Douglas & McIntyre
Letters to My Daughters

Book details:

May 2011
ISBN 978-1-55365-876-4
6" x 9"
272 pages
Biography & Autobiography / Autobiography
Political Science POL000000
Current Affairs
$29.95 CAD

Douglas & McIntyre

Letters to My Daughters

A Memoir

Excerpt / Additional Content

Prologue September 2010

The morning I wrote the first letter to my daughters, I was due to attend a political meeting in Badakhshan, the province I represent as a member of the Afghan parliament. Badakhshan is the northernmost province of Afghanistan, bordering China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. It is also one of the poorest, wildest, most remote and culturally conservative areas in the country.

Badakhshan has the highest rate of maternal mortality and child mortality in the world—partly because of its inaccessibility and the crippling poverty of its people, and partly due to a culture that sometimes puts tradition ahead of women’s health. A man will rarely seek hospital treatment for his wife unless her life is clearly in danger. By the time she reaches hospital—often after days of agonizing labour while travelling on the back of a donkey over rocky mountain tracks—it is usually too late to save both mother and child.

That day I was warned not to travel to Badakhshan because of a credible threat that the Taliban planned to kill me by planting an improvised bomb under my car. The Taliban dislike women holding such powerful positions in government, and they dislike my public criticisms of them even more.

They often try to kill me.

Recently, they have tried even harder than usual, threatening my home, tracking my journeys to work so that they can lay a bomb as my car passes and even organizing gunmen to attack a convoy of police vehicles assigned to protect me. One gun attack on my car lasted thirty minutes and killed two policemen. I stayed inside the vehicle, not knowing if I would emerge alive or dead.

The Taliban and all who seek to silence me for speaking out against corruption and bad leadership in my country will not be happy until I am dead. That day, however, I ignored the threat, just as I have ignored countless others. If I didn’t, I could not do my job.

But I felt threatened and afraid. I always do. That’s the very nature of threat, as those who use the tactic know very well.

At 6 AM, I gently woke my elder girl, Shaharzad, who is twelve, and told her that if I didn’t come home after this trip of a few days, she was to read the letter to her ten-year-old sister, Shuhra. Shaharzad’s eyes met mine, full of questions. I placed my finger to her lips, kissed her and her sleeping sister on the forehead and quietly left the room, closing the door behind me.

As I tore myself away from my children I knew I might well be murdered. But my job is to represent the poorest people of my nation. That mission, along with raising my two beautiful daughters, is what I live for. I could not let my people down that day. I will never let them down.

Dear Shuhra and Shaharzad,

Today I am going on political business to Faizabad and Darwaz. I hope I will come back soon and see you again, but I have to tell you that I may not.

There have been threats to kill me on this trip. Maybe this time these people will be successful. As your mother, it causes me such bitter pain to tell you this. But please understand I would willingly sacrifice my life if it means a peaceful Afghanistan and a better future for the children of this country.

I live this life so that you—my precious girls—will be free to live your lives and to dream all of your dreams. If I am killed and I don’t see you again, I want you to remember these things.

First, don’t forget me.

Because you are young and have to finish your studies and cannot live independently, I want you to stay with your aunt Khadija. She loves you so much and she will take care of you for me. You have my authority to spend all the money I have in the bank. But use it wisely and use it for your studies. Focus on your education. A girl needs an education if she is to excel in this man’s world. After you graduate from school, I want you to continue your studies abroad. I want you to be familiar with universal values. The world is a big, beautiful, wonderful place and it is yours to explore.

Be brave. Don’t be afraid of anything in life.

All of us human beings will die one day. Maybe today is the day I will die. But if I do, please know it was for a purpose. Don’t die without achieving something. Take pride in trying to help people and in trying to make our country and our world a better place.

I kiss you both. I love you.

Your mother

Chapter One: Just a girl { 1975 }

Even the day I was born I was supposed to die.

I have stared death in the face countless times in my thirty-five years, but still I’m alive. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that God has a purpose for me. Perhaps it is for me to govern and lead my country out of the abyss of corruption and violence. Perhaps it is simply for me to be a good mother to my daughters.

I was the nineteenth of my father’s twenty-three children and my mother’s last child. My mother was my father’s second wife. When she became pregnant with me, she was physically exhausted from the seven children she had already borne and depressed at having lost my father’s affections to his newest and youngest wife. So she wanted me to die.

