Homeira QADERI, excerpt from Noqra, the Daughter of Kabul River

"The beautiful scenes I saw above the edge of the cauldron are etched into my memory..."

Homeira Qaderi is an Afghani novelist, scholar and activist. Born during the years of the Soviet occupation and growing up during the Taliban regime, she homeschooled refugee girls and boys when school attendance was prohibited. Later she studied literature at the University of Tehran (Iran) and gained a PhD in Persian Language and Literature from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi (India). A women’s rights activist, she has been a senior advisor to several Afghani ministries, and was awarded the Malalai Medal for exceptional bravery.

She is the author of six novels, short stories, and literary criticism, all in Dari Persian. Her first book in English translation, Dancing in the Mosque, was published by Harper Collins in 2021.

[Noqra, the Daughter of Kabul River] was originally published by Rozgar Publishers (Tehran) in 2009 and received a Literary Award for Prose. It was re-published by Taakbook.com (Kabul) in 2015.

Translator's Note

Translating the present excerpt from [Noqra, the Daughter of Kabul River] presented me with a familiar, yet challenging, dilemma: how to treat repetition? The Persian language and literature are more tolerant of repetition than English. It’s not just that repetition is more okay; it’s also more often used to create poetic effects. Homeira Qaderi takes advantage of this capacity to produce her own lyrical prose in Noqra.

An example of this usage on a word level is one sentence towards the beginning of the novel which, in a rather literal rendering, reads, “My mother did not remember any of her many pains. Her only pain was the pain of the absence of a man named Ezmeray. That was the pain that would be her demise, the pain to devour her, to consume her.” The recurrence of the word “pain” accentuates the suffering of the characters, but also creates a sense of lyricism in the Dari. Yet a reader of the English might find this as lazy and unpalatable sentence-making.

I believe that my task as translator is to find common ground between the style of the original and the norms of English as I know them. I may, for example, replace repetition with more colorful vocabulary, but instead play with syntax to create what I think Noqra would be in English. At other times, I would give the translation a taste of the original style to get a balanced text. It’s something of a game, and I like playing it.

  -Alireza Araghi

         My ears rang as Aunt Rugul grabbed me by the ankles and lifted me high. Cool air wafted around my naked body, gently gliding into my throat. I cried happy tears when I saw Noqra’s wide-open eyes. My hand reached to cover my groin but didn’t reach it. Aunt Rugul wrapped me up in a shawl.
         I never asked how many shrieks my mother, Noqra, cried before I was born, but Zarimah, Bibiko, Safoora, and Zarimah’s mother said that my mother, Noqra, writhed in labor pains for three days and three nights--pains that time and again drove her frantic and took her breath away, her lips livid.
         Of her long sufferings my mother remembered little. Her only anguish was the absence of a man named Ezmeray. That was the pain that would be her demise, devour her, consume her.
         They said that Ezmeray was in the service of Emir Bacha Saqqaw, and it was with him, Ezmeray, that my mother spent an afternoon. Nine months and thirteen days after, I, Eqhleema, was born.
         The only place Bibiko could think of to save me from the freezing cold was inside the enormous copper cauldron by the warm, ash-covered embers in the kitchen of the Royal Citadel. She held me in her hands while Safoora poured warm water over my head from a copper ewer patinated at the base of the spout and handle. Bibiko rubbed my armpits, ran her fingers behind my ears, and rinsed in warm water the folds of my neck, the creases of my wrists, fold after fold, wrinkle after wrinkle. From the moment she lay out the mattress, the pillow, and the quilt in the cauldron, my life began at the bottom of that large vessel whose high sides filled me with fear for three long years, hiding from me the others, who minded their own business in the kitchen.

