Periscope: Homeira Qaderi

Homeira Qaderi, Kabul, August 2021
Qaderi_childrens' book launch Kabul, August 2021

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 in Iran, and gained a PhD in Persian Language and Literature in 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; an excerpt from one of the novels can be read here. Her first book in English translation, Dancing in the Mosque, was published in 2021.

I.    LITERARY-- PERSONAL
 
1. IWP:  Talk about your work on Dancing in the Mosque: you wrote in Dari but who was your main audience? Did you edit the book with your US agent or editor?  And how is the publishing process proceeding in Kabul at the moment?
 
HQ: Dancing in the Mosque is a memoir that paints a picture of an Afghanistan of the pre-Taliban era, as well as of the time during which the Taliban gained power. The memoir focuses on the suffering of Afghan girls during those war years when there were fewer opportunities for them to express their distress and miseries through art and writing. There was little chance to give voice to women’s struggles, their hopes, and dreams, or even their disappointments. Dancing in the Mosque allowed me to review those earlier years of my life and to relive them with readers around the world.
I wrote the memoir in Dari Persian and two people helped me with the English translation. I did the initial editing with my translator Zalman Stanisai, and we worked with the publisher’s editorial team once more before the book took its final shape.
Primarily I wanted the book to be the voice of Afghan women to the world. That is why it was published in English translation first. It was read widely outside Afghanistan, and was also received well in Afghanistan. If I want to publish the book here in Afghanistan, I must work on the Dari Persian version first. Under the present circumstances, time is of the essence since I am working on another book. Also, I am not sure about the need for a Dari Persian version since many have already read it in English.
 
2. IWP: What night reading gives you strength, peace, relief? And what books or writers have been important to you, as a novelist and as a scholar?

HQ: Living in a war-torn Afghanistan doesn’t allow for any relaxation other than reading and writing--though in the end, even reading can’t muffle the sound of bullets. I've been reading more short stories lately--stories that are not related to war, stories that show family life without violence and bloodshed, stories of ordinary people with normal life problems. I’ve resorted to this kind of reading because the world in which I live is neither normal nor calm. Every day I hear the news that friends and relatives have been killed. Through books, I understand what life is like for people who are not at war. I love their lives. Their life calms me and gives me respite from fear. I feel that far from the borders of my country, people live comfortably. Even their calmness gives me hope. I've been reading Alice Munro a lot lately.
Well, in Afghanistan, sometimes finding the book I want to read isn’t easy. If bookstores in Kabul don’t have what I want, I order them from Iran.  By surface mail across the border, that may sometimes take more than two months.
 
3. IWP: What books do you read to your son?

HQ: The story of my son and me is a strange one. People who have read Dancing in the Mosque know what I mean. I am in the family court on weekly basis, fighting the legal system so I can stay with my son as his mother. This court battle has been going on in our country for many years, but the critical human values haven’t reached that point yet.
My son is eight years old. According to the shari’a and civil laws of Afghanistan, a year from now my son will no longer belong to me. Even this past year, I could barely extend the custody so that my son could live with me for another 24-month period.
At night I hold his little hand and think of the nights when I won’t be allowed to touch him and be close to him. He also knows about this situation. He hugs me and says, "Mother, I will stay by your side." In those moments, I think, yes, we Afghan women need to rewrite anti-feminist laws so that our humanity is not questioned or degraded—and that is only possible if the sons and the fathers stand with us and support us.
I write stories for kids these days. My child and I tell stories to each other. Siawash is very good at describing the setting of a story: he also helps by making up the dialogue and suggesting many beautiful events. All the stories we write together take place in the forest, and the characters in our stories are often animals.
He has a small library. These days we read The Little Prince together.

4.  IWP:  What projects are you working on now?

HQ: I am working on two books at the same time. A collection of short stories which focuses on the lives of women of the new generation, women who are going through a cultural transition with all its hardships. This book has eleven short stories and in them eleven women have to make eleven important decisions to change their living conditions. I love this collection because it gives me strength. The second book is in both Dari Persian and English. I am looking for an agent in the US for it. Its main character is a girl, abducted in her childhood during the Soviet occupation along with a number of other children for Communist indoctrination. The girl returns to Afghanistan as a teenager during the Taliban era and ends up wandering the streets of Smyrna, Delaware.
 