I was born out in the fields. Every summer, my mother and a host of servants would journey to the highest mountain peaks, where the grass was sweet and luscious, to graze our cattle and sheep. This was her chance to escape the house for a few weeks. She would take charge of the entire operation, gathering enough dried fruit, nuts, rice and oil to sustain the small party of travellers for the three months or so that they would be away. The preparations and packing for the trip caused great excitement. Everything was planned to the last detail before a convoy on horses and donkeys set off across the mountain passes in search of the higher grounds.

My mother loved these trips, and as she rode through the villages her joy at being temporarily free from the shackles of home and housework, able to breathe in the fresh mountain air, was obvious.

There is a local saying that the more powerful and passionate a woman is, the nicer she looks sitting on a horse in her burka. It was also said that no one looked more beautiful on horseback than my mother. There was something about the way she held herself, the straightness of her back and her dignity.

But in the year I was born, 1975, she was not in a celebratory mood. Thirteen months earlier, she had stood at the large yellow gates of our hooli, a large, sprawling single-storey house with mud walls, watching a wedding party snake its way down the mountain path that wound through the centre of our village. The groom was my mother’s husband. My father had chosen to take a seventh wife, a girl just fourteen years old.

Each time he remarried, my mother was devastated—although my father liked to joke that with each new wife my mother became even more beautiful. Of all his wives, my father loved my mother, Bibi jan (literally translated as “beautiful dear”), the most. But in my parents’ mountain village culture, love and marriage seldom meant the same thing. Marriage was for family, tradition and culture, and obedience to all those things was deemed more important than individual happiness. Love was something no one was expected to feel or need. It only caused trouble. People believed that happiness lay in doing one’s duty without question. And my father genuinely believed that a man of his standing and position had a duty to marry more than one woman.

My mother had stood on the large stone terrace, safely behind the gates of the hooli, as the party of a dozen or so men on horseback ambled its way down the hillside, my father dressed in his finest white shalwar kameez (a long tunic and trousers), brown waistcoat and lambskin hat. Beside his white horse, which had bright pink, green and red wool tassels dangling from its decorated bridle, were a series of smaller horses carrying the bride and her female relatives, all wearing white burkas, accompanying her to her new home, the home she would share with my mother and the other women who also called my father husband. My father, a short man with close-set eyes and a neatly trimmed beard, smiled graciously and shook hands with the villagers who came out to greet him and witness the spectacle. They called to each other, “Wakil Abdul Rahman is here,” and “Wakil Abdul Rahman is home with his very beautiful new wife.” His public loved him and they expected no less.

My father, Wakil (Representative) Abdul Rahman, was a member of the Afghan parliament, representing the people of Badakhshan, just as I do today. Before my father and I became members of parliament, my father’s father, Azamshah, was a community leader and tribal elder. For as long as my family can remember, local politics and public service have been our tradition and our honour. It can be said that politics runs through my veins as strongly as the rivers that flow across the mountains and valleys of Badakhshan.

The Badakhshani districts of Koof and Darwaz, from where my family and my surname originate, are so remote and mountainous that even today it can take up to three days in a four-wheel drive to reach them from the provincial capital of Faizabad. And that is in good weather. In the winter, the small mountain passes are completely closed.

My grandfather’s job was to help people with their social and practical problems, connecting them with the central government offices based in Faizabad and working with the provincial district manager’s office to provide services. The only way he could go to speak to the government authorities in Faizabad from his home in the mountainous Darwaz district was by horse or donkey, a journey that often took him a week to ten days. In his lifetime, he never once flew in a plane or drove in a car.

Of course, my grandfather was not the only one who travelled in this rudimentary way. The only way any of the villagers could connect with the bigger towns was on horseback or on foot; that was how farmers bought seed or took cattle to market, how the sick got to a hospital and how family members separated by marriage visited each other. Travel was possible only in the warm spring and summer months, and even then it was dangerous.

The greatest risk of all was the Atanga crossing. Atanga is a large mountain bordering the Amu Darya River. This clear green waterway is all that separates Afghanistan from Tajikistan, and it was as dangerous as it was beautiful; in spring, as the snow melted and the rains came, its banks swelled, creating a series of deadly, fastflowing currents. The Atanga crossing was a series of rough wooden stairs fastened to either side of the mountain for people to climb up and then down the other side.

