't count to more than ten at that time, as I was only four years old and not at school. I had only learned to count with my father, and he taught me to count up to ten. Sometimes I could do it properly, but sometimes I missed and counted wrong, jumping around from one to three to seven.
Although my grandma always promised to bring us pomegranates, I loved to have them from the tree and not from her blue bag. When I asked to have one, her response was, "They are raw now. You will be sick. When I bring it to your home it will be ready to eat!" Yet this wasn't a good enough reason for me.
. . .
. . . When Shah came back, Mullah Sahib asked him to listen carefully: "I dreamt you will be a very famous, powerful, and well-known man. Try to learn more and more-never stop learning. You have to leave me and the mosque; you have to go to Kabul. This is not the right place for you." . . .
Anne Landsman is the award-winning author of The Devil's Chimney and The Rowing Lesson.
When I signed up with the Afghan Women's Writing Project, I had never taught an on-line class before, much less an on-line class to students in Afghanistan.
In the beginning, it felt a bit like fishing. I cast my writing prompt into the waters, and waited for a response, checking my in-box every so often to see if any of the women of Writing 102 had sent me their work. I'd sent the students 'Dust of Snow,' a Robert Frost poem about how a crow shaking snow from a tree changes the poet's state of mind. I'd asked them to reflect on something that had changed their moods from sad to happy, or vice versa. What I got back stunned me. One of my students wrote about her love of ice cream, and how the Taliban banned women from going to ice cream shops. Her father had taken her to one anyway, and she still remembered the sweet, wet taste of the ice cream mixed with the taste of her burqa.
Very quickly, the live interchange in a real classroom didn't matter anymore, as these deeply significant stories, poems and essays glittered on my computer screen, describing life in another world. But despite the differences, many of the subjects were so familiar - the difficulty of enduring a critical mother-in-law's hostile comments, romantic yearning, the pain of losing aged grandparents, the poignancy of separating from one's family. Other pieces described the different Farsi dialects in Afghanistan spoken by returning refugees from Iran and Pakistan, the effects of thirty years of war and their imaginings of America. What struck me at every turn was the power of these narratives, the women's willingness to share their lives with me, and their ability to think and feel so profoundly in a language that was, for many of them, their third language. I was humbled over and over again by realizing that these courageous souls were making themselves heard despite all the restrictions on their freedoms, despite power outages, despite war.
The other day, when I heard of a suicide bomb blast in Kabul on the radio, I stopped in my tracks, suddenly fearing for my students' lives, and the lives of their families, their friends and their neighbors, suddenly feeling a very personal investment in peace.
For more information on the Afghan Women's Writing Project please contact:
The Afghan Women's Writing Project was begun as a way to allow the voices of Afghan women - too often silenced - to enter the world directly, without any mediation. This project is possible only because of the outstanding American women authors and teachers who generously donate their time and energy. Additionally, the tireless contributions of our Creative Outreach Director Jeff Lyons, webmaster designer StefanCooke, and our technical director Terry Dougherty have been crucial. Photography thanks and credit goes to Kathleen Rafiq and Heidi Levine. Our inspiring partners are SOLA and the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation; please visit their websites.
Online Donations for Afghan Women Writers:
Many of our students and women writers, especially outside of Kabul, cannot get to an Internet cafe due to security considerations. A laptop at home and a jump drive would allow them to write their pieces, and then ask a male relative to send the work at an Internet cafe. A $20 donation will buy a flash drive and $500 in donations will buy a laptop for our women writers. No contribution is too small. Thank you for considering it.
The Afghan Women's Writing Project has filed for non-profit with 501 (c) 3 status. Your donation is tax deductible.