Documenting the lives of women in Afghanistan, Forty Names by Afghan poet Parwana Fayyaz is a poignant reminder of lost opportunities, of freedoms given and then taken away, of a new generation living without enlightenment through education.
The collection, the title verse of which won the 2019 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem “focusses on stories and experiences from my childhood” and the ingrained attitude of acceptance that comes with a lack of schooling.
The title itself is reference to one of those very stories, where 40 women throw themselves off a cliff in order to protect their honour, rather than die with dishonour.
As she told Carcanet Press: “I grew up among women who told stories, stories concerning women. As the time passed, the women themselves became the stories. The majority of these women never went to school. They share their philosophy of life down through generations. [They say] “in the face of hardship, be patient, patience is the remedy”.”
Born in 1990, Fayyaz’s education challenges this idea. Now with a PhD in Persian Studies from Cambridge University, how can silence possibly make sense?
“When I left my home and Afghanistan to embark on my journey to become more educated, I began to reflect on the lives of the women I had always admired,” she said. “I began to question my admiration for them. They were suffering and yet they accepted it. To suffer in silence is seen as a token of patience.”
“With more education, patience became more elusive.”
Indeed, the choice now for so many women and girls in Afghanistan, sadly, is only silence and patience, but without the reward the piety is supposed to bring. As the Taliban tightens its stranglehold over the country, it forces out the oxygen required for art and literature to flourish and for women to learn how to express themselves in this sense.
Certainly, more than they previously should have done, everyday people in the west are taking notice of Afghanistan. The stories and images that have shocked so many people are not new, but it quite obviously takes a feeling of personal involvement – Nato troops were caught in a dangerous evacuation process – for people to take notice for long.
Even the process of translation for Fayyaz was important in this regard, “My poetry makes use of the art of translation to enhance the meaning of my story-poems for a Western audience, specifically involving the translation of Persian names into English. In active translation, the Persian names are the sounds and the English translations their echoes.”
Perhaps, to the English-speaking world, the plight of Afghans under the Taliban will remain as far-distant noises that will not reverberate so loudly for long. Forty Names, then, is in its truest sense a reflection of what has been lost for a whole generation of Afghan girls: a reminder that Afghanistan’s brief experience of democracy will never be forgotten.
by Parwana Fayyaz
Zib was young.
Her youth was all she cared for.
These mountains were her cots
the wind her wings, and those pebbles were her friends.
Their clay hut, a hut for all the eight women,
and her Father, a shepherd.
He knew every cave and all possible ponds.
He took her to herd with him,
as the youngest daughter
Zib marched with her father.
She learnt the ways to the caves and the ponds.
Young women gathered there for water, the young
girls with the bright dresses, their green
eyes were the muses.
Behind those mountains
she dug a deep hole,
storing a pile of pebbles.
never grew here before,
but what is this yellow sea up high on the hills?
A line of some blue wildflowers.
In a lane toward the pile of tumbleweeds
all the houses for the cicadas,
all your neighbors.
And the eagle roars in the distance,
have you met them yet?
The sky above, through the opaque skin of
your dust, carries whims from the mountains,
it brings me a story.
The story of forty young bodies.
father opened the door.
There stood the fathers,
the mothers’ faces startled.
All the daughters standing behind them.
In the pit of dark night,
their yellow and turquoise colors
lining the sky.
‘Zibon, my daughter,
take them to the cave.’
She was handed a lantern;
she took the way.
Behind her a herd of colors flowing.
The night was slow,
the sound of their footsteps a solo music of a mystic.
Sediqa, Hakima, Roqia,
Firoza, Lilia, Soghra.
Shah Bakhat, Shah Dokht, Zamaroot,
Naznin, Gul Badan, Fatima, Fariba.
