In the summer of 2009, I was given a grant by German Technical Corporation to conduct field research to gather and record traditional Afghan music, with a focus on women’s music from Badakhshan, a province on the northeastern tip of Afghanistan. I spent nearly three weeks in Badakhshan until I decided to expand the project to Takhar, the province on the northern border to the west of Badakhshan, which was closer to Kabul, where my family lived.
After a week of researching women’s folkloric music in various parts of Takhar, my aunt, who thought I was overworked, decided to take me out to see the countryside. “The village we are going to is called Shoraab,” she said. “It actually belongs to Kunduz but the people are more like Takharies.” Kunduz is the province on the northern border to the west of Takhar. It was a long, bumpy, and dusty ride, but the views were beautiful, with wheat-covered hills and farmers in fields alongside the road. Golden hills proudly shone under the sun.
After about an hour, we reached a thorn field. My uncle told me how the Taliban, after arriving in this area, made male residents of the area walk over the thorns and then shot them. “These thorns grew drinking human blood,” he said. I did not know how to react to the horrifying image these words painted in my head. Silently, I looked at the thorns, most of which were my height. They scratched our car as we drove down the narrow path. The scratching sound brought to mind an image of long-bearded, black-turban-wearing men pushing 14-year-old “men” into the thorns that boldly pierced their young bodies as they closed their eyes in the childish hope that they would no longer feel pain.
Suddenly our car broke down, and the torturous squeak stopped for a few minutes. Abdul Rahman, who was driving, tried unsuccessfully to figure out the problem. We all sat in the path until a mechanic from the village came on his motorcycle and fixed our car. The rest of the journey was filled with my youngest cousin Baiqra’s laughter as he told us jokes—half of which we couldn’t understand due to his nonstop giggling. We all laughed, and the time passed quickly. He successfully distracted us from the heat and the discomfort of our harsh memories.
When we arrived, a few dozen curious and friendly eyes looked at me. The children gathered and started asking me questions at a rapid speed. My uncle interrupted their entertainment and told them to scatter. A group of women were talking around a spring, where they were waiting for water to travel down the hill to them. Their children, mostly naked or half naked, were playing with marbles and sticks. I asked the women if they ever sang while sitting by the spring. They said they didn’t, because there were too many men around this part of the village. “We sing in our houses or at weddings,” a young girl said with a proud and protective voice.
I smiled and said goodbye as my aunt called me. She and her daughter, Nilofar, were walking towards a mill and they were excited to explain to me how it worked by using the pressure of water coming from another big spring. I asked why the villagers didn’t drink water from this one, and Nilofar explained it was sour, which clarified why the village is called Shoraab, “Sour Water.”
Next, we walked to a small pond hidden on a hillside about ten minutes away from the village. The male company left us alone to enjoy the water, which was cold and comfortable in the heat. To my surprise, Nilofar and my aunt could both swim. They laughed at my failing attempts to stay afloat and at the number of times I swallowed the sour water as I thought I was drowning and called for help.
Meanwhile, Nilofar softly sang a popular Indian love song. My aunt was drying her hair and I thought how beautiful she looked, her curly wet hair shining under the sun. The kindness in her eyes made me feel secure. Her posture was not like most Afghan women I have seen. She stood straight and held her shoulders broad