The steps were tiny, rickety and slippery. One small stumble and a person would fall down straight into the river and be swept away to certain death. Imagine returning from Faizabad with the goods you had just purchased, perhaps a seven-kilo bag of rice, salt or oil—precious cargo that had to last your family all winter—already exhausted after a week of walking, and then having to risk your life negotiating a treacherous pass that had probably caused the deaths of many of your friends and relatives.

My grandfather could not bear to see his people being killed in this way year after year, and he did all he could to force the government to build a proper road and a safer crossing. However, although he might have been richer than most people in Badakhshan, he was still just a local official living in a remote village. Travelling to Faizabad was as much as he could do. He did not have the means or the power to travel to Kabul, where the king and the central government were based.

Knowing change would not come in his lifetime, my grandfather decided his youngest son would take over his campaigning role. My father was just a little boy when my grandfather began grooming him for a future in politics. One day years later, after months of solid lobbying, one of my father’s biggest successes in parliament would be the realization of my grandfather’s dream to get a road built over the Atanga Pass.

There is a famous story about the road and my father’s audience with Zahir Shah to discuss the project. He stood in front of the king and said, “Shah sahib, construction of this road has been planned for years, but there is no action—you and your government plan and talk but do not keep your promises.” Although the parliament at that time was made up of elected representatives, the king and his courtiers still ran the country. Direct criticism of the king was rare, and only a brave or foolhardy man would attempt it. The king took off his glasses and looked long and hard at my father before stating severely, “Wakil sahib, you would do well to remember you are in my palace.”

My father panicked, thinking he had gone too far. He hurriedly left the palace, fearing that he would be arrested on the way out. But a month later, the king sent his minister of public works to Badakhshan to meet my father and make plans for the construction of the road. The minister arrived, took one look at the mountain and declared the job impossible. There was no more to be said; he would return home at once. My father nodded sagely and asked him to go for a short horse ride with him first. The man agreed, and they rode together to the top of the pass. As they dismounted, my father grabbed the man’s horse and raced back down, leading it behind him, leaving the minister alone on the mountain all night long to give him a taste of what it was like for villagers who got trapped on the passes.

The next morning my father returned to pick up the minister. He was furious, half bitten to death by mosquitoes, and he had lain awake all night terrified that he would be eaten by wild dogs or wolves. But now he had some direct understanding of how harsh life was for the local people. He agreed to bring engineers and dynamite so the pass could be created. My father’s pass at Atanga is still there, and this feat of engineering has saved thousands of Badakhshani lives over the years.

But long before the pass was built and my father became an MP, my grandfather had appointed the little Abdul Rahman an arbab, a community leader. This effectively gave the boy the powers of a tribal elder at the age of twelve. He was asked to settle the villagers’ land, family and marriage disputes. Families who wanted to arrange good matches for their daughters’ weddings would come to him for advice in choosing a suitable husband. Before long, he was negotiating health and education projects, raising funds and meeting with the provincial officials in Faizabad. Although he was barely more than a child, these officials knew that under our arbab system he had the support of local people and they were prepared to deal with him.

These early years gave my father such a solid grounding in the issues facing our community that by the time he grew into adulthood he was ready to lead. The timing was perfect, for at that time real democracy was beginning in Afghanistan. In 1965, the king decided to establish a democratic parliament, giving people a role in decision-making by allowing them to vote for their local members.

The people of Badakhshan felt they had suffered years of neglect by the central government and were excited that their voices would finally be heard. In the election, my father was voted into the new assembly as the first-ever member of parliament for Darwaz, representing people who were not only among the poorest in Afghanistan, but also among the poorest in the world.

Despite their poverty, Badakhshanis are also people with pride, people who stick to their values. They can be as wild and angry as the ever-changing mountain climate but also as tender and tenacious as the delicate wild flowers that grow on the granite river banks.

Abdul Rahman was one of them and knew their qualities better than anyone. He took on his new role with nothing short of total dedication.

In those days, the only contact Badakhshanis had with the outside world was through radio. My father had inherited from my grandfather the only radio in our village, a chunky wooden Russian wireless with brass controls. On the day of my father’s first address to the parliament in Kabul, all the villagers gathered at our house in Koof to listen to the broadcast.

No one except my elder brother Jamalshah knew how to turn on the radio or even increase the volume. Bursting with pride that her husband was a member of parliament, my mother threw open the gates of the hooli to allow the public in to hear the speech and called for Jamalshah to turn on the radio for her.