Sharifa, Marifa, Zinab, Fakhria, Shahparak, MahGol,
Latifa, Shukria, Khadija, Taj Begum, Kubra, Yaqoot,
Nadia, Zahra, Shima, Khadija, Farkhunda, Halima, Mahrokh, Nigina,
Maryam, Zarin, Zara, Zari, Zamin,
at last Zibon.
No news. Neither drums nor flutes of
shepherds reached them, they
remained in the cave. Were
Once in every night, an exhausting
tear dropped – heard from someone’s mouth,
a whim. A total silence again.
Zib calmed them.
crawled under her veil,
slowly the last throbs from the mill-house
No throbbing. No pond. No nights.
Silence became an exhausting noise.
Zib led the daughters to the mountains.
The view of the thrashing horses, the brown uniforms
all puzzled them. Imagined
the men snatching their skirts, they feared.
We will all meet in paradise,
with our honored faces
angels will greet us.
A wave of colors dived behind the mountains,
freedom was sought in their veils, their colors
flew with wind. Their bodies freed and slowly hit
the mountains. One by one, they rested. Women
figures covered the other side of the mountains.
Hairs tugged. Heads stilled. Their arms curved
beside their twisted legs.
These mountains became their cots.
The wind their wings, and those pebbles their friends.
Their rocky cave, a cave for all the forty women.
And their fathers and mothers disappeared.
During the wars,
my mother made our clothes
and our toys.
For her three daughters,
she made dresses, and once
she made us each a doll.
Their figures were made with sticks
gathered from our neighbor’s garden.
She rolled white cotton fabric
around the stick frames
to create a skin for each doll.
Then she fattened the skin
with cotton extracted from an old pillow.
With black and red yarns bought from
uncle Farid’s store, my mother created faces.
A unique face for each doll.
Large black eyes, thick eyelashes and eyebrows.
Long black hair, a smudge of black for each nose.
And lips in red.
Our dolls came alive,
with each stitch of my mother’s sewing needle.
We dyed their cheeks with red rose-petals,
and fashioned skirts from bits of fabric,
from my mother’s sewing basket.
And finally, we named our dolls.
Mine with a skirt of royal green was the oldest and tallest,
and I called her Duur. Pearl.
Shabnam chose a skirt of bright yellow
and called her doll, Pari. Angel.
And our youngest sister, Gohar, chose deep blue fabric,
and named her doll, Raang. Color.
They lived longer than our childhoods.
Her Name is Flower Sap
Somewhere – in the no-man’s land,
there are high mountains, and there is a woman.
The mountains are seemingly unreachable.
The woman in her anonymity is untraceable.
The mountains are called the Tora Bora.
The woman is known as Sharbet Gula, Flower Sap.
In her faded-ruby-red Chador, she appeared
a young girl with a frown, with her green eyes.
Not knowing where to look.
When the world looked back at her.
As young kids, refugees of wartime in Pakistan
we were equally intrigued with her photograph.
‘Her eyes have the magic of good and bad.’
‘The light of her eyes can destroy fighter jets.’
So went Afghan children’s conversation
in the aftermath of 9/11. ‘But could she take down
The Taliban jets,’ we wondered,
as the jets crossed the skies in one song.
But Flower Sap could never answer us.
For she had disappeared like our childhood.
As the borders became damper lands,
Afghans like soft worms crawled toward their homeland.
In the in-between mountains,
Flower Sap re-appeared, without any answers.
Now she was a grown-up woman.
A mother of four girls. A widow.
There were some questions in her eyes.
The ones I had seen in my parents’ eyes.
Where do we go next? Now that our country is free.
She still did not have any answers.
And where was the power of her eyes?
I then saw her smiling. As an immigrant, I smiled too.
For her name saved the day.
She was taken to a hospital for her eyes.
The president of the county met her,
and sent her on a pilgrimage.
Her name educated her daughters,
it gave her a house and a reason to return to her homeland.
What else is there in the names and naming?
If not for reparation.
Forty Names was published in July 2021 by Carcanet Press, carcanet.co.uk