Restoring Afghan Memory: An Interview with Zohra Saed

Zohra Saed

Zohra Saed is a Brooklyn-based Afghan American poet and co-editor of the forthcoming literary anthology Drop by Drop We Make a River: A Collection of Afghan Writings from 1978-2001. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Literature at the City University of New York Graduate Center and teaches Arab American literature at Hunter College. Her poems have been published in the online Afghan magazine Lemar-Aftaab among other publications.

Asia Society spoke with the poet in conjunction with a December 11 panel discussion entitled “Afghanistan Between Three Worlds: The Journalist's Role” at the Asia Society and Museum.


Tell me a little bit about your upcoming book Drop By Drop We Make a River: A Collection of Afghan Writings from 1978-2001. What is included in this book and when does it come out?

We are still in the process of looking for a publisher. For the past year, we have been collecting material. My co-editors are S. Wali Ahmadi and Farhad Azad. The title is from an Afghan proverb that resonated with us because after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Afghans were scattered across the world. In our various ways, Wali, Farhad and I had been collecting the voices of Afghan writers through our grassroots publications: Wali through Critique & Vision Afghan Journal, Farhad through his webmagazine Lemar-Aftaab, and I through my job as managing editor of Afghan Communicator magazine.

We put our heads together and contacted writers whom we knew and sent out a call for submissions, which reached an international audience through e-mail. We had a few people interested in submitting from the refugee camps, but they were hesitant because paper and postage cost so much. Not many writers had access to the internet and we needed a reliable person to go through the camps to solicit writings from those who did not have access to e-mail or to materials to send us their work. Since we couldn't locate a reliable contact there last year, we hadn't received much directly from the camps which reflected the refugee experience. We did receive writings about experiences in the refugee camps of Pakistan from writers who had rebuilt their lives in the United States or in European countries. Reaching directly into the camps is a long-term project that may require its own space and analysis.

Basically the collection is divided according to the historic periods of crisis in Afghanistan and in the lives of Afghans. We have a few selections of pre-war Afghan life to give a very necessary slice of Afghanistan before the devastation of wars. Then we have writings during the Soviet invasion and the flight from Afghanistan to neighboring countries. We have writings about life inside the refugee camps. Then we have writings about Afghans assimilating into their adopted lands. Our final chapter is devoted to the experiences of Afghans around the world after September 11.

We have found that many Afghan exiles write from a child's voice and preserve their last memories of Afghanistan because it is usually their most valued concrete link to the country. We plan to include more oral histories as well in order to capture the lives of those who cannot read and write in English. This way we hope to create an intergenerational conversation among Afghans in the diaspora.

Given the political situation in Afghanistan over the past twenty years, what types of literature, if any, are coming out of the country? How do you think this will change now that the Taliban are not in power?

Most of the literature is by Afghan exiles simply because they can afford time to write their ideas, have a press which will publish their work, and have the resources for such luxuries as paper and pen or a computer. CNN conducted an interview with newspaper publishers in Kabul and their main problem was the damage done to their press during the war, the lack of ink and the lack of paper. These are necessities that weren't available in Afghanistan during the past five years and what was available was used for Taliban propaganda. Libraries were burnt down by the Taliban, so even reading material was destroyed. Also, hunger and poverty are two great deterrents to writing or any intellectual work. Surviving war has damaged the psychological well-being of writers and intellectuals. In the struggle to survive, they aren't able to compose poems or stories about their situation. Also the regime was so oppressive that there was no room for creativity under the Taliban, so Afghan literature in recent years is mainly a diaspora literature.

Obviously, [living under the Taliban] has been a deep trauma that will be documented and written about in order to aid the process of healing. Perhaps more women will be writing and we can hear their lives in their words. But this can't be done until there is stability in the region and there is democracy to allow self-expression. In this same CNN interview about Afghanistan's newspapers, an Afghan journalist said that for the past five years he had been documenting with his eyes and now he would be able to write it down and express all that he had seen. Afghanistan's literature will undoubtedly be deeply imprinted by the war and the various layers of oppressive regimes that have trampled the Afghan people and Afghan culture.

You mentioned that the Afghan diaspora in the US and elsewhere has played a crucial role in forming an Afghan literary identity. How has the experience of living in the diaspora influenced Afghan literature?

[The diaspora] is where literary and cultural productivity has been most active because we have the luxury to write. Afghan diaspora writers feel a strong attachment to Afghanistan, so much so that even Afghan American writing is more inclined towards Afghanistan than it is to dealing with immigrant issues. We have watched not only the destruction of the civil infrastructure of Afghanistan but the looting of our museums, burning of our libraries and the annihilation of our Buddhas. We have seen several layers of extremism attempt to wipe out not only Afghan people but Afghan culture so that it would seem as if Afghan culture never existed or perhaps that Afghan culture would become extinct to make room for new regimes and ideals. So Afghan artists are more inclined towards preservation and recreation. While redefinition is a major part of our creativity as well, the call to preserve, to record, to reconstruct is a very strong inclination in Afghan artists and writers. Memory is precious for Afghans.