My brother, however, was not at home. In panic, she ran through the village calling him, but he was nowhere to be found. The speech was about to start, and back at the hooli a crowd was gathering: cousins, village elders, women, children. Some had never heard a radio before, and all wanted to hear their new representative address parliament. She could not let my father down but had not the faintest idea how the contraption worked.

She went up to the radio and tried all the knobs, to no avail. As the crowd watched her in anticipation, she felt a wave of rising panic and fear and started to cry. Her husband was going to be humiliated, and it would be her fault. If only Jamalshah were there. Where was the boy? In frustration, she brought her fist down hard on the top of the radio—and, amazingly, the thing spluttered and crackled into life.

She couldn’t quite believe her luck, but still no one could hear it, as the volume was too low. She didn’t have a clue what to do. One friend, my father’s fourth wife, suggested bringing the loudspeaker. The women had no idea what it did or how it worked but had seen the men use it before. They carried it over and placed it next to the radio, doing what they could to connect it. It worked. The entire village heard my father’s speech in the live parliamentary proceedings.

My mother beamed with joy and satisfaction. She was a woman who lived through her husband, and she later described this to me as one of the happiest days of her life.

My father soon gained a reputation as one of the hardest-working members in the king’s parliament. Although Badakhshan remained desperately poor, these were good days for Afghanistan overall; national security, the economy and society were generally stable. This, however, was not a state of affairs that our neighbours could easily accept. There is a saying in Afghanistan that our location and geography—between the great powers of Europe, China, Iran and Russia—is bad for Afghanistan but good for the world. It is true. Ask anyone who plays Risk, the board game in which players aim to take over the world, and he or she will tell you that if you win Afghanistan, you win a gateway to the rest of the globe. This has always been true. Back then it was the height of the Cold War, and my country’s strategic and geographical importance was already shaping the tragic fate that would later befall it.

My father was outspoken, straightforward and hard-working, respected not only in Badakhshan but throughout the country for his generosity, honesty, faith and fierce belief in traditional Islamic values. He was also unpopular with some in the king’s court for his refusal to kowtow to the elite or to play the political power games beloved by so many of his peers. Above all else, he was an old-fashioned politician who believed in the nobility of public service and in helping the poor.

He spent long months in Kabul advocating for roads, hospitals and schools and was successful in getting funds to complete some projects, though not all. The Kabul-based rulers did not see our province as particularly important, and it was hard for him to get central funding. This constantly angered him.

My mother recalled how she would start getting ready for his arrival a month before the annual parliamentary recess—preparing different kinds of sweetmeats and dried fruits for him, cleaning the house and sending the servants to the mountains to collect wood for all the cooking his arrival would inevitably involve. In the evenings, a long queue of donkeys loaded with wood would enter the hooli gates, and my mother would direct them into the wood store in the corner of the garden. In her own way, she worked as hard as my father did, never accepting second best and always seeking perfection.

But my father barely thanked her for it. At home he could be a terrifying tyrant; my mother’s bruises were testament to that. Six out of my father’s seven wives were political matches. By marrying the favoured daughter of a nearby tribal leader or powerful elder, he strategically consolidated and secured the power base of his own local empire. My mother’s father was an important elder from the next district, a district that had previously fought with my father’s village. In marrying my mother, he essentially secured a peace treaty. A few of his wives he loved; two he divorced; most he ignored.

Over his lifetime, he took a total of seven wives. My mother was without doubt his favourite. She was petite, with a pretty, oval-shaped face, pale skin, big brown eyes, long shiny black hair and neat eyebrows.

It was she he trusted the most and she who kept the keys to the safe and the food stores. He entrusted her with the coordination of the cooking for his huge political dinners. It was she who took charge of the servants and other wives as they cooked endless supplies of scented pilau rice, gosht and fresh hot naan bread in the hooli kitchen.

A row of servants and brothers would pass the piping-hot pots along from the kitchen to the entrance of the guest house next door, where my father entertained visitors. Women were not allowed to enter these exclusively male areas. In our culture, a married woman should not be seen by a man who is not her relative, so on these occasions my brothers, who would never otherwise be expected to do any housework, had to help.

At such dinners, my father required everything to be perfect. The rice had to be fluffy, and each grain had to separate perfectly. If it met his standards, he would smile with satisfaction at his good fortune and his most excellent choice of wife. If he found a few grains stuck together, his face would darken and he would politely excuse himself from his guests, walk into the kitchen and, without saying a word, grab my mother by the hair, wrench the metal ladle from her hands and beat her across the head with it. Her hands—already scarred and misshapen from previous beatings—would fly to her head in an attempt to protect herself. Sometimes she would be knocked unconscious, only to get up again and, ignoring the servants’ frightened stares, rub hot ash into her scalp to stop the bleeding before again taking charge and ensuring that the grains fell apart perfectly in the next batch of rice.

