Do Not Forget the Writers of Afghanistan

Afghan Writers, Parwana Fayyez and Wahida Khorsand, celebrate the 100th anniversary of PEN and Human Rights Day in a warm-hearted online poetry event organised by Jeni Williams of Wales PEN Cymru.

The theme of World Human Rights Day 2021 is Equality – a theme that couldn’t be more important as we watch in horror as rights and freedoms that we once took for granted are being crushed in country after country. The deliberate crushing of women, religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan is among the most glaring of all contraventions of Human Rights. Afghan writers, intellectuals and Human Rights activists are under continuous threat.

It is very timely therefore that, on the 100th birthday of the international organisation Poets Essayists and Novelists – known as PEN, Afghan writers got together online on 14th December to share poetry about their experiences evening.

PEN was established to support freedom of expression and communication: because writers dream of difference they are always the targets of such repressions. Wales PEN Cymru (the Welsh branch of PEN international) organised an online event to reach across borders and remember the writers of Afghanistan for Human Rights Day 2021.  

The event was introduced by Dr Jeni Williams, the organiser who spoke eloquently about the link between human rights and PEN:

“PEN one of the very first Human Rights organisations and it seeks not only to foster compassionate links between individuals and to share their work to cross boundaries but, more than that, it is about the ability to support each other against persecution. Human Rights are always those of writers because writers are always subject to persecution, because they dream of difference. Anything that is different is loathed by autocrats.”

Dr Jeni Williams

Jeni then introduced Parwana Fayyez, an Afghan poet, whose brilliant and moving collection of poems Forty Names was published by Carcanet Poetry in 2021. A powerful set of poems, that tell the stories of her family’s multiple displacements across the world. They recount what they lost and what was found. They tell of what the family brought with them to various places and what they left behind. They convey a sense of interconnectedness between people, places and memories. Parwana read several poems at the event with great warmth and emotion and took us on a journey through her past memories and present-day thoughts as she alluded to her life’s journey:

“As for someone who has travelled around the world, starting in Afghanistan, moving to Quetta, Pakistan, back to Afghanistan, onwards to Bangladesh, then to the US and finally to Cambridge, UK, I haven’t yet managed to reach Wales yet but now I am determined to do so. Being here and reading and sharing my poetry with all of you such an honour. My first collection called 40 names was inspired by the title of a poem in the collection. It captures the sacrifices women have to make when they take their own decision to do something, and then how those decisions end up sometimes being forgotten. My poems are stories. They are what we have left as memories from childhood. I was lucky enough to study Creative Writing at Stanford University in California and to make sense of these memories and stories and to be able to write them as poetry. So, it’s a pleasure to be reading for you.”

Parwana Fayyez

Sewing Needles, by Parwana Fayyez

When the war started, my father took my mother on a journey,

a journey unwanted by either of them –

away from home and far from their city

Into exile, next to our little feet and hands,

my mother carried her box of sewing needles,

and her Butterfly sewing machine made in the USSR

Moving between rented rooms, fabric became a land familiar to her.

Opening her box and resting her sewing machine on the floor,

she made dresses of different colours and textures.

Kabul gave her velvet, in all colors –

She chose the colors of liver and ocean

            burgundy and royal blue.

Pakistan gave her satin, in yellow an orange,

she preferred something


India gave her cotton, in thick and thin

she selected something

            in between.

One year, she learned to spin coarse wool.

And with the money she earned,

            she bought silk.

She waited. I waited.

Until the hard skin on the tips of her fingers softened,

before she touched the silk

She then made dresses for her three daughters

Parwana, Shabnam and Gohar, in colors

            pistachio, red-rose and sea green

Every stitch of her needle gave life.

to elegant styles of youth and an Afghan

            mother’s pride, even in exile.

To watch a video of Parwana reciting ‘Sewing Needles’ and two other poems during the event, click here.

Wahida Khorsand, a Human Rights activist and wonderful community organiser who worked alongside Jeni Williams on the Asylum-Seekers Womens Group, then read one of her poems – about the meaning of home.

Being at Home, by Wahida Khorsand

When I was a child my mother made our home warm and loving.

When I came home from school along the street

the smell of my mother’s cooking met me outside

We had a wonderful house.

My father had a carpet business

and there were carpets everywhere.

We had carpets on the walls,

we had carpets in the hallway,

and carpets through the house.

We had carpets layered across one another on the floor,

we had carpets on a mattress,

even the pillows were covered in carpet.

There were too many for me then

but I look back and I see they were beautiful.

They were very fine carpets,

mainly red with small neat patterns,

and some with tiny flowers, birds and animals.

When I was 3 or 4, very young, my second sister married.

Her husband was very kind and caring

Like an older brother.

My sister and her husband had a home in a valley outside Kabul.

In the summer they lived there, and wintered in Kabul.

My best childhood memories are of going to stay with them.

I remember their garden was full of fruit –

apples, pears, cherries, grapes, and strawberries and so on.

There was a river with a small waterfall which ran through the garden

where I swam.

My mother never said no to me and I had no sense of danger.

I loved to swim and climb trees.

I would come in from the garden with my clothes torn and dirty

And my mother would wash them and repair them.

I was so close to my mother.

I was the youngest

When we went to Pakistan I was the only daughter who went with her

Along with my two brothers.

My father loved his work.

We had a good life and good houses.

He earned enough for his two families and two homes.

But then war came and fighting started.

One family was sent to Pakistan, and it was ours.

My brothers were older and they could work.

My father rented a shop there

To carry on his carpet business

And my uncle helped because they were still young.

I was 8 when we moved to Pakistan.

I was 16 when I got married and we went back to Kabul.

We lived there happily until my oldest son was 8

And then we had to come here.

My life has been divided into eights.

8 is a magic number in my life

My three boys were lovely

……My youngest was cute

……His face full of smiles

……Everyone loved him

……My middle boy was chatty.

……He loved singing

……And he talked to everyone.

……My eldest was older than his years.

……Responsible, kind and caring.

9 years ago my daughter was born

I was lonely, lost, without my own family,

The only thing that made me happy was my daughter.

She made me feel at home.

Last night we watched videos of when they were young.

The boys laughed so much.

They loved to see themselves so small

and my daughter loved seeing herself as a baby,

seeing her big brothers looking after her and loving her.

The videos caught the good times –

birthdays, Eid celebrations –

my sister coming on holidays,

going to the beach with friends.

Thanks to Parwana and Wahida for permission to reproduce their poems and to Jeni for organising the event.

Marie Gillespie

16 December 2021


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