Literature in Afghanistan: A Dream Gone to Ruins

September 7, 2022   •   By Homeira Qaderi

Translated by Zaman Stanizai

I WAS DETERMINED to publish a collection of 11 short stories I had written in Kabul between 2019 and 2021. In these stories, I evoke a new generation of powerful women who gave themselves the right to choose. The kind of women who can challenge the family tradition by falling in love and then marrying the men they like. Women who argue with their families about pursuing university education and who are determined to win. Women who don’t accept the oppressive demands of their in-laws and are not afraid of getting divorced. Women who know how to be as assertive as men. In my stories, women help each other win instead of being enslaved by the patriarchal order.

Although I wasn’t sure whether even my own mother liked the women in my stories, I created them and I wanted to send them as messengers all over Afghanistan to help women who are at a crossroads. I didn’t have any messenger in my own time. Fearing the wrath of society, I swallowed my pain many times.

I must say I was a little scared — worrying whether a segment of my society would stone me because I represented a Western model. Tradition in Afghanistan defines liberal women as Westernized. The desired woman in the Afghan tradition is a woman who is silent and content — a woman who is able to live in the same house with her husband’s other three wives. These women have the right to crumble and collapse in a loveless relationship, but their crumbling shouldn’t be clamorous. A woman behaving otherwise must have arrived from beyond the border. Anyone who introduces such a role model is the enemy of the Afghan male. One can only imagine how they treat their enemies.

On the morning of August 15, 2021, in Kabul, I fell apart along with all the women in my stories. We had been abandoned, and the Taliban had returned, armed with vengeance. For both the East and the West, women’s rights have become expedient ways to score political points. The United States invaded Afghanistan claiming friendship, but in the end, it was Comrade Talib who returned to power.

For me, the demise of the Afghan regime began in Speen Boldak, culminated in the power shift in Herat, and ended with the fall of Kabul. During this period, my last place of refuge and home base was Kabul.

On August 15, I stood in the alley in front of my house for hours to see the year 1996 unfold before my eyes once again. That was the most dreadful event in the history of my country, and I didn’t want to miss even a second of it. In the early hours, 11 women were trembling in me and with me! They weren’t afraid; rather, they were raging with anger and strife. Those resolutely unwavering women were strong enough not to be afraid of the Taliban because they each had fought some Talib in their lives in their own unique ways. I sought solace in the fact that these women had overcome the burning rage within them. It was hard to believe that Kabul had surrendered to the Taliban whose white banners were stained with blood — their own and that of others. But was that going to be the end of us Afghan storytellers?

In the last 20 years, culture and art, especially fiction-writing and poetry, despite having a very small budget, had reemerged and gained the rising interest of the younger generation. The new generation read stories and poems by male and female writers who had survived the endless strife of the earlier war years. They also wrote stories and poems. Every town and even some villages had poetry and storytelling sessions. Gatherings to critique written work were held in Kabul and other cities. Poets and writers traveled from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul and from Kabul to Herat and Kandahar.

In a Bamiyan school in central Afghanistan, I saw sixth-grade girls arguing with high-school girls demanding that they be allowed to participate in Thursday special sessions dedicated to storytelling and poetry. These weekly meetings were common in large city schools and even in some small towns.

I attended a book-launching ceremony in Pagah School in Kabul for a storybook collaboration by that school’s boys and girls. The students were all under the age of 18; the school principal had collected their stories. At the unveiling, the boys and girls whose stories were included said that one day they would like to see storybooks published under their own names.

Book publishing in Afghanistan has never been comparable to neighboring countries, but there were domestic presses that invested in the publication of poetry and stories by young writers. Editors waited impatiently for this generation to become better writers after years of practice. And maybe book publishing will become a profitable sector of the Afghan economy someday — Afghan publishers have always participated in the Iranian book fairs and their booths had plenty of visitors.

As I think nostalgically about those days, everything seems like a dream gone to ruins. It’s hard to believe that Afghanistan, with all that enthusiasm and energy, was on the same planet as it is today. It’s hard to believe 12 months later that Afghanistan is so far from that reality. What has been wrought upon poetry and fiction writing in Afghanistan?

On August 16, an unplanned evacuation from Kabul began. The Taliban record of atrocities, of killings in maternity wards and university campuses, had instilled so much fear in the hearts of people that they wanted to leave the country so badly they risked hanging from airplanes. The heartbreaking images of bodies falling have been etched in the memories of people around the world.

Each of those 13 days of evacuation was like a hell on earth. No one knew what would happen to Kabul after the evacuation. In those 13 days, I didn’t even add a single sentence to my collection. Like everyone else, I was stranded in the purgatory and didn’t think about writing stories or poetry anymore. 

I should have been thinking of saving myself. After all, Afghanistan had been surrendered to the Taliban, who had large quantities of US-made weapons at their disposal. It was ridiculous to even think that writers and poets could have fought, with their pens, against all these heavily armed soldiers. The roar of gunfire has always silenced the pens of resistance. Expecting the obvious outcome, we could see that resisting was a childish joke.

But what alternative is there for writers and poets in Afghanistan except to write? Should they hunker down and be silent, like a brick in a wall? I couldn’t stay silent. From those early days, I went to the TV studios, in spite of the many warnings from friends who said that I had better zip my lips because the Taliban would not tolerate my outspokenness even for a moment because I am a woman and a free-spirited writer. My recently published memoir Dancing in the Mosque (2020), reflecting on the first Taliban reign of power, was yet another reason why I should have kept quiet.

As a writer, I had every reason to speak up. As a woman, I knew that, by keeping quiet, I would have imprisoned not only myself but also those 11 other women who helped me in the cultural transition. I had no choice but to leave Afghanistan.

On the evening of August 28, I was evacuated on the very last military flight out of Kabul. As the plane soared into the sky, I shrank smaller and smaller until I seemed to disappear altogether.

Now, far from my home in Kabul, I wonder about the most tragedy-stricken city in the world. I keep in touch on a daily basis with friends who stayed behind. My wristwatch is still set to Afghan Standard Time. In the past 12 months, hope in Afghanistan has all but disappeared — along with any semblance of life. Death from starvation has now been added to the other miseries of Afghanistan. But what is most shocking to me is the closing of the cultural umbrella that had sheltered people’s stories and poetry.

Storytelling and story-writing sessions have ceased to exist. Bookstores in Kabul have no customers. Obviously, poverty and food scarcity are major factors behind the collapse of the book market. There is, however, another factor to consider.

In 1996, when the Taliban first took over Afghanistan, I lived in Herat. Honestly, I didn’t know much about the state of mind of girls my age in other Afghan cities. There was no internet or reliable phone system in Herat. I couldn’t see beyond the four walls of my house. But I knew about some girls in Herat who had set themselves on fire. Three girls from a circle of my four friends self-immolated. One of them was Lida, a cheerful, good-natured girl who was also a poet.

What drove Lida to set herself aflame was a state of utter despair. Lida and I attended the weekly poetry and storytelling sessions of Mehri Herawi High School. We read books together and wrote poems and stories for each other. We were full of life, and we were going to publish our own books someday. But suddenly we were confined to our homes under Taliban rules that made it impossible for us to see each other. If we were to visit, we had to pass through the narrow alleys of Herat, where unaccompanied women and young girls would often be subjected to whippings. Suddenly our bright future was no more.

On top of the fact that books had become scarce, there was no one to encourage us to read. The Taliban wielded power with such confidence, as if they were going to stay at the helm for millions of years. There were no prospects on the horizon. Barricades went up for women in every area of society. We and our mothers were weak because we had barely emerged from the horrors of the civil war.

The world didn’t seem to care about us, about Afghan women. Books on feminism and gender equality did not reach my homeland. I always wondered whether anyone even bothered to write about us at all. We had no means to communicate with the outside world, but didn’t the world community have any interest in learning about us? How could a world that had bombarded us with slogans of equality remain silent for five years about the closed schools for Afghan girls? The world community’s recurring indifference has led me to believe that Eastern and Western politicians are all a bunch of lying demagogues full of empty slogans.

After her self-immolation, Lida was transferred to a hospital in Mashhad, Iran, for treatment. At the hospital, she saw women nurses without burqas — women who were cheerful and could laugh out loud. Fighting for her life, Lida asked her mother to bring her poetry notebooks to Mashhad so she could publish her poems after her recovery. Lida died five days later in the same hospital in Mashhad.

I remember those years between 1996 and 2001 very well. I also know that, although we didn’t have a concept of depression in those days, the entire population of Herat must have been mired in depression without knowing it.

In the first 10 days after the fall of Kabul in 2021, I saw a people in shock, fearful and traumatized. In the two decades prior, any political discourse about the Taliban was inevitably tied to suicide attacks. Now the Taliban had come to end the war, but at the price of taking away all the human rights of men and women — even the right to an education, which is sanctioned by Islam. People knew this. My generation remembered and the new generation had heard it from us.

Those 13 days have defined the reality of these past 12 months. I have been observing the Afghan literary world from afar. Something has gone horribly awry. Every day on social media I see the photos of some poet or writer from some remote corner of Afghanistan. None of these faces has the bright smile of our homeland on their lips.

Most of Kabul’s writers and poets were evacuated within the first 13 days. Many more left Afghanistan in the days following the evacuation. In these 13 months, I have only seen the unveiling of two books. This, in and of itself, is very significant. Weekly book-reading sessions have disappeared. However, girls in Herat and Kabul are still trying to maintain these literary traditions. Since no new books are being unveiled, there are few book reviews and even less critical analysis. Publishers of fiction and poetry are on the verge of bankruptcy. Books no longer come to Afghanistan from Iran. Gender segregation in parks, universities, and meeting halls has dampened the spirit of those who have been left behind.

Ten months earlier, Afghans who were fond of literary work could occasionally buy books. The same literati have now auctioned off their books on Facebook to earn the price of a meal. Literary and academic institutions auction their books in the bazaars — books that don’t even sell for the price of a loaf of stale bread. People prefer to keep their meager earnings for that precious loaf.

Under these circumstances, the intensity of the Taliban’s confrontational behavior, the prevailing depression in society, the dominant gender-specific perspective on employment, and the despair of the chaotic situation have all disheartened the literati.

Those who have left are struggling with the unpredictability of their migration status, while those who were left behind are trying to find a way to leave the country. Could anything more tragic than this befall those writers — a dispersion that may never come together again? What are the prospects for the survival and sustainment of the literature that had come to life over the past 20 years? What are our poets and writers in diaspora supposed to do in the unknown world of foreign languages and foreign cultures? Has the discourse of literary fiction and poetry in Afghanistan been lost altogether? Who will be the torchbearer that leads our literary traditions from this path of despair?

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the lingering aftermath of the war, a large number of people emigrated: novelists and poets of the early 1970s and ’80s were forced to leave the country. The brain drain of that era was as severe as the dispersion currently underway. Everyone went to some unknown corner of the world. The earth just swallowed these war-weary writers; the scribbles of their pens dried up and vanished in the dust of tyranny. Those who stayed in Kabul either were killed or just gave up writing. Afghanistan’s fledgling literary world was destroyed by the Soviet invasion and its aftermath.

Is history going to repeat itself with the same cruelty — or worse? What are our exhausted and demoralized fiction writers and poets doing now in Afghanistan or abroad? The question that bothers me the most is whether the world, which has consigned the politics of Afghanistan to oblivion, will also turn a deaf ear to the desperate call of our literary world. What is the responsibility of Afghan poets and writers under these circumstances? Are we going to remain the narrators of our unspoken chronicles? This question can be answered only by writers inside — and outside — Afghanistan, but only after they recover from the shock of this disgraceful surrender.


Homeira Qaderi is an Afghan writer, activist, and educator. She has written seven books, including a collection of short stories and an acclaimed novel, Noqra: The Daughter of Kabul River (Rozgar Publishers, 2009). Her first book in English translation, Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son (Harper, 2020), was excerpted by The New York Times and chosen by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best nonfiction books of 2020. Before leaving Afghanistan in August 2021, Qaderi taught at Gharjistan University in Kabul.


Essay translated by Zaman Stanizai.

Featured image: Taliban Humvee in Kabul, August 2021 by Voice of America News.