One of the best things about being an avid reader is being pleasantly surprised. Sometimes by a compelling narrative that leaves me with the proverbial “goose bump feeling” from start to finish. Sometimes by larger-than-life characters that continue to live in my imagination long after their story comes to an end. Sometimes by reading the author’s notes at the end that enable a deeper understanding of how the story itself came to be.
Recently, I finished reading a good book called Sparks Like Stars by Nadia Hashimi. She left Afghanistan with her family at an early age, and resettled in America. Her story is about a young woman named Sitara. She too was born in Afghanistan, and immigrated to the States as young girl. She leaves an orphan. It takes time to reconcile memories of witnessing the murder of her parents in Afghanistan during the 1978 coup by the Soviets. Sitara was 10 years old at the time.
Throughout the novel, Hashimi references Rumi, a medieval Persian poet. He is a prolific poet, and a familiar voice to those who look to the past with the hope of being inspired in the present. And in so doing, discover what germinates in the imagination is truly timeless.
Your fragrant breath like the morning breeze
has come to the stillness of the garden
You have breathed new life into me
I have become your sunshine
and also your shadow
The Love Poems of Rumi
In her Author’s Notes, Hashimi references another, lesser-known poet – an Afghan poet named Nadia Anjuman (1980 – 2005). Nadia was murdered in 2005. She was 25 years old. Her husband served only one month of his sentence. Nadia’s death was ruled a suicide.
As a young girl Nadia studied in secret at the Golden Needle School. The Taliban did not condone the teaching of girls. They did allow girls to learn sewing. So, she sewed openly, and studied in secret. Later, at 16, she found a professor – Rahab – who became a tutor. He helped her find her voice – and it was eventually shared with the world.
At 21, when the Taliban were overthrown by the Americans – in 2001 – Nadia studied at the Herat University, where she met her husband. She published her one and only book of poetry called Flower of Smoke before she matriculated in 2002. Both she and her husband studied Literature. He became the head of the library at the University in Herat. She was reprimanded for her writing. And eventually killed in a domestic altercation. Her voice silenced.
Inevitably, I found myself reading poems written by Nadia Anjuman. One in particular struck me in its raw, defiant tone.
No difference to speak, to laugh,
To die, to be.
Me and my strained solitude.
With sorrow and sadness.
I was borne for nothingness…..
I have been silent too long,
But I never forget the melody,
Since every moment I whisper
The songs from my heart,
Reminding myself of
The day I will break this cage,
Fly from this solitude
And sing like a melancholic.
I am not a weak poplar tree
To be shaken by any wind.
I am an Afghan woman,
It only makes sense to moan.
I am in awe of this young woman’s poetry. Despite being trapped in a country that stifled her very existence, she found the courage to write. The line – I was borne for nothingness – resonates with its intensity. In the last two lines, the poet owns the character of her voice – as an Afghan woman allowing herself the right to moan. And in so doing, allowing other Afghan women – and women anywhere in the world – the right to moan. If not for reading Sparks and Stars, I would not have discovered the poetry of Nadia Anjuman. I am reminded time and again what a gift it is to pick up a good book; to be exposed not only to a good story, but also to the influences the author draws on in the writing of that story. It is no surprise that voices of others – poets in particular – affect the writing of a bigger story.
Photo by Ylanite Koppens