As the Taliban stormed into the major cities of Afghanistan to gain back political control after the withdrawal of the US, citizens and residents were left fearing the return of hardline Islamic rule. Although the Taliban have promised a more moderate reign – and to respect women’s rights – most are sceptical and wondering what the future holds, especially women who fear losing the basic freedoms acquired over the last two decades.

There are many books to understand the political chaos of Afghanistan, but fiction and poetry from the country are rarely highlighted. This reading list provides an insight into the complex struggle to gain women’s rights, poetry traditions from the region, memoirs by Afghan immigrants in the US, and the impact of the opium trade on ordinary people.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Based on a true story, The Dressmaker is a book about the resilience of Kamila Sidiqi, a woman entrepreneur during the Taliban regime. Lemmon traveled to Afghanistan in 2005, where she met Sidiqi in Khair Khana, a northern suburb of Kabul. Although women were prevented from working under the Taliban rule, Sidiqi started secretly making dresses to support her family of five brothers and sisters when she was just a teenager. “We are far more accustomed to seeing Afghan women as victims to be pitied rather than survivors to be respected,” Lemmon explained in her introduction.

In a war-torn nation, while men were imprisoned or on the frontlines of war, women shifted into the role of the breadwinner. Lemmon started writing stories about women from conflict zones in 2004, while studying for her MBA at Harvard Business School. She wrote a profile on successful businesswomen in Rwanda: fruit-sellers, gas station owners, basket-sellers etc. In Kabul too she aimed to write about a new generation of businesswomen.

“Most stories about war and its aftermath inevitably focus on men: the soldiers, the returning veterans, the statesmen. I wanted to know what war was like for those who had been left behind: the women who managed to keep going even as their world fell apart,” she wrote in her introduction. Sidiqi’s venture grew from her stitching dresses in her living room to employing over a hundred women. The book is about her courage, and above all, about a sisterhood unlike any other, marked by passion and laughter rather than fear and insecurity.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan

Edited and translated from the Persian by Farzana Marie

This collection of poems by eight female poets from Herat, an ancient city near the border of Iran, have been written after 2001. The most well-known poet from the collection is Nadia Anjuman, who is celebrated for introducing a fresh and modern take on traditional Dari poetry, especially ghazals. Most of the other poets in the collection are either her disciples or influenced by her form of writing.

Anjuman studied literature in secret during the Taliban rule and wrote of the politically enforced silence under a cruel regime, where women were rendered voiceless. She gathered with women and notebooks in secret, sewing baskets to disguise her real ambition of reviving the literary heritage of Herat. Her husband and his family did not support her literary ambitions and she was murdered in a case of domestic assault.

This collection, edited and translated by Farzana Marie, a poet in her own right, is modelled in the tradition of fighting back with art. Marie earned her PhD from the University of Arizona in Middle Eastern literature and served as an active-duty officer for over six years in Afghanistan. Poetry has been used as a protest against injustice, and this collection serves to bring nuance to gender issues that are usually simplified under the Western gaze, where Afghan women have been treated as an object of pity.

Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat

The Swallows of Kabul

Yasmina Khadra, translated from the French by John Cullen

The Swallows of Kabul is a story of four people who desperately try to hold onto their humanity as their city plunges into dirt, and death becomes routine. Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of the Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul. He adopted a woman’s name to avoid censorship when he joined the Algerian army.

“My novel, The Swallows of Kabul, gives the readers in the West a chance to understand the core of a problem that he usually only touches on the surface,” he said in an interview with German Radio SWR1 in 2006. “Because the fanaticism is a threat for all, I contribute to the understanding of the causes and backgrounds.”

The Swallows of Kabul was shortlisted for the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and made into a watercolour 2D film by two female directors, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec. The book follows the life of two couples, delving into how everyday existence changed under fanaticism.

Mohsen and Zunaira Ramat are a couple from a privileged class from the pre-Taliban era. Before the Taliban came into power, Mohsen wanted to be a diplomat. Now that his dream is rendered aimless, he wanders the torn streets of Kabul and comes across the stoning of a woman proclaimed to be a prostitute for committing adultery. He finds himself joining the frenzied crowd. Later, his marriage starts to suffer, as he becomes suspicious of his wife. Another couple, the prison guard Atiq Shaukat and his wife Musarrat are raised into poverty. They are drawn to a life of jihad, but collapse in the deprivation brought forth by war, succumbing to illness and corroding their faith.

