Maryam Mahjube – Untold: Write Afghanistan

Maryam Mahjube lives in Kabul with her family. She studied law at Kabul University, but doesn’t work because she is in a wheelchair. Maryam thought she was too inexperienced for her writing to be taken seriously, but her story, ‘Turn This Air Conditioner On, Sir’, developed with the Untold – Write Afghanistan programme, is published in English, in Words Without Borders, this month. ‘Stories are like a mirror we hold up to ourselves’.

Bagri Foundation is proud to present, Maryam Mahjube, our tenth writer featured as part of the project ‘Untold: Write Afghanistan’ supported by The British Council and Bagri Foundation.  Maryam shares with us an excerpt of her story, ‘Turn This Air Conditioner On, Sir’ alongside a video which features some of her selected images and her reflections on what it means for her to be a writer, her process, and her inspiration.

‘Write Afghanistan’ is a project created by Untold, a development programme for writers in areas of conflict and post-conflict, that offers support to women writers and works remotely with them to develop and promote their stories which often remain hidden. Find out more about the project here.

Maryam says of her story: This is the story of a person’s day in Afghanistan. Here, war rules everyday life. The battlefields are the schools, the roads, the hospitals, the offices. Hamid, my character, is a headteacher on his way to school. But today he worries more than usual – today feels different.

Note these writings are works-in-progress, but we feel offer a glimpse into the worlds of these emerging new voices as they work together with an editor to further refine their story.

You can read Maryam’s full story on Words Without Borders’ website here.

Turn this Air Conditioner on, Sir

Maryam Mahjube

Sir, please turn this air conditioner on.

If he says this out loud, everyone around him will scold him. Or they will ridicule him about how cold the weather is at this time of year, happy that space is tight in the car and they have to sit close to one another. As the number of vehicles grows and traffic gets worse, his sweat increases and a warmth spreads from behind his neck and over his whole body. When a bigger truck, full of bricks, stops beside their car, his body clenches. If that truck is full of gas and petrol, he grips the handle on the roof tighter and turns his face to the person sitting next to him, but without any smile that might at least offset his fear, his anger, and his distress. So no one will fight or make a scene, so they will not ask what they have done wrong to deserve such a look. He pretends that he wants to look at the shops or vehicles on their side. As he warms up, his cologne permeates the packed space inside the car and mixes with the smells of smoke and petrol and dust.

There is no escaping from this crowdedness. When he looks beyond the window to his left, there is a loaded trailer. To his right, there is a person sitting, and another person after that. When he looks past them, through the window, the vehicles are also full of people and are moving slowly, slowly, one after another. Beyond them, there are grocery stores whose insides are full of rice and oil and whose outsides are surrounded by crates of yellow and red apples, pomegranates, and oranges. Their colour spreading warmth. The smoke of kebabs slowly wafts upwards from a restaurant and disperses. On the floor above it is a café. Its sign darkened by the smoke.

Slowly the Silo comes into view. The Silo building is so tall that it covers the silhouette of the mountains.

There are two things no one has seen – the Silo painted any other colour than yellow and white, and the daily arrival or departure of its bread-makers. Although Hamed has been taking this route for the past eighteen years, he has never met or seen a single person who works there. Upset by this, he breathes deeply. The pavement is full of people. People with flesh and skin and veins and blood. People full of joy and sadness and wishes and God.

Oof, people – bags full of blood with green veins and black hair. And the eyes that are black and white, green and white, a few blue and white. People full of sorrow and depression. And with the hearts that are blackened by the world. And hearts full of hope and joy from a few pieces of paper that are money and thanking God that life is still good.

Outside the vehicle, steam comes out of the mouths of men and young children selling souvenirs in the streets. Thanks to the cold weather, it is as if everyone in the city is smoking a cigarette. This is the crowd who might at this moment or a few moments later explode with Hamed. With their veins full of blood and their skulls full of brains and nerves, they might disappear. Then he remembers the piece of cheese he left in the fridge for tomorrow morning.

Will it stay there until tomorrow morning and forevermore? Tomorrow morning will not come. Tomorrow morning will never come when I would have eaten that piece of cheese with sweet tea.

-Translated from the Dari by Parwana Fayyaz

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