My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird came about through the efforts of Untold Narratives, a UK-based organization which works to develop and amplify the work of writers marginalized by social, geopolitical or economic isolation, particularly those in areas with recent or ongoing conflict. In 2019 and early 2021, Untold put out open calls across Afghanistan, asking women to submit short stories in either of the country’s two languages, Dari and Pashto.
Writers responded from both metropolitan and rural areas. Subsequently, Untold’s editors and translators worked collaboratively with writers, to develop their craft, connect them to one another, and share their stories with readers in their own languages. This work was interrupted last August, when the Taliban swept back to power. Notwithstanding that disaster, 18 women’s stories are now able to reach new global audiences in English translation.
The short story form was well chosen. As Untold’s director, Lucy Hannah, writes in her afterword:
Short stories lend themselves to fractured, pressured environments. It makes sense that a form which contains complexity, beauty and truth in so few words, on such small canvasses, feels easier to produce than something longer. Writing at length requires peace of mind, space, concentration…
All the stories read fluently in English. When the occasional term is left untranslated, it always adds interest to the English text, something illustrated by the term siah sar in “D is for Daud” by Anahita Gharib Nawaz, translated from Dari by Zubair Popalzai. A teacher whose sympathy for a girl abused by a man called Daud leads him to sacrifice himself to save her brother, one of his pupils, from imprisonment. He sees the abused girl, whose “head is hanging down as if she has been deprived of the right to raise it.” He comments:
When I see her, I understand why women are called siah sar. She represents the true sense of the word: one who is destined for darkness.
For those reading in English, the original phrase offers a glimpse of a new and disturbing way of thinking about women.
The anthology’s title is explained in the epigraph: “My pen is the wing of a bird; it will tell you those thoughts we are not allowed to think, those dreams we are not allowed to dream.” This was written by Batool Haidari, who contributed two stories, both originally in Dari. “I Don’t Have the Flying Wings” was translated by Parwana Fayyaz, who also co-translated, with Zubair Popalzai, “Kurshid Khanum, Rise and Shine”.
Oppression in both the private and the public spheres is a recurring theme in the anthology. “I Don’t Have the Flying Wings” concerns the difficulties faced by a male youth who wants to be known and admired for who he is, and who he would like to be, but whose father—and family, and wider society—cannot accept that he does not conform to gender norms.
Families fractured by Afghanistan’s recent history is another recurring theme. “Kurshid Khanum, Rise and Shine” features a father captured in fighting six years previously, but now probably about to be reunited with his daughter, who has steadfastly clung to the belief she may see him again, though the rest of her family is convinced he’s dead.
The reader is often confronted with the harrowing aftermath of explosions or shootings. “Blossom”, translated from Dari by Negreen Kargar, was written in honor of Afghan schoolgirls, in particular, the students of Sayed ul-Shuhada high school in Kabul, which was bombed in 2021. The writer is currently living in a refugee camp, and chose not to be named, but her voice, like those of her characters, who protest on the streets for books and teachers, demands to be heard; her voice, like theirs is filled with “the dust of life’s troubles”.
“Blossom” closes defiantly, with a girl returning to school. Many of the stories touch on the courage required for daily activities—not only the courage required by girls in demanding an education, but also that of their teachers, and of workers in other fields, in going to their workplaces. The Late Shift, translated from Pashto by Zarghuna Kargar, is by another writer who cannot give her name, as she still lives in Afghanistan. It explores the bravery of a woman TV journalist who continues to deliver the news, though rockets are falling all around the newsroom.
Though the stories are often challenging, the writers grant their characters moments of connection, and grace. Marie Bamyani was evacuated to Germany after the events of last August. Her story, “The Black Crow of Winter”, translated from Dari by Popalazi, features an act of kindness from a male bus conductor, who lets a woman unable to afford the fare ride for free. Bamyani is a vivid writer. Workmen warm their hands around flames “as though they are shielding rubies”. As the female protagonist walks home
The hands of the clock are running faster than she is walking. It feels as if time itself is fed up with her – her thoughts, her complaints and the stench of her sweat.
The woman takes a rest and
envies the potted flowers and grass planted in the middle of the road, lying quiet amid all the noise.
“The Red Boots”, by Naeema Ghani, translated from Pashto by Shekiba Habib and Zarghuna Kargar, approaches the cheerful. It celebrates the pleasure a girl takes in a beautiful pair of red boots, which her father buys her, second hand. They don’t fit, but they make her feel special, and she wears them with delight all winter—the bitter cold of Afghan winters, and the problems of acquiring suitable footwear at any time of year, are mentioned in many stories.
“Ajah” by Fatema Khavari, another of Popalzai’s translations from Dari, explicitly celebrates female cooperation and determination. Ajah, the protagonist, brings a group of women together to dig ditches to save their village from flooding. When the men of the village express their amazement at this female achievement, Ajah responds, “And why not?” She continues, with a quiet challenge in her voice:
They till the land; they raise your children. They lift buckets of water from the well every day. How difficult is digging a tiny channel when we women come together?