Writing in & of the World: Silk Routes Grant Narrative, Afghanistan

I am a girl from  a country in the heart of Asia. My family named me Farkhonda, which means beatific and auspicious. I am the oldest child; 12 years ago I was sent to school to learn to read and write. I read books and step by step started to practice writing.  I chose to write stories. Their narrative style was one of the reasons behind my interest in fiction: I enjoyed writing about different characters and what I imagined about them. After getting some of them published in a few Afghani magazines, I realized that critics and readers alike believe my fiction mostly focuses on women. Maybe this is natural, since I am a woman living in a country that has experienced decades of war and setbacks for women. 

Responding to the invitation of this program’s organizers, I will first focus on the story, or fiction, in Persian language, then talk about women’s situation with regard to fiction in Afghanistan.

The term ‘story’ is a familiar word in Persian (Dari) language, but the style of story writing with its modern meaning does not have a long tradition  in our literature. Therefore, researching story writing in the region of Persian language and literature, especially researching fictional literature of a specific gender group, women, in a specific political territory, Afghanistan, is really hard work. To do this, one has to refer to the wealth of classic Persian books, and to dictionaries,  where different meanings and descriptions of the term ‘fiction’ appear.  Thus for instance: “The short story is a fiction form in which the writer places the main character within an organized theme and a single incident; it has a unique influence on its readers.”

We could also distinguish the short story from other literary texts through the following specifications:

  1. It has an organized and specific theme.
  2. It has one main character.
  3. The character is presented in a single incident.
  4. It is made up of linked plots.
  5. It conveys a sense of unity.
  6. It is short.

 In addition, it is worth mentioning that each expert has his own description of what fiction is; there is no common idea with which all literary experts agree. Also, if we see the Persian encyclopedias and classic literary books of Dari-Persian language, most of them describe the words story, folktale, fiction, tale, biography, myth as synonyms. Therefore, if we want to think about the relations between story writing and women or women’s fictional literature in the region of our language, we need first of all to return to the meaning of fiction from our classic view, and discuss the role of women in creation and development of folktales and stories in Persian language.

 Traditional storytelling amongst women has a long history. It is in fact thought that women are the creators of most stories and folktales. Folktales are the type of figurative fiction that mostly contains imaginary and unreal elements. Every tale starts with the magic words “Someone existed, someone not! There was no one, except God…”. Following this phrase, the tales introduce us to the magic city, its inhabitants, its goodness, its badness and bad-luck-ness. As I mentioned, storytelling by grandmothers has a long tradition among Persian speakers. They mostly tell their stories during long winter nights of winter, when the family has gathered together to keep warm. The mothers and grandmothers will tell stories to the children to transmit advice, to tell about the heroes’ feats, and to put the children to sleep as he stories reach their happy ending.

Even in myths women are known as creators of stories. The example we can rely is the mythical storyteller, Shahrzad, the narrator of the most fantastic and richest story book of Hazar-o Yakshab.

 But, as was mentioned earlier, the short story in its modern sense does not have a long history in the Dari-Persian literature of Afghanistan.  The first such story in our modern literature (Jehad-e Akbar) was perhaps written some 90 years ago, in 1919, by Mevlevi Mohammad Husain Panjabi. After that, some other stories by other writers were published in the common media of that era, but there were no women to have a role in this process until Mahga Rahmani (born around 1911), the first female story writer in Afghanistan.

After that, during the beginning of modern story writing in Afghanistan in 1950s and 1960s, no woman had a role in this regard. But with the political changes during those decades, a period of democracy, the establishment of private print and broadcast media, the founding of the Kabul Literary Association and the opening of some freedom and opportunities for women, women began working in the field of literature. Though their stories could not attract the attention of more readers, it was a good start for further work by women. 

Thereafter, in the 1970s and 1980s, many positive changes occurred with regard women’s fiction. The establishment of literary associations in different cultural regions of Afghanistan, the support of the government to these associations, more freedom for women to be present in the society, the development of media, print and other facilities, all these were good help in improving story writing amongst women. In addition, during these decades, French and Russian literature had a strong influence on writing in Afghanistan, especially on fiction. During these years, literary translation also had an important role for the development of story writing among women. Many books were translated from French and Russian to Dari, and the women writers familiar with these foreign languages and could use them as literary sources. Espozhmay Zaryab, who could speak French, was one of them. Also during 1970s and 1980s, many other women fought against the various forms of social and family limitation even while working on writing stories.

Afterwards, in 1990s, after the success of the Islamic Revolution, the renewal of civil wars and the existence of a new political group by the name of Taliban, women’s fiction was seriously damaged and migrated abroad. During that decade, the political and social situation in the country brought additional limitations to women when it came to working in the field of culture. Therefore, most writers left the country and emigrated abroad, mainly to Iran and Pakistan. This migration led to the creation and then the strengthening of  literary groups in exile. If we research fictional literature during the 1990s, we have to focus in equal measure on the interior and the exterior literary regions of Afghanistan.

Traditionally the northern region of Afghanistan always pioneered in the cultural fields. Even during the 1990s there were some women in the North who wrote fiction. They worked much less but they could still show the situation in the traditional Afghani society  more clearly better reflecting the cruelties women face in their traditional society.

Western countries were another safe place and gathering center for many Afghan women story writers. They also made regular trips to Iran, so their stories were published there as well as at home.  Kabul was another area where some women could exist, and play the occasional role in the field of literature. 

To go back to the émigré literary groups: women started to write stories after men did, and the young people who had emigrated to Iran were more active than the women who wrote fiction inside Afghanistan. Though they may have been new in the field of fiction, however, they knew modern techniques of story writing and their stories could easily find readers among Afghans abroad as well as among the cultural and literary groups inside the country.

Finally, after establishment of the provisional government and the political and social changes in 2002, like in many other fields, literature also came back in our country. The growth of media, specially the internet, led to a more active participation of women in public sphere, especially in the radio, on TV  etc, as well as to the reopening or founding of literary and cultural organizations, literary events, the return of some writers back home, to the establishment of literary prizes etc. These and other factors played an active role in the improvement of women’s fiction writing in Afghanistan. At the same time some Afghan women writers are still abroad, especially in Iran. 

Fiction as an important genre of literature has expanded amongst women in Afghanistan. During the last years, they have paid more attention to minimalism. The writers’ new vision marks differences in their work against that of the last decades.  Their fictional ideas reflect social realities; the stories are presented in meetings of literary associations for more discussions, and are published in the media. At present most writers use the internet for publishing their stories and for publicizing their work. 

In Iran, there are some Afghani women who write stories, but most of them have never been to Afghanistan. Their stories are presented in literary meetings and, after discussions and evaluation of experts, are published in  magazines, in Afghanistan and abroad. Almost all women writers have  internet blogs where they publish their work. These fictions are usually very short, sometimes almost minimalist. Occasionally, their characters are very unfamiliar and thus their faces don’t remain in the readers’ minds. In  most of these stories, the characters don’t have any background.

When we thus consider the current situation of and perspectives for Afghani women’s fiction, the conclusion we will reach is that, when compared to fiction in Western countries or  even in Iran--one of the most important literary regions of the Persian language--the situation has not improved. But if we consider that given the current, positive, improvements in women’s efforts to write fiction, and the interest of women students in doing the same, there is hope that such literature will have a brighter and sunnier future.