Before September 11, most Americans had never even considered the existence of an Afghan-American community. Unfortunately, hate crimes have made the community more visible. How do you think the community has responded to this new visibility?

The American Afghan community has been deeply affected by the September 11 tragedy. As a community of refugees, we came to America to escape this kind of violence and fear. Certainly Afghans became targets for violence. When I visited the community in Queens, the streets were empty of veiled women and I saw a young mother hush her children for speaking Dari, choosing instead to speak English with them in [public]. For the first time, mainstream American people became aware of Afghans and Afghan Americans. Several Afghan websites were targeted with hateful threats and some even shut down from fear.

I heard that some people were attacked for being Afghan. In an elementary school, a little Arab boy was beaten up for being misrecognized as "Afghan." Usually, it is the other way around for us Afghans. We have remained relatively invisible and that anonymity has not always been a negative thing, particularly for our parents, who came as refugees and who were more interested in blending in than standing out. This was different from the attitude of the children of refugees who wanted to identify with an ethnic group, but weren't entirely sure of where to fit in: Asian, Middle Eastern, South Asian, Central Asian...? This lack of recognition as an American immigrant group frustrated youth who wanted to build coalitions with other organizations, simply because we were so small in number and were so scattered across the States.

The tragedy has made the Afghan community more inclined to prove that they are American as well and to assert that Afghans have been trying to tell the world that they were infested by foreign radicals. This crisis made Afghan Americans step up and try to educate average Americans about themselves. More and more interfaith and interethnic community gatherings were held. This need to educate people made Afghan Americans take on more visible roles and this helped us locate each other. There was greater interest among Afghan Americans to build coalitions for self-protection and to strengthen our voices as relatively new Americans.

Americans have also put a lot of effort to reach out to Afghan American communities. New York City is a very unique city and a very wounded city. I think being so close to the human tragedy made more New Yorkers reach out to the Muslim-American and Afghan-American community. I have heard of more bias crimes outside of New York than within it.

All new immigrant communities are tested during times of crisis. This war in Afghanistan has been that moment of crisis for Afghan Americans to come out and join mainstream America. More Afghan Americans than I ever imagined were coming out to build a bridge between Afghanistan and America. This was a very important time for us and for other Americans as well.

How old were you when you left Afghanistan? How does this short time in Afghanistan inform your work?

I was born in 1975 in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. We left at the end of 1976 because my parents wanted to travel to the Middle East. We were in Saudi Arabia when the Communist coup happened in 1978, so we were trapped outside the country. Because of this, we weren't legally considered refugees when we came to the U.S. We had to argue that we were refugees because Saudi Arabia didn't want us, either. I have no memories of Afghanistan. I am a sort of memory-parasite. I feed off of my parents’ and my family's memories. [My family] is made up of fabulous storytellers who implanted Afghanistan deep inside my navel and have given me the power to write Afghanistan as if I had actually lived there.

Has your time in Brooklyn been equally formative? Reading some of your work, you evoke very poignant imagery from each place, be it the lime orchard in Afghanistan or the fruit stalls in Brooklyn.

During my second year in the MFA program in poetry at Brooklyn College, a critic of my poetry said two things to me which could have discouraged me from writing, but [wound up having the opposite effect]. He asked me who would read my work if I was writing about Afghanistan all the time and followed that statement up by recommending that I make my work accessible to the average American poetry consumer.... To counter that statement, I began writing a lot more about Brooklyn and in this way reclaimed the streets of Brooklyn that I grew up in. Rather than follow in the footsteps of immigrant writers who feel alienated in their adopted countries, I wrote about owning Brooklyn, transforming pieces of Brooklyn so that it was no longer a generic Brooklyn. The way we claimed our streets was through our language and through our play. I never felt bullied by Brooklyn or New York; we owned [the city] as much as anyone else did. So I feel as much a Brooklyn poet as I do an Afghan poet. These two places are who I am so intertwining them is very natural for me.

What are your hopes for the future of Afghanistan?

I pray for peace, stability and democracy to return to Afghanistan. I know that I can't expect Afghanistan to return to the memories of our parents, which seems like a more enlightened Afghanistan than the war-weary Afghanistan of [my generation], but I do wish for a possibility to reconstruct and begin the healing process in Afghanistan

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell, Asia Soceity.