Translated by Zaman Stanizai

Oh dear, my month of Afghan culture is nearly over, and I’ve still got quite a lot to write up and have read less than hoped because of work commitments plus half term with the kidlings.

Dancing in the Mosque is a memoir by Homeira Qaderi that was first published in the UK in 2021 by Fourth Estate. Qaderi is a formidable and fiercely intelligent woman, born in war-torn Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, and living for a while as a refugee in Iran.

“Afghanistan is the land of invisible bullets and the land of a death foretold, the land of doomed destinies, and the land of dejected and disgruntled youth, waiting forever for dreams that will never come true. This is how Madar, my mother, Ansari, and Nanah-jan, my grandmother, Firozah, described my homeland to me when I was barely four years old.

Returning to Afghanistan, she spent her teenage years living under the brutal, deeply repressive regime of the Taliban (1996-2001). At the time of writing the book, Taliban rule had long been overturned, although attitudes to women were alarmingly restrictive. Of course now, tragically, the Taliban are back. It seems certain that Qaderi is no longer teaching at universities in Kabul or a senior adviser to the Ministry of Education, as stated in her bio.

However, one thing that is clear from her book is her incredible resilience. She was sexually assaulted repeatedly by men who theoretically represented religious purity. At the age of 13 she began illicitly schooling local girls, and she helped establish an illegal girls’ writing group, although all books but the Qur’an had been banned.

Unexpectedly, she tells movingly of a teenage flirtation with a reluctant Talib. She also writes of the time after her marriage, when she and her husband moved to Iran, where she found the culture liberating (although Iran certainly wouldn’t top my list of countries offering freedoms to women), and where she was able to pursue a post-graduate education, to eventually become a professor of Persian literature.

The book’s title alludes to her greatest trauma: the loss of her infant son Siawash to her husband’s family on the breakdown of their marriage, after they had returned to the culture of conservative Afghanistan – and after her husband expressed his wish to take a second wife. As she writes, “Siawash has taught me that mothering in Afghanistan often amounts to running on the sharp edge of a sword”.

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