What would happen.../If love took over my country?/ Would we become a happy and united people/Where the world hears only happy news about us/All the time, on all the channels?/ -from "What If Love Took Over My Country" by Yalda
Yalda is an Afghan woman, and she wrote this poem about her home country, Afghanistan. But any of us in America can look out of our home windows, or turn on our television news and ask plaintively, what if love took over our country? Not just the romantic love and desire that is omnipresent in advertising and popular culture, but profound love of fellow human beings, the kind of love that makes another person respected, makes us feel mutually responsible. As we struggle with violence and fear of the "other" and staunch economic inequalities it's clear that we have much to learn from anyone who wishes to enlighten on the themes of love and forgiveness.
Afghan women have much to share. Over the last year, the Afghan Women's Writing Project (AWWP) has worked on a "love and forgiveness" project, underwritten by the Fetzer Institute. In 2013, educators Suzanne Scarfone and Rachel de Baere led a special "love and forgiveness" online workshop. They did their own questioning and writing on these themes, and then asked the women to really think about what such massive concepts meant in their everyday lives, as well as in their dreams. AWWP asked the writers in the general workshops to engage these topics, too. We felt we had as much to learn and gain from the process as any of the writers, and repeatedly we were humbled by the resultant work.
The culminating project is a curriculum that we hope to share with teachers and group facilitators far and wide. Created by Elisabeth Lehr and Suzanne Scarfone, "Lessons from Afghanistan: A Curriculum for Exploring Themes of Love and Forgiveness" is structured as a five-week curriculum, but it is flexible, and lessons can be used stand-alone. If you are interested, we will share with you the PDF or the hard copy free of charge.
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As a staff participant in this project, I find myself still deeply affected by the work. I am struck by our writers who are still writing about love and forgiveness a year later. In N's poem "Bring Me Light" she writes of her difficult life as an Afghan woman, one she compares to being a prisoner:
Visit me, my friends,/
in my permanent prison./
Can you believe that I am a criminal?/
My crime: Telling the truth./
My heart is a library of stories./
Borrow a story. Empty my shelves./
Read every one of me. Judge me/
by my poems. Ask me your questions./
Talk to me./
I am an Afghan woman,/
a soldier with no weapon,/
a woman, with closed lips,/
hidden under night/
behind dark curtains.
I find myself stunned by the power of her words. And I am also deeply moved by how, despite all, she describes herself, her soul:
My pen has blue wings./
My soul is a city of love/
and forgiveness. I am a garden/
of words. The sparrows are my poems.
I am proud that we get to share the women's writings and wisdom through the AWWP website and curriculum. More than ever, I am in awe of the power of love and forgiveness, and in awe of those brave enough to forego the desire to be "hard" or "invincible" and try to love and forgive one another--especially in the public sphere. I have noticed how uncommon it is for our political leaders to use this language, or to be models of this blessed action themselves, especially those obsessed with projecting power. I suppose by definition a political leader must first be concerned with power. I am drawn to re-read Nelson Mandela's and Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speeches and writings, for no one personified and lived these forces more than they and both wielded considerable political power whether elected or not. But I am eager to hear this wisdom from present day leaders. Leaders who know that it is the strong of spirit who forgive, and the strong of heart who love.
And I am drawn back to the writings of the Afghan women and their example for us everyday people, here and around the world. They are not famous. They risk so much to write in a home culture that praises the invisible, silent woman. Yet, there is so much power in their pens. Nasima sums it up so well in her poem "Hurry":
We have such a short time to do this good work,
to forgive each other's small mistakes,
to pay attention to positive points.
We must practice being good people, and
destroy the lens of pessimism in our eyes,
and see the facts of life.
Why are we born to this world,
and what are our plans for this life?
Are they the destruction or betterment of our world?
I try to smile. I don't have money, power
or authority, but I have God who gave me
a mouth with lips for smiling. I have language for speaking.
I can use them for good,
to carry messages of peace and love and forgiveness.
I can smile to grow the root of the friendship tree.
We have such short time to do good work.