05/02/2013 04:17 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2013

Writing About Love in Afghanistan

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I have hidden a world in my small heart,
A world full of love and feelings,
With hidden desires and wishes,
Wishes that make me write.

From Hila's "Small Heart":

Don't write about love. As a young writer here in America, I heard this message often. Teachers said this. Rilke said this. Teachers quoting Rilke said this. I'm sad to admit that the only directive from Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" I remember is, well, don't write love poems. I don't remember being given a clear explanation as to why this was. But I remember one teacher going so far as to ban the word "soul" in any poetry written in her high school creative writing class. Not because she was anti-soul, but she hated seeing that word abused, knowing how often it was thrown about in attempts to be deep.

I internalized this directive. Later, as a teacher of writing in American high schools, I encouraged odes, but I never proposed love as a writing topic for fear of eliciting the kind of teen angst poems that were rarely impressive, and usually embarrassing in their earnest merge of whine and moan. I stayed away from love prompts not because I didn't want anyone to know love, or express love, but because I didn't want student writers to be so blinded by the topic that they couldn't write something with a chance to make it into the year-end literary magazine.

After reading the love poems and essays of writers in the Afghan Women's Writing Project, a nonprofit that runs online and local workshops for Afghan women writers, I am rethinking everything. I have been blown away by the work produced in the Fetzer Institute sponsored "Love and Forgiveness" workshop.

Now I think: Why on earth shouldn't we write about love? Honestly, what is more important than than how we honor and treat each other?

Afghanistan is a country whose young people have only known wartime, yet these young women write gloriously about love. They write about family love, love of God, love of nature. They write about love for friends, love for spouses. They write about forbidden love, too. This is the country of the burqa. This is a land when women are routinely forced into unwanted marriages. This is a land where women are murdered for defying their elders and refusing a marriage. Yet, the women in the AWWP workshop wrote so movingly of love, I feel compelled to share.

From Nasima's "Hurry":

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.
Let's hurry.

Nasima tells us to hurry. This may be the sweetest, yet most crucial demand we'll be given all day. The love we show, we share, when we help one another -- who doesn't need to think about that, to be reminded of just how crucial this kind of caring is when it comes to real success in life?

Then there's romantic love. In America, I think of how we, as girls, as women, are told again and again that love and sex are the answers. How so many of us, in so many cultures, think that if we can make the perfect love-match -- find our destined soulmate -- we will transcend whatever is terrible about our circumstances and be born anew. The promises of love and sex are whispered and shouted from nearly every song on the radio, every commercial on television, every billboard through the city. To imagine a world where women are told, that when it comes to spouses, it is shameful to choose whom to love, it feels dystopian. Yet, these are the cultural dictates that so many Afghan girls and women are forced to obey. Several women in AWWP have written eloquently about these strictures, challenging them head-on:

From Seeta's "The Problem of Love Marriages":

In my country, love is a shame on the family. But, in fact, if the couple does not know each other, how can they start a life? How can they pass the days of their lives without loving each other? Life would be very boring; men at work all day and women cleaning the house and giving birth to children. This is not a good life. There are many couples that meet for the first time on their wedding night. Very few people make love marriages, and, if they do, it is a carefully kept secret. The lives of these people are 100 percent better than those in forced marriages. Forced marriages and arranged marriages take place in most parts of Afghanistan, but I hope these marriages will be removed from our tradition.

And as Rehela plaintively asks in "Break the Rule":

Men can fall in love but women cannot
We do not have heart?
We do not have feeling?
We do not have choice?
We are not human?

This is just the beginning. In these pieces, and others on the site, and others that will be published in the months the come, the writers have so much to say about the the love they can freely give, about the emotions that they are told by their culture to hide, to ignore, to forget.

After reading their work, I know more than ever that we need to write more about love. All of us. If only because it makes us think about all of the different kinds of love in our lives, and how integral it is to our very existence.