         The beautiful scenes I saw above the edge of the cauldron are etched in my memory: the trays laden with cups my mother Noqra sat next to and washed shiny clean; the flames erupting now all crimson, now in blue-tipped red; red and white onions that stung my eyes and nose; the enormous ladles in which Zarimah and Safoora sometimes carried me here and there. But what I remember most vividly is a little window above the kitchen’s main fireplace. Its frame had lost its coat of paint under layer after layer of soot from smoke; smoke rising in mingled wafts, smoke drifting in woven whiffs, smoke in entwined columns, smoke at times black, at times white; smoke at times colorless. As it billowed up and out of the window, I closed my eyes and right when my mother thought I was sound asleep I floated out of my copper cauldron through all those invisible, intertwined rings. As she stroked my head and kissed my cheek, I clutched her tight in my arms and flew her through the window to places unknown to her.
         My life is filled with memories of Noqra, Zarimah, Bibiko, Aunt Rugul, Zarimah’s mother, Safoora, Shahbaz, and Ezmeray, the man deemed my father.
         Thirty-eight years later, as Noqra, her form bent under the pomegranate tree, poured water into a clay bowl to spend some time with her mourning doves, Zarimah told the story of the day when Mother fell for a young man with a twirled mustache wearing a tan coat; a man who had wound the reins of a piebald around his hand; a man who frequented the citadel but not through the servants’ door.
         When my mother, Noqra, saw Ezmeray, Bacha Saqqaw’s man, Bacha Saqqaw had just taken over the city. After his speech, Bacha Saqqaw and his men went down to the Kabul River, then visited the rest of the city, too. Many Kabuli men had gone into the streets that day to see him and to hear his words. The kitchen women and girls, having finished their labors for the day, also listened furtively to the stories, here and there. Noqra and Ezmeray locked eyes; later these moments brought them evanescent joy.
         No one got wind of it until Noqra’s stomach began churning, her head spun, she threw up, and hated everything that was being cooked. She had a craving for pomegranates though they were out of season.

         Staring into the wall, Bibiko told the story: it was two years into the reign of Amanullah Khan when Noqra set foot in the kitchen for the first time. Her breasts had just developed into walnut-size bumps, but she still had a while before reaching puberty. The edges of her headscarf fell all the way down to her feet. Once she entered the kitchen, the fire and the trays, fragrant with breads of all kinds, sealed her fate. Most days her eyes were red and her hands black and greasy. But in the moments when she took a break to rest under the moonlight, her face surprised many of the kitchen women, and made them recognize its beauty. She flourished right there, in the smoke from the damp wood and in the crackling of the dry wood. It was right there that, without any of us knowing, she kept a young man with a twirled mustache and a tan coat in her mind, reading the Koran and the poems of Hafiz, hoping for divine revelation.
         According to my calculations, Noqra must have been eleven when she first came to the citadel—maybe a year younger or older. She savored the nights of her youth with the poems of Hafiz of Shiraz. She bloomed and withered right there by the fire. The days of her youth were but short-lived, a few stressful moments with the one man who melted her heart. Later, when her belly bulged and Bibiko wound her hair around her hand, the only thing Noqra could say was, “I married him five months ago.”
         When the news got to my mother’s step-mother, she said: “The marriage was hush-hush.”
         But Zarimah told the story of a beating, after which Noqra bled. When I add up the days, I see that this bleeding goes back to the same day Zarimah talked about it. She said: “Your mother took leave to visit her father’s place for three days, no more. The night she came back the legs of her trousers turned red. She pressed her hand on her stomach the whole night. She didn’t moan. When I looked at her in the light of day, her lips were bruised, black like charcoal.”
         My mother, Noqra, never went back to her father’s house again.

