by Eliza Griswold
The New York Times
In a private house in a quiet university neighborhood of Kabul, Ogai Amail waited for the phone to ring. Through a plate-glass window, she watched the sinking sun turn the courtyard the color of eggplant. The electricity wasn’t working and the room was unheated, a few floor cushions the only furnishings. Amail tucked her bare feet underneath her and pulled up the collar of her puffy black coat. Her dark hair was tied in a ponytail, and her eyelids were coated in metallic blue powder. In the green glare of the mobile phone’s screen, her face looked wan and worried. When the phone finally bleeped, Amail shrieked with joy and put on the speakerphone. A teenage girl’s voice tumbled into the room. “I’m freezing,” the girl said. Her voice was husky with cold. To make this call, she’d sneaked out of her father’s mud house without her coat.
Like many of the rural members of Mirman Baheer, a women’s literary society based in Kabul, the girl calls whenever she can, typically in secret. She reads her poems aloud to Amail, who transcribes them line by line. To conceal her poetry writing from her family, the girl relies on a pen name, Meena Muska. (Meena means “love” in the Pashto language; muska means “smile.”)
Meena lost her fiancé last year, when a land mine exploded. According to Pashtun tradition, she must marry one of his brothers, which she doesn’t want to do. She doesn’t dare protest directly, but reciting poetry to Amail allows her to speak out against her lot. When I asked how old she was, Meena responded in a proverb: “I am like a tulip in the desert. I die before I open, and the waves of desert breeze blow my petals away.” She wasn’t sure of her age but thought she was 17. “Because I am a girl, no one knows my birthday,” she said.
Meena lives in Gereshk, a town of 50,000 people in Helmand, the largest of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Helmand has struggled with the double burden of being one of the world’s largest opium producers and an insurgent stronghold. Meena’s father pulled her out of school four years ago after gunmen kidnapped one of her classmates. Now she stays home, cooks, cleans and teaches herself to write poetry in secret. Poems are the only form of education to which she has access. She doesn’t meet outsiders face to face.
“I can’t say any poems in front of my brothers,” she said. Love poems would be seen by them as proof of an illicit relationship, for which Meena could be beaten or even killed. “I wish I had the opportunities that girls do in Kabul,” she went on. “I want to write about what’s wrong in my country.” Meena gulped. She was trying not to cry. On the other end of the line, Amail, who is prone to both compassion and drama, began to weep with her. Tears mixed with kohl dripped onto the page of the spiral notebook in which Amail was writing down Meena’s verses. Meena recited a Pashtun folk poem called a landai:
“My pains grow as my life dwindles,
I will die with a heart full of hope.”
“I am the new Rahila,” she said. “Record my voice, so that when I get killed at least you’ll have something of me.”
Amail grimaced, uncertain how to respond. “Don’t call yourself that,” she snapped. “Do you want to die, too?”
Rahila was the name used by a young poet, Zarmina, who committed suicide two years ago. Zarmina was reading her love poems over the phone when her sister-in-law caught her. “How many lovers do you have?” she teased. Zarmina’s family assumed there was a boy on the other end of the line. As a punishment, her brothers beat her and ripped up her notebooks, Amail said. Two weeks later, Zarmina set herself on fire.
Like Meena, Zarmina lived in Gereshk, a little less than 400 miles from Kabul. She, too, wasn’t allowed to leave her home. She first found the literary group by listening to the radio, her only link to the outside world. One day, on Radio Azadi — Radio Liberty — she heard a Mirman Baheer member reading poems. With no way to contact the group, she phoned another radio program, “Lost Love,” a popular show that mostly connects refugees to family members or friends they haven’t seen in decades. Zarmina asked for help in finding Mirman Baheer. One of the station’s employees was a member. “Oh, so you thought we were lost, too!” she told the aspiring poet, before sharing the phone number.
Zarmina soon became a regular caller. Whenever she could, she phoned into Mirman Baheer’s Saturday-afternoon meetings at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul. Zarmina would ask Amail if she could read her poems aloud to the group. But the Kabul meetings were crowded with eager poets, vying to be heard. Amail often had to tell Zarmina to wait her turn. “I’d say, ‘No, I’ll call you,’ but she’d call back within a few minutes.”
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