5.  IWP: You have moved repeatedly--between Afghanistan, Iran, India, and the US: what aspects of each country and culture have you most valued?

 HQ: Traveling has always been a challenge for me. It's very different if a person has decided to live abroad for a few years as a writer, to observe that country's culture close up. Such a journey takes place with a calm and engaged mind. For us, most trips have been painful because travel usually takes the form of migration, and is usually the result of war. For this reason, in every migration and in every foreign geography, we first try to find our own place in the culture of the host country.  And for each immigrant, this takes some time.
Foreign invasion, civil strife, and political turmoil forced me to leave my country. I ended up living in several foreign countries including Iran, India, and the United States. I was more comfortable in Iran because I was able to find common cultural threads with Iranians. Iran had a great impact on my study of literature. Maybe because I got lost in the streets less often than in other countries. Perhaps because of the similarity between our two cultures. In addition to attending university classes I also attended fiction writing classes there and got acquainted with the culture’s stories. We Afghans share a rich classical literary tradition with the Persians, but their modern fiction writing became a new venture for me. I like Iranian writers.

This was not the case when I went to the United States. These two travel experiences were very different. During my first three months in America, in Iowa City, I was in an environment where the only thing that I had in common with the other participants in the IWP was the literary work we were studying and analyzing. They were writers, and that was great. But as soon as that semester ended, I lost my status in society and got lost among ordinary people. I lost touch with American fiction and literature. I didn’t even know where the literary circles were--and if the writers did not come together in that great country, where was I going to find people who shared my interests? Difficult days were ahead of me, but focusing on the preparation of what was going to become Dancing in the Mosque helped me to calm down, and eventually, I got to know some editors. I am telling this story to explain that it isn’t easy to find one’s way around in foreign cultures. Meeting and mingling with writers from another country is not easy. It takes time to get to know the culture of the people and to find one’s way into their literature.

In those days, I was preoccupied with the writing of the Persian manuscript of my memoir, which I wanted to publish in English. I did have translators and it took me longer to feel comfortable with the English language. Perhaps I was still suffering from the shock of having been separated from my son and wasn’t emotionally ready to venture into something new, like improving my English. Now that I am away from the United State, I can concentrate on learning English. Then I was mostly involved with the Afghan and Iranian communities in the United States, but I was watching movies and reading books in English that gave me some hope--and at times worries because I had suddenly ended up in a society whose language and culture was too foreign to me.  
It may be that by reading a few American novels we might think to ourselves, I know about American literature. But what is important for a writer is to understand what gave birth to these cultural narratives. Those lives become the cause of stories. One needs to live in the United States to understand exactly Raymond Carver's concerns, to understand the environment in which his characters make their decisions. Apart from that, traveling has given me the opportunity to meet more people, and each person is a story in itself. I would also like to experience living in France to get to know its people and their culture, and the way of thinking that gives birth to the French way of writing.

 6. IWP:  What traces has the time in Iowa left in your life and work?

HQ: I was distraught in those days because my child was taken from me only a very short time before arriving there. So what I remember most is the kindness of the people in the host country during my grief. But in my literary life, meeting that many writers was a very pleasant experience. I'm still in touch with some of them. In the mornings we all wrote. We would gather in the evenings, sit in the Common Room at night and sometimes listen to music. Some of us talked about our manuscripts. I met good writers, and I still follow their work. They are writing well and moving forward. Iowa City has a special place in my heart.
I can’t forget the Iowa River on the other side of my window. The faint chirp of crickets at night sounded as if they were up to some mischief. I listened to their chirping and wrote in their voices. I met you and we are still in touch. The university town and the camaraderie between men and women have left a lasting impact on my mind. Men walked around every morning pushing their baby strollers. In our country, a man never does that. The woman must take care of the child so that the man can take care of his own life. Those memories have had a lasting effect on me.

