The policewoman’s voice slowed and lowered as she read her poem about one of Afghanistan’s many tragedies, a massive blast near the German Embassy in Kabul last spring.
In the poem, she wrote of the fatigue she and other Afghans feel after yet another tragedy: “I’m tired of grieving.”
Na’ema Mawdadi, 38, does not consider herself a poet. She’s one of the few women serving in the Afghan National Police, where men outnumber women 50 to 1, according to official statistics.
But like many Afghans, she is a lover of poetry and writes verses about the stresses of her life — war, terrorism and the difficulties of being a woman in the male-dominated country. She read a few of her 50 or 60 poems out loud from the notebook she keeps on her desk.
“When I’m sad, these words come to me,” Mawdadi said through a translator. “It helps me to express my inner feelings and put them into words.”
Afghans have long turned to poetry to make sense of their lives, said Assad Yousufi, a poet and leading figure in Herat’s literary scene. In a society where many are illiterate, the bedrock of shared culture is formed by proverbs and the verses by poets such as Rumi, a 13th-century Persian scholar and mystic born in what is now the Afghan city of Balkh, he said. Today, many Afghans share poems both new and ancient on their smartphones.
“Poetry can give a voice to people’s pain,” Yousufi said. “Afghan poets must focus on bringing a positive change by writing strong poems about the current situation.”
Herat, especially, is a city of poets. The city on Afghanistan’s western border hosted secret poetry clubs in Herat in the 1990s under the hardline Taliban rule. Today, even the Taliban use poetry as part of their propaganda.
Na’ema Mawdadi, an Afghan police officer since 2007, writes a poem Oct. 29, 2018, at the Herat municipal police headquarters. In the poem, which she wrote after last year’s bombing of the German Embassy in Kabul, Mawdadi says goodbye to friends lost, and says goodbye to bad memories as well.
Poetry recitals and critiques remain a fixture of the city’s social scene.
Zainab Qazizada, 25, another female police officer, said she often attends these poetry clubs. Writing poems helps her understand both the good and bad sides of humanity, said Qazizada, head of the gender and human rights division for the Herat police. Last fall, Qazizada said she applied for a job, but lost out to a man with connections – but a third of her skills. The incident inspired a poem, which she shared on Facebook: “A man wearing black/Riding a black horse/Charges forward/Screaming/A horse whip in his hand/My dreams form battle lines/Against him.”
The man wearing black represented the darkness inherent to humanity that keeps Afghanistan from progressing, Qazizada explained through a translator. In other her poems, she said she represented this notion through imagery such as creatures ready to fly who have their wings cut off, and tall trees who get cut down.
The other female police officer, Mawdadi, said she too has faced career difficulties as a woman in a deeply patriarchal country. In her job in Herat, she tries to help other female officers with issues such as gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
In Herat, women want to work and ask her for jobs, Mawdadi said, but simply adding more female police will not help, if they are not given equal status and resources. As she spoke, Mawdadi lightly tugged at the flap of a nearby window blind. The blind broke off and fell to the floor. Her department needs better facilities, she said.
She read one more poem, modeled after her favorite 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz. Mawdadi expressed in Dari the hopes for a better life shared by many Afghans: “Let’s join hands and build this country/ and bring peace to this country/ and make the mothers and daughters of this country happy.”