She endured this because, in her world, beatings meant love. “If a man does not beat his wife then he does not love her,” she explained to me. “He has expectations from me and he beats me only when I fail him.” This may sound strange to modern ears, but it was what she truly believed. And this belief sustained her.

She was determined to carry out my father’s wishes not only out of a sense of duty or fear but also out of love. She truly and utterly adored him.

So it was with sadness that my mother watched the wedding procession winding its way through the village on the day that wife number seven came home. She was standing on the terrace next to a servant woman who was grinding flour with a pestle in a giant stone mortar. Fighting back tears, my mother grabbed the pestle and ground it into the mortar stone furiously, even though, as the lady of the house, she would not normally take on this task.

But self-pity, even on this day, was not a luxury she was allowed. She was responsible for cooking the feast and had to ensure that the first meal his new bride took in Abdul Rahman’s home would include the finest delicacies and treats befitting his status. If she didn’t prepare a delicious banquet for her new love rival, he would be angry.

One part of the ceremony, however, was just for her. As head wife, she was to greet the party and place her fist firmly on top of the new bride’s head to denote her own superiority and the latter’s submission to her as a wife lower down the scale. She looked on as three women—the bride, her mother and her sister—were helped to dismount, once they were safely inside the hooli gates. They removed their burkas, and the beauty of the two young women was revealed for all to see. Both had long raven-black hair down to their waists.

One stared directly at my mother with confident green eyes and pouty lips. My mother put her fist down firmly and calmly on the woman’s head. The woman looked aghast, my father coughed and laughed and the other girl turned scarlet with embarrassment. My mother had picked the wrong woman, placing her fist on the sister’s head. Her hands flew to her mouth in consternation, but it was too late; the wedding party had moved inside to begin the feast. Her one chance to show this young woman publicly just who was in charge of managing the house had passed. Now, thirteen months later, my mother was giving birth in a remote mountain shack. Bereft at the loss of favour of the man she loved, she was alone and wretched. Three months earlier, the young wife had given birth to a son, a bouncing rosy-cheeked baby named Ennayat who had beautiful eyes as large as chocolate saucers.

My mother hadn’t wanted any more children and knew this one would be her last. For the entire pregnancy, she was sick, pale and exhausted, her body simply giving in to the strain of having borne so many children. Ennayat’s mother, meanwhile, was more beautiful than ever, glowing with the joy of a first pregnancy, her breasts firm and her cheeks flushed.

Six months pregnant herself, my mother helped deliver Ennayat into the world. As his lungs filled with his first breath and he screamed his arrival into the world, Bibi jan held her hands to her stomach and prayed silently that she too would give birth to a boy, thus giving her a chance of winning back my father’s favour. Girl children in our village culture were considered worthless. Even today, women pray for sons because only a son gives them status and keeps their husbands happy.

For thirty hours, my mother writhed in agony during my birth; semi-conscious by the time I was delivered, she had barely enough energy to express her dismay at the news I was a girl. When I was shown to her, she turned away, refusing to hold me. I was mottled blue and tiny—I could not have been more different from Ennayat, the bundle of health. My mother was on the verge of death after my birth. No one cared if the new girl child lived or died, so while they focused on saving my mother’s life I was wrapped in cotton muslin swaddling cloth and placed outside in the baking sun.

I lay there for almost a day, screaming my little lungs out. No one came. They fully expected that nature would take its course and I would die. My tiny face was so badly burned by the sun that in adolescence I still bore the scars on my cheeks.

By the time they took pity on me and brought me back inside, my mother was feeling much better. Amazed that I had lived and horrified at the state of my burnt face, she gasped in horror as her initial coldness melted into maternal instinct. She took me in her arms and held me. When I finally stopped crying she began to weep silently, promising herself that no harm would ever come to me again. She knew that for some reason God had wanted me to live and that she should love me.

I don’t know why God spared me that day. Or why he has spared me on the several occasions I could have died since then. But I do know he has a purpose for me. I also know he truly blessed me by making me Bibi jan’s favourite child from that moment on, forging a permanently unbreakable bond between mother and daughter.

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