         Those were the days I was in her belly, not yet alive; but now I know that Noqra’s bleeding goes back to July 6th, 1929, two months before I came to life, give or take a week.
         “Bibiko scolded her,” Zarimah said. “She bawled her out, ‘God has rejected you. Was there not one man who would ask for your hand respectfully and take you with him decently?’ She told my mother: ‘She hadn’t wanted it herself. You can’t force people, my dear sister. You can’t hide the sun with two fingers. She says she married before she got pregnant. Married! Before which akhund, what mullah? Again, if she is married to Ezmeray, how come he has left his wife here and goes roaming from province to province? No one would have killed him if he had stepped up and asked for her hand, right? You be the judge, Zarimah’s mother. A girl is like a fruit on a tree; you throw your stone, if it falls, you win; if not, well, it wasn’t meant to be. Not your fate.”
         Zarimah went on: “It was the talk of the town. I asked Noqra, ‘Why didn’t he come for you? Why did you do it before ...?’ Noqra wouldn’t answer. All she said was, ‘We wanted each other. We both consented.’ Safoora said: ‘That is no way to become man and wife.’ With the passage of days, Bibiko’s anger abated. She calmed down. It was she who had brought your mother into the kitchen, and from the very beginning replaced her young dead daughter with her. She started to say that what Noqra had done was a youth’s ignorant mistake. Later she tried to be there for her. She rubbed oil on Noqra’s belly, had her drink camelthorn tea and the four-herb brew, locked a chain around her belly, and hung written prayers around her neck, things she would no doubt have wished to do for her deceased girl, Negar. But a forty-day fever had withered her unfortunate, innocent daughter day after day, and in the end one morning the girl died.”
         My mother, Noqra, said, “To Bibiko, I was her Negar.”
         She said, “When pain ravaged my waist, my belly, and my legs, when during the labor pangs I held Bibiko’s hand so tight blood left her fingers, I was happy Negar was gone."

         The moment life came to me, right after I drew in the first breath and my cheeks turned rose, I smelled the scent of a man standing in front of my mother, the scent of Ezmeray.
         “You are dreaming those days, Eqhleema,” Noqra said, “the days that were lost in blackness and grease. What is it you are searching for in them?”
         Those days are all I have today; the days of wood and fire, cups of green and black tea, Janan china teapots, large cauldrons of rice, big cuts of lamb, grime, grease, shattered stars.
         Still after so many years, the traces of filth and fat haven’t been rubbed from my hands, no matter how many times I dipped them in the Kabul River. Fat and blackness have become the taste and color of my life, the color and taste that never washed out from the creases and wrinkles of Bibiko’s hands, Safoora and Zarimah’s mother’s hands, from Noqra and Zarimah’s hands; a brand on the heart. Aunt Rugul said: “What are you doing? Even if you clean your hands of all the dirt, how will you wipe your fate off your forehead?”
         She struck her forehead with the palm of her hand: “Oh, the black, black fate!”
         Glowing like Aunt Rugul’s beautiful face were the tandoors in the citadel’s tandoor room. Every round of baking made the flatbread circles blush, like Aunt Rugul’s fine cheeks.

         I can still feel the warmth of the fire in the royal citadel’s kitchen reaching me through my mother’s skin. I close my eyes and lose myself softly to that warm, silken surge. I see Ezmeray and that small kitchen window. Me, him, Noqra: two stars and a moon.
         In the cloud of the white smoke and the black smoke we fly out the window, to some place far away from everyone, invisible to all eyes.
         To me, those are not the days of the past. They are all inside me. I do not ever intend to be separated from them, even though Noqra, Ezmeray, Bibiko, Zarimah, Safoora, and Aunt Rugul all parted with me in a black and greasy accident, in which I played no role.
         Many times have I felt humiliated because of my powerless hands. A long time had to pass before I realized that there were many around me who lived feeling the same feeling. Many, whose dreams were being suppressed by the changing of revolvers and Brno rifles into more modern weapons with better grips.


Ali Araghi is an Iranian writer and translator and the winner of the 2017 Prairie Schooner Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Prairie Schooner, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Asymptote, among others. His debut novel, The Immortals of Tehran, was published in 2020 by Melville House. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame; currently a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, he is working on English translations of Persian literature.

91st M 2021 Vol 11 no 1



· Zhang Zhihao: four Wuhan poems; translated from the Chinese by Yuemin He
· Choi Jeongrye: five poems; translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony and Chung Eun-Gwi


· Homeira Qaderi, from Noqra, the Daughter of Kabul River; translated from the Dari by Ali Araghi
· Iana Boukova, from Taveling in the Direction of the Shadow, translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova
· Pilar Quintana, "Easy Money," an excerpt; translated from the Spanish by Joel Streicker
· Beaudelaine Pierre, "You May Have the Suitcase Now," a memoir-essay.