Books · Poetry

Afghan Women’s Writing Project: ‘Washing the Dust From Our Hearts’

Book coverIt is difficult to convey the extraordinary energy and strength of the brave girls and women who write for Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP). Many of these women, literally, risk their lives for the opportunity to tell their stories and express their opinions in English in an online workshop and in posts on a website. Others participate in equally dangerous writing workshops in Dari, the Persian language spoken in Afghanistan. The workshops are held at secret locations throughout Afghanistan.

For the first time ever, a selection of these writers’ poetry and prose has been translated from English into Dari and published in a bilingual anthology called Washing the Dust From Our Hearts. An earlier anthology, The Sky is a Nest of Swallows, was published in 2012 in English. Now, 31 of the approximately 170 AWWP writers will be able to see their words in print in both English and Dari, their mother tongue.

It is a bold decision to publish Washing the Dust From Our Hearts in both English and Dari. The fact that there are very few Afghan women writers who have had their work published in Dari makes the anthology especially significant. In the Introduction to the book, the translator Pari writes:

You hold our dream in your hand, a book of our voices translated back into the language of our people. But she also poignantly reflects: As I read each piece over and over again, often overcome by tears, I realize how sad it is to have the ability to write but not be able to sign your own name. Writing is a gift, not a crime.

The women who write for AWWP are part of the literate, urban minority; 85% of all women in Afghanistan are illiterate. In many cases, the writers’ families and friends do not know that they are part of the project. Even though they have been permitted to receive some education by their families, most of the women risk punishment, and even death, from family members or the local authorities for expressing their ideas if their identities are revealed.

AWWP maintains a high level of secrecy to protect its writers. The Internet café in Kabul that is used by many of the women is at an undisclosed location. All of the women write under pseudonyms and avoid including details in their work that could give away their identities. Some of the writing from the Internet workshops is not posted because it would put the writer in certain danger.

The title of the anthology, “Washing the Dust From Our Hearts,” comes from a poem by Pari. One line from the poem reads: Azadi is. . . the voice of the rain. . . washing the dust from our hearts. Azadi means freedom in Dari. Pari writes that it is the small freedoms in everyday life, like her son’s smile or riding her bike, that refresh her and give her the courage to express herself.

In the introduction to the anthology, Pari describes the importance of AWWP to her development:

Slowly, AWWP became a school for me, helping me not only to develop my writing skills, but also to understand who I am as a woman and to know my own voice. I began to see myself as an Afghan woman writer, a powerful being with tenacity and courage to meet life’s challenges.

The writing that is included in Washing the Dust From Our Hearts is organized into overlapping categories: Marriage and Family; Love and Forgiveness; Education; Our Afghanistan; and Our Strong Voices. The narratives are about a family separated by war, mothers who hold their daughters back and mothers who encourage their daughters to get an education, women who have their lips, ears and noses cut off, and lovers who are stoned to death. It is about arranged marriages, rape and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. Many writers express fear of the Taliban. But the anthology is also filled with stories about progressive families, feminism and justice, love and forgiveness, children, teachers, writing, ambitions and hope.

Zainab writes about her dream of becoming an astronomer and reconstructing Abu Rayahan al-Biruni’s observatories in Ghazni. Fatima imagines a revolution by thousands of girls who stand up for their rights, drive out the Taliban and make Afghanistan a safe place to live. Roya calls herself “Madam Writerand describes driving her neighbor’s car with her poetry book in the front seat next to her, imagines wearing glasses that will change all men into women, and then pledges to see the world in the mirror of her own car one day.

In one of my favorite poems, Masooma writes:

Yesterday my sister looked at the world through a small window.
Today she sees the world through her camera,
And tomorrow the world will see everything through her

Seeta urges: Please, please read my poem. Hilda confides: If I fail to tell my stories of struggle/I will lose myself. Leeda declares: I refuse to stay silent. Nilofar threatens: I am fire/. . .I burn, I burn. Aysha promises: I, too, will leave a legacy of beauty and courage. Marzia roars: I shake the world with my voice. And Shahida proclaims: I hope to be a leader in the future.

AWWP’s Washing the Dust From Our Hearts offers a rare glimpse into the hearts and minds of a group of unusual women. They are fierce and their writing is full of hope for a better future for Afghanistan. Through  AWWP, a small but important group of Afghan women are telling their stories and gaining the self-confidence and courage to speak their minds. They have been inspired to believe that they can make changes in their families, their communities and even their country.

Next Page: How AWWP began its work with women in Afghanistan

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  • Elizabeth Titus September 23, 2015 at 2:35 am

    Thank you, Suzanne, for this article about an amazing project to help Afghan women!