Zainab Akhlaqi – Untold: Write Afghanistan

Zainab Akhlaqi lives in Kabul and works for a socio-cultural Institute. She writes stories and articles in Dari for an online cultural tourism site. These include pieces about different provinces and districts, historical sites, and the indigenous culture of each region of Afghanistan. She also enjoys photography and filmmaking – but, in the end, you just need a pen to write’.

Bagri Foundation is proud to present, Zainab Akhlaqi, our fifth writer featured as part of the project ‘Untold: Write Afghanistan’ supported by The British Council and Bagri Foundation. Zainab shares with us an excerpt of her story, ‘Brith in Death’ 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.

Zainab on her story: My story is based on the terrorist attack which took place in the public maternity hospital in the West of Kabul, earlier this year. I explore the moments of becoming a mother who has dreams and plans for her child, after his birth. I wanted to draw a comparison between the pain of childbirth and the pain of a bullet. I see writing this story as part of my mission as a writer – it is important that bitter memories like this are recorded in Afghan literature. In this excerpt, we meet my main character moments before the attack.

Birth in Death

By Zainab Akhlaqi

Today I felt a strange pain in my body. It started around my belly, and then kept circulating around my waist. Every minute, it made me feel death and life. At times, it would intensify and pull me to the ground me and hold me in one place. Bending, I would then run my hand around my belly and collect my floral skirt in my fist and grip it hard. I would feel it move the position of my eyebrows. Then I would press my lips against one another and scream inwardly.

Then it would end, and I would straighten up and try my best to walk. The doctor had told me: ‘Don’t stand up until I tell you to’.

I cleaned the sweat around my face with the back of my hand and continued to walk from one room to another. How long has it been?

When I looked to the face whose voice I heard, it was a young woman’s. She lay down on the bed, caressing her newborn baby, and I said ‘What?’

Through the loud mourning and voices of women from the other rooms, she said, ‘I am asking about your contractions. How long have you been in labour?’

I dragged my feet towards her. ‘It must have been two to three hours’, I said. ‘Is that enough?’

She laughed: ‘No, my dear. I went to labour in the morning, and a few minutes ago he was born’.

Along with my cries, I said, ‘Congratulations’.

‘Thank you. You look very restless, as if you’ve been shot’.

I looked at her again. She’d said it with only a little bit of laughter. She wanted to show that she was strong, but the pain and the struggle of birth had stolen her patience, playfulness, laughter. I replied a little harshly: ‘I have never been shot, so I cannot really tell the difference’.

She seemed to have understood my situation. She wasn’t annoyed. Instead, she said: ‘Come, drink some water. Your lips look dry’.

‘I can’t. My stomach–’

I couldn’t complete the sentence. I felt the pressure under my navel. Such was the pain, my waist didn’t feel like mine. I fell on the ground, and a strange scream came out from me, from inside.


When they placed my son in my bosom, I forgot about the pain. As the nurses and doctors started cleaning around me, I started to imagine his future. Thinking about it lifted my spirits.

But then the sound of shooting in the adjacent building took the smile from my lips. I told myself that, like the last explosion at the Police Academy, perhaps I would go unharmed. I tried to get a view of the situation from the window, and saw a young military man walking towards our ward. His hair was brushed back, and his beard was handsome, but his face looked heartbroken. He held a Kalashnikov close to his chest, and, without pausing to think, fired whoever crossed his path. I saw a young boy, maybe ten or eleven, running towards the exit before falling still on the ground. I couldn’t watch any more.

I wasn’t sure if it was the sight of that boy on the ground, or the fear that I might have to face the man, that made me cry. I returned to my bed, to calm myself down. I started praying. Then there was the sound of an explosion. I was still in bed. My ears were echoing. And I could feel my bleeding increase.

-Translated from the Dari by Parwana Fayyaz

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