 
II.    LITERARY—BROAD
 
1.  IWP: Can you say more about your literary scholarship, specifically your dissertations—both the one you wrote in Tehran and the one you wrote in New Delhi?

HQ: Fiction writing in Afghanistan is a mere century old. In these hundred years, our writers haven’t produced much work. Sometimes it may take a decade before a good work of fiction emerges. Modern Afghan fiction has a very political undertone and serves political objectives. The long-lasting war has made it impossible to focus on art at all. Many artists have been killed. Many have emigrated.
In my thesis at Alama Tabatabaie University in Tehran, I talked about these topics. I focused on the cultural context of fiction writing in Afghanistan during the past century. I examined the impact of war on Afghan fiction. An important part of that thesis is about Herat, my hometown. Herat is one of the few cities where writers have been busy writing. During the civil war of 1992-95, it was among the less damaged cities in Afghanistan. Its writers didn’t disperse as much, and the city had more of a cultural presence to it. Its people were not as political—rather, they were more attuned to poetry and literature. Of course, getting access to the Afghani literary works of the first five decades wasn’t easy, because there was little left after the years of war and destruction.

In my dissertation at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, I worked on the impact of diasporic circumstances on the work of Afghan novelists in Europe, Iran, and Pakistan. I selected two writers from each geographic area and dealt with stories or fictional characters who were immigrants to those countries, such as Qader Muradi and Khaled Nusa in Pakistan, Muhammad Hussain Muhammadi, and Asef Sultanzadah in Iran, and Atiq Rahimi in Europe. In my opinion, even our writers in exile are still preoccupied with the events in their homeland and haven’t had much time to talk about their own exile experience or about other people. During the four decades following the communist takeover in 1978, Afghans in the diaspora have not produced much literary work.
 
2. IWP: What was the literary culture like in Tehran when you lived there, and what is it like in Kabul—in the past years, and in this very difficult moment of the summer of 2021? Who are your writer-colleagues in Afghanistan…and in the region?

 HQ: Afghanistan is caught in a vicious cycle of repeating its history. We are constantly entangled in the proxy wars of our neighbors, and because we are in every way a poor country, we are unable to get out of these difficult conditions. That is why the waves of migration and loss of artists are repeated decade after decade. Whenever a powerful generation of literary artists comes into existence in this land, we soon lose them. This is a great tragedy and the reason why no literary movement has emerged here. In Iran, however, the situation is very different: their writers are more focused because they are at peace, as they have at least a safe corner of a house to write in. They create dozens of good works every year. They translate. They establish literary movements. They communicate with each other and nurture the new generation of literary artists. I know this well because I’ve lived in both countries. The government supports artists. Here in Afghanistan, artists are always in financial trouble—the lucky ones who survived death threats. I don’t want to say that Iranian artists don’t have problems, but they have the space conducive to writing, and windows that aren’t being shattered by bullets. This is very important. Here, if we are not killed on the street, we will certainly be shot through our windows.
Conditions these days can’t be described easily: the Taliban have called this season ‘the bloody summer.’  Wherever they go, they destroy.  Recently they beheaded a comedian whose only crime was that he made people laugh.
My colleagues at the Ministry of Education were sent on assignment to provinces racked by war. They never returned. We are back at the starting point. Foreign forces used the country as a platform to achieve their goals in the region, then left us trapped by global terrorists.  Think, as a woman, a writer who has fought extremism all her life….this is how I feel these days.
Now all the artists are in state of panic. Sometimes I feel I am alone. I get frustrated and lose my motivation.  Some days are better than others. Most days I sit by the window in the morning and work on a new project. I stare life straight in the eye ... I have re-established contact with my Iranian writer friends. I have even published three children's works with an Iranian publisher, and am waiting to launch them soon, in the midst of this war and terror.
 
3.  IWP: How do children develop their imagination and expressivity in (rural) Afghanistan—through reading? Storytelling? Play? In traditional or newer forms? In other words, what are some influences shaping the new generation(s)?