The Swallows of Kabul

West of Kabul, East of New York

Tamin Ansary

Ansary, a children’s writer born in Kabul, wrote an email to his friends giving his perspective as an Afghan on the 9/11 attacks. His email got forwarded to millions of people, and he soon became a voice for the Afghan people. Born to an Afghan father and an American mother, Ansary shifted to the US in 1964 to study. He found himself in the middle of his traditional Islamic upbringing and a new secular and Western life. His memoir recalls how his life changed after the terrorist attacks.

When asked about his memoir by the Asia Society, he said: “I think of it as storytelling, rather than analysis, that revolves around the times in my life that involve loss, or love, or adventure, or dealing with change, or growing up, or death.” The book addresses the rising islamophobia in the US through a deep exploration of Islam, reiterating that Bin Laden and Taliban are not truly Afghanistan. Divided into three sections, Ansary’s book focuses on his family history and childhood, his travels through the Middle East with his younger brother, and his dual identity as an Afghan and American. His ultimate message in the book is that of a shared humanity.

West of Kabul, East of New York

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia

Ahmed Rashid

Rashid, one of the most well-known reporters from Pakistan, writes about the impact the Taliban has had in Central Asia. He explores why Afghanistan became the centre for international terrorism, the Taliban’s role in the oil trade, and the world’s attitude towards the Taliban.

When the Taliban first rose to power they were seen as Messiahs who would cleanse Afghanistan of war. Most of the men in the Taliban grew up as orphans of war, in refugee camps, and got education in Pakistani madrasas. Rashid talks of the various strains of support the Taliban received – from drug mafias to political parties.

Tracing the history of the Taliban as a democratic organisation to autocratic rulers, Rashid shows how Afghanistan became one of the most isolated countries in the world. He has travelled through Afghanistan at great personal risk to cover the instability of one of the most strategically important and war-ridden countries.

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia

Poetry of the Taliban

Edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn

The collected literary works of the Taliban give a rare glimpse into the cultural worldview of the militant organisation. Kandahar-based researchers and writers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have translated and edited more than 200 poems, mainly taken from the Taliban’s official website.

Displaying a variety of emotions, the poems go beyond a military agenda. The old poetic traditions of Afghanistan are used by the Taliban to write about lamentation, religion, battle, and even non-violence. Presenting a complex image of the Taliban, this collection also honours the oral storytelling tradition in the region’s literature.

The editors wanted to shift the focus away from foreign involvement in Afghanistan, and look more closely at the country itself. “We split it into five individual sections, covering love and pastoral themes, religion, politics and social discontent, the battlefield, and the costs of war in human terms,” they said in an interview with The Atlantic.

Instead of looking at this collection as a way to garner sympathy for the Taliban, the editors want readers to use the poems to provide a “new window on an amorphous group.” It is also to urge scholars to stop seeing the Taliban as a monolithic movement. “The war will end when the political conflict is tackled, which possibly must begin by challenging and questioning our stereotypes about the Afghan Taliban as well as Afghanistan as a whole,” they said.

Poetry of the Taliban

Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan

Fariba Nawa

Nawa is an Afghan-American journalist who grew up in Herat and fled to the US during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. In 2000, she snuck into Taliban controlled Afghanistan through Iran to examine the progress of reconstruction. In her book, Opium Nation, she talks to those who are a part of the opium production in Afghanistan, and examines how it impacts the lives of women.

Sixty percent of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from opium trade, and about two-thirds of that opium is made into heroin. The process of distillation is where a lot of ordinary women find their livelihoods. Opium debts are usually settled through trafficking and this has led to the creation of “opium brides.” Girls as young as the age of 12 are married to men decades older than them to settle debts.

The book follows the life of one such girl, Darya, whose plight makes Nawa travel throughout the country to understand the circumstances that lead to the close relationship of the rural poor with the opium industry. Yet, at the same time, the opium trade has led many families to prosper and for women to find a source of income. Nawa’s book is a personal exploration of her own Afghan identity; she calls the book a “part-memoir,” but also a journalistic venture backed by facts and figures.

Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan