Not Lost in Translation: The Honesty of Afghanistan's Nadia Anjuman

Perhaps a product of the human rights spotlight that was placed on the Middle East post 9/11, there are undoubtedly a slew of adjectives that come to mind when one hears the identifier “Afghan woman.” I’m willing to bet that “poet” is not one of them.

Yet poetry--preserved and passed on mainly through an equally rich oral tradition--has a deep and rich history in Afghanistan, particularly among women. The tradition was spearheaded by the ancient Queen Gowhar Shad, a woman who is largely credited with prompting the country’s fifteenth century cultural renaissance.

During the rule of the Taliban, the title of “poet” was one that women were forced to bear secretly, and even this was a very brave move. In the early 2000’s, a young woman by the name of Nadia Anjuman risked public execution in order to continue her writing. She was widely regarded as the foremost up and coming poet in the country and one look at her work explains why. Though a poet’s mastery of his or her native language is often lost in translation, Anjuman’s poems retain a beauty that is
striking in its ease:

The sound of green footsteps is the rain.
They’re coming in from the road, now,
Thirsty souls and dusty skirts brought from the desert,
Their breath burning, mirage-mingled,
Mouths dry and caked with dust.
They’re coming in from the road, now,
Tormented, girls brought up on pain,
Joy departed from their faces,
Hearts old and lined with cracks.
- From “Voiceless Cries,” July/August 2002

Yet even more striking than her language is her subject matter. Anjuman wrote with a level of honesty and directness that was unheard of among her ancient predecessors--with a level of youthful fearlessness that is breathtaking, and perhaps could only come from a generation that had experienced globalization and rapid technological progress. With what can only be imagined as an extremely slight taste of freedom, Anjuman’s voice emerged as a strong indictment of her society’s oppression. With all of this in mind, her strength of conviction is truly awe-inspiring. Her first collection, “Dark Flower,” was reprinted three times and sold over 3,000 copies.

Many would argue that this conviction is what led to her death. In 2005, Anjuman died of injuries sustained to the head after a late-night fight with her husband.

Though there are many things to admire about Nadia’s work, what I find most compelling and promising is its bravery and its honesty. She was not afraid to speak about the injustices that the women of her country faced. Even more compelling than this was the pure and unedited emotional response these injustices provoked in her. This is where I think the potential of Nadia’s work to create change ultimately lies.

There are many, many things that become lost during times of war; it was only during a relative time of peace that Nadia felt safe enough to release her work into the outside world. I wonder: how many other voices, as clear and beautiful and promising as this one, are being stifled every day?

To learn more about Nadia and the poetry tradition in Afghanistan, pick up a copy of Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women and see the essay by Zuzanna Olszewska entitled “A Hidden Discourse.” Or better yet, attend IMOW’s event on July 27th that is centered around this collection of essays and which will feature editor Ashraf Zahedi and contributor Amina Kator. More information about that event can be found here.

Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women Ed. Ashraf Zahedi and Jennifer Heath [UC Press]
The Defiant Poet's Society [The Sunday Times Online]