HQ: War has ruined the lives of children much like the experience I went through. Each generation of Afghan children lives through their own wars. Actually, war robs you of your childhood: you have to grow up in it and with it. You need to be able to run like an adult, endure hunger like them. To escape from trouble, you must learn how to survive. Kids aren’t allowed to play in the courtyard because of the flying bullets. They better not want or even think of toys, either. There is no electricity so they could watch a cartoon and be happy for a little while at least--that is, for the few that have, or know of, television. My own childhood was not much different from my child's. I was afraid of bullets, and he too is afraid of bullets.
So in this situation, I write stories for these war-stricken and frightened children as schools in the countryside are being set on fire, teachers are killed, parents are killed. There is no childhood here.
I really do not know how to answer this question. Do you realize that our children still lose limbs and legs to the remnants of the Soviet mines planted in their fields? When they run after their sheep or help their parents who are sowing seeds or when their animals are looking for water.
 
III.      GENERAL
 
1.  IWP:  As a writer and women’s rights activist, in what direction do you think the Afghanis should be looking next?

 HQ: Peace. We have no choice. If there is no peace, no activity makes sense. Art is in recession. The sound of art is silenced by the sound of bullets. War has left people of this land hopeless and helpless. We must find a path to peace. We have to talk to our neighboring countries to take their wars out of our country. The wars of others are like monsters that have eaten two generations of Afghans. We are so caught up in this warring that we are deprived of everything else.
After all, we are all born to live a meaningful existence, not to fight and then die after a futile life. Life is everyone's right, legally as much as instinctively.
Some people in Afghanistan call war refugees cowards because they didn’t stay to endure the hardship like the rest. I disagree. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves and seek a better life. Yet I ask myself, what will happen to those who stay behind? How can I leave my father at his age? My sister? My mother? Still, there is another matter yet: I am also responsible for my child. He is entitled to live in a peaceful and safe environment. My child is too young to die on the battlefield.
I am not just thinking of myself: emotionally I feel related and connected to this whole country. Many like me are stuck between these two choices in life. I respect those who flee, and praise the courage of those who remain. I, however, would like to stay. Now the Taliban are present on all battlefields. I hate war. I can’t kill anyone. But I can kill an ideology—a dangerous one especially. Like the one that is filling the minds of men who are less inclined to a meaningful discourse and are much more eager to kill. Maybe I should attack the sickening thoughts in those minds. My being in this land is worthless if it isn’t in the defense of the men and women of this homeland,
The Taliban threaten people in the countryside where they have taken power. They kill people. They flog people. They impose inhumane laws on them--especially on women. Girls are being forcibly married. The Taliban show no mercy to the families of the security forces and the Army.  It isn’t widely talked about in the Western media, but the Taliban don’t even have supporters in the countryside. The villagers are forced to provide them with daily food out of fear. People have no choice. If they don’t, they will be punished.

Misogyny is not the exclusive domain of Afghans. With various degrees of intensity, every country in the world has experienced its own Taliban-type misogyny. Misogynists’ worldviews elsewhere have led some people to think that the Taliban actually have supporters in the rural and remote areas of Afghanistan. On the surface, it may appear that rural Afghanistan is in accord with the Taliban mindset, but we have many girls’ schools that remain open in the countryside, and people send their daughters there.  Afghans in the countryside may share a traditional worldview with the Taliban, but they never believe in burning girls’ schools.  
Afghan women suffered from misogyny even before the Taliban. But when the conditions permitted it, they fought for equality. In the Taliban era, there is neither equality nor do women have permission to demand equality.
 
2.   IWP:  What is your utopia?

HQ: I want the world to be a place where women are treated and respected equal to men. Really equal.
I want children in Afghan schools to have time to tell stories--should there be any schools left standing.
I want the world to be a place where people are more powerful than bullets.

IWP: Thank you.

Interviewer: Nataša Ďurovičová
Iowa City/Kabul, August 12, 2021

 

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