Zarlasht Sarwari reviews My Pen is the Wing of a Bird
My Pen is the Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women
Ed Catherine Boyle
MacLehose Press Quercus London
Reviewed by ZARLASHT SARWARI
My Pen is the Wing of a Bird, draws us into the lives of fictional characters in Afghanistan in an anthology of twenty three unrelated but deeply connected short stories. Written by 18 women authors in Dari and Pashto, the works are translated for an English speaking audience. The stories traverse multiple decades in Afghanistan’s recent history, from the communist ruled period of the 1980s to more recent representations of Afghanistan society during the American occupation. The political climate of Afghanistan is not the focus of these stories, though it is important to be cognisant of the different regimes, wars and occupying forces which form the backdrop of these vignettes.
It is unfortunate, that we continue to learn of Afghanistan through the repeated narration of its affliction with war. A place devastated, cradling the broken hearts, maimed bodies and hungry stomachs of its people. The anthology illustrates how people are forced to endure life, amidst the manic conditions cumulative war and violence brings. As we read how the most basic of needs remain unmet for characters within these stories, we are forced to contemplate the banal and significant privileges we as readers, take for granted every single day.
We come to know the women and men in these stories, inhabiting urban centres or remote villages across Afghanistan. We move with them through their day, speaking to loved ones overseas, cooking meals, going to work, childrearing, dealing with colleagues, cursing bad health – all seemingly mundane tasks that anyone across the world can relate to. But these stories are not mundane. They are intense and impactful. They feel unbearably real. We witness characters negotiating everyday needs and obstacles in the midst of extreme poverty, injustice, want and violence. We witness so many contradictions and the convergence of so many unfortunate and unimaginable factors that weigh down on human existence. In between, we also witness acts of quiet kindness, unexpected wins and persistence in actualising personal agency.
Whether based on imagination or seeds of truth, these fleeting instances of hope within the stories, gives us the oxygen we need to continue reading. Even so, they compound the sad reality for how ephemeral hope has come to be for so many of the characters and by extension the men and women of Afghanistan. On the unimaginable complexity described within some of these stories, one can only surmise that in a society at war for more than forty years and plagued by foreign occupation, the authors may well have witnessed such things and laid them bare for us to also witness. It is this fortitude in storytelling, that brings hope and understanding in the midst of so much hopelessness.
The book is the outcome of a project led by Untold, a British organisation describing itself as a ‘development program for writers marginalised by communities and conflict’(1). The project was the culmination of two years work between writers in Afghanistan and translators and editors abroad. The anthology was published in 2022, following the shocking and chaotic withdrawal of US forces after 20 years of occupation.
The opening story gently invites us to witness the life of an elderly mother who stayed behind in Kabul after having sent all her children abroad. It is set during the post 2001 era of the US occupation and infers the myriad of geopolitical and transnational influences which plays out in her life. The lonely melancholy is obvious in her movement; pouring tea, turning on the television to connect with the outside world and forlornly looking at photos of her children and grandchildren living abroad. These images depict a familiar experience of separation among so many families and offers details that many readers who form the Afghanistan diaspora would recognise (tea with dried mulberries and walnuts, photo of a child posing in their traditional dress next to a large vase, a cloth draped over the television to avoid dust). These are the details that speak to the practices of home making and cultural maintenance replicated by many women of Afghanistan diaspora communities across the world.
We become anchored in the social and political reality of the protagonist, Nuria when we learn of the latest news bulletin about a violent attack targeting and killing staff at the Moby Media Group (MMG). As one of the many privately owned media companies which emerged in post 2001, the company was often targeted by the Taliban as it was a symbol of western influence and excess. MMG led the dynamic media landscape which was forming in the country with free market conditions and freedom of speech laws. The Afghan Australian owner of the company, Saad Mohseni is often referred to as the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan. Nuria switches the news off as soon as she turns it on, suggesting fatigue by the violence, another experience common among the war weary people of Afghanistan. We witness her life through the series of photos she glances upon, marked by decades of war and regime change, social connection and loss, and her family’s migration to safety. She accepts solitude as part of her maternal obligation and derives satisfaction in keeping her children and their future safe. She does not fear living in solitude, but the realisation that she may die in solitude leaves her unsettled and distressed. This opening story sets the sombre mood and opens the door for us to walk in deeper to further explore the other more confronting stories to come.
Each story beautifully captures details, intimate perspectives and dynamic relationships. Each story allows us to come to know the characters closely in short, sharp scenarios. Though each story is concise, they are not an easy read. There is a need for pause, to breathe and reflect as one moves through this anthology. Despite some of the universally familiar scenarios, there are many aspects reflecting unique aspects of Afghanistan culture and everyday practice. The throwing of water behind the steps of a traveller to bless them a safe journey, the customary way of how guests are received, drinking tea with ghor – an unrefined sugar product common in South and Central Asia. There are also many depictions that represent negative and violent attitudes and treatment towards women, ethnic and sexual minorities. To an outsider it may reinforce the negative tropes routinely applied to Afghanistan as a backward country. However, it is a harsh reality that in a four decade climate of war, poverty and illiteracy, many aspects of human behaviour decline and become further perverted. For those with heritage from Afghanistan or familiar with the culture there, they may well be able to distinguish how problematic or difficult practices have become further corrupted or amplified. It is difficult and jarring to face these realities as they are presented to us throughout these stories.
The anthology opens windows to worlds and characters during different eras in the past four decades of Afghanistan, where we are able to enter the homes and communities of the people who inhabit the stories. The collection provides an overview of very diverse experiences from Afghanistan not commonly available to an English speaking audience. A positive and empowering move would have seen the stories published in the language they were written (Dari or Pashto) alongside English, rather than in English alone. English speaking audiences would of course read the translation but for those literate in Dari and Pashto within Afghanistan (whose speakers number over 60 million (2)) and those living within the estimated 7 million strong Afghan diaspora across the world, could have had the opportunity to read these stories in their mother tongue. It would have offered a fitting tribute to honour these works and encapsulate as part of the important body of literature documenting the complexity of life in Afghanistan, a region which has had a strong literary culture dating back to the era of the Samanid empire in the 9th and 10th centuries.
It was from the region which Afghanistan now occupies that many classic and contemporary artists and literary masters have emerged. Afghanistan was the birthplace of the great Islamic scholar, poet and master of Sufi mysticism, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī (known also as Rumi) born in the early 13th century, who produced the epic Masnavi – a six book poem comprising 50 000 lines. Rumi’s work has had significant international influence until this day (3). Other writers of cultural significance who made major contributions to the Dari literary canon and who came three centuries before Rumi include Rabia Balkhi, a poetess renowned for her ‘major contribution to the foundation of the Persianate literary canon’ and Abu ‘Abd Allah Ja‘far ibn Muhammad Rudaki of Bukhara, a poet laureate of the Samanid court (4). Rudaki was the first poet of note to compose poetry in the New Persian script and is hailed as the father of Persian poetry. The significance of his contributions are felt in the wider Persianate world including what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran. Though the nature of society and life has changed dramatically since the time of these literary greats, the trajectory of Dari and Pashto literature remains ever connected and forms the root of everyday literary practice loved and valued across Afghanistan and beyond. For a society still plagued with remarkably high illiteracy rates, literary works are often transmitted via musical arrangement. Poetry and prose are transformed with musical composition allowing those literate and illiterate to tap into the cultural assets of the literary realm through different generations of popular culture (5).
In reading the anthology, My Pen is the Wing of a Bird, one is reminded of a heartbreaking song which captures the sad sentiment of the experience of the people of Afghanistan.
Sarzamine man (My Homeland) performed by respected artist Dawood Sarkhoosh (1998), and written by Amir Jan Saboori, laments the ongoing suffering of a people forcefully displaced from their homeland. The song laments the pain of separation and the ongoing and cumulative trauma and dispossession rained upon the people of Afghanistan by external forces.
“My homeland, in uncurable pain, who composed your grief?,
My homeland, who opened your door… who stole your treasures?
My homeland, everyone has damaged and broken you, each taking turns”. (6)
It is this collective grief, captured through song and literature, that is detailed and given colour in My Pen is the Wing of a Bird. The stories are not only about war, they are of course about how people, families and communities live in spite of it. How justice and fairness are perverted, how basic needs are desperately met and how some women hold onto hope in the most unlikeliest of ways. How long standing cultural values are eroded by regime changes, and how betrayal and injustice is endured but cannot cause delay from picking up a child on time from preschool. The title of the anthology evokes the desire to transcend the physical and material hardships of life in Afghanistan. It is only upon completion of the anthology, where we feel the depth and extent of this desire, the reason for it and the necessity of it.
1. Untold Website, see http://untold-stories.org/
2. Unknown author, 2011, “The view from within: an introduction to new Afghan literature”, Words Without Borders, see https://wordswithoutborders.org/read/article/2011-05/the-view-from-within-an-introduction-to-new-afghan-literature/
3. Ali, R. 2017, “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi”, The New Yorker, see https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-erasure-of-islam-from-the-poetry-of-rumi
4. Ebtikar, 2021, “The story of Rabia Balkhi, Afghanistan’s most famous female poet”, Ajam Media Collective, see https://ajammc.com/2021/08/16/rabia-balkhi-afghanistan-poet/
5. Massoumi, M. (2022), “Soundwaves of Dissent: Resistance Through Persianate Cultural Production in Afghanistan”, Iranian Studies, 55, 697–718.
6. For an audio recording of the song Sarzamine man and credits, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdQP8-gHjxg.
ZARLASHT SARWARI is a researcher, writer and PhD candidate at Western Sydney University. Her research examines identity construction and belonging among Afghanistan diaspora communities in Australia. Her work considers what it means to be from Afghanistan in the context of a homeland, both real and imagined, which has become increasingly out of reach and under threat. Zarlasht has produced written works for Southerly Journal, ABC radio, Sydney Writers Festival, Parramatta Laneways Festival and Fairfield City Museum and Gallery.