I originally wrote this piece for Sandy Nathan’s site – “Your Shelf Life” where it was posted on May 17, 2011. I think inspiration is the stuff of our dreams and so I’m sharing it here.
Inspiration – that elusive gem, that idea that transforms our thoughts and our maybes into the essential themes of our stories. But, from what magical place does that indefinable pearl emerge? For me, as a nurse and humanitarian aid worker, I find inspiration everywhere. I stand in line at the bank and watch as a woman peers into a glass shelf, and seeing her own reflection, preens with undisguised admiration. I write furiously. I want to capture the set of her eyes, the slight grin as she realizes how much she likes her own image. Everywhere I look there is inspiration and, eager to record it all, I am never without a pen and paper.
When I first went to Afghanistan, I knew at once that everything there was inspirational, not just the people, but the rugged landscape, the steaming green tea, all of it sustenance for this writer’s soul. Afghanistan is a place bursting with inspiring people and inspiring stories at every turn, and my first novel, Lipstick in Afghanistan, was written not just to share my images of that land, but to help dispel the ceaseless illusion that the people of Afghanistan are either terrorists or wild eyed peasants. While Afghanistan’s ethnic and border wars have long shaped its violent and stubborn history, it has unfairly colored the world’s view of its citizens as well. But the reality is that the Afghans I know are at once both resilient and graceful, and it was those diverse, dissimilar and ultimately inspiring qualities I hoped to bring to my story.
Until 9/11, Afghanistan was essentially off the world’s radar screen. People knew little and cared less about a land that seemed so alien and so far away. All of that changed after 9/11, and as the world’s attention finally focused on that destitute and long neglected corner of the world, the devastating truth of the Taliban rule began to emerge; torture, murder and unspeakable crimes against these people. It was worse than any of us who knew the country well had imagined.
In the spring of 2002, I volunteered with a French aid group and was posted to a remote region of Afghanistan, and I was struck, not for the first time, by the wretched reality of daily life for Afghan women. While they have quite literally woven and then held together the fabric and traditions of their families and country, they have often been invisible – the last ones fed, the last ones heard, the last ones to really matter. They suffered at every level, and under the Taliban, access to health care for women had been severely restricted. As a result, Afghanistan continues to have one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. UNICEF recently reported that an Afghan woman dies of complications related to childbirth or pregnancy-related complications every twenty minutes, a fact that still my makes my heart ache.
And yet, despite it all, these are women who inspire with every breath they take, for instead of living with bubbling hostility, the women of Afghanistan choose to live with a quiet grace and a hardiness of spirit that takes my own breath away. And even with their countless recent miseries, the women of Afghanistan are nothing if not resilient, and that is especially evident in the long-standing myth of the lady rebel. The lady rebel is revered – a warrior for goodness, they say, whose exploits are legendary, whose reputation for courage is boundless. She is said to have slain more Taliban fighters, and saved more of her own countrymen than her male counterparts. To hear the stories of this remarkable warrior is to believe. Even now, I can almost see her as she flies on horseback across the top of a distant mountain range, her plaited hair flying out behind her, a bandolier strung across her chest, a gleam of determination in her eyes as she saves her countrymen from one calamity or another.
That intriguing legend was the seed, the beginning of my idea for Lipstick in Afghanistan
, but the lady rebel was only one of many inspirational characters I encountered there. I often spied a tiny young girl as she trudged along the village pathways and fields. This young girl, who was destined to live a life of drudgery, of endless chores and arranged marriage, never missed an opportunity to pummel whatever local boy crossed her path. For a female who was surely destined for a life of never-ending work, it seemed to me that she was releasing a lifetime of power in the short time she had to be free, really free. She had a mischievous, engaging spirit that gave me hope for Afghanistan’s future, and gave me yet another seed for my novel.
Afghanistan remains a place of hope and possibilities, but also a place with achingly sad stories, where even a worn and weathered rock can be a source of inspiration. But there is inspiration here at home as well. I find it in my patients struggling to get well, or in the faces of the fretful refugees I know. I find it too in rush hour traffic and in lines at the bank. The world is filled with miracles and with inspiration, and I hope that everyone, especially writers, finds their own miracles and shares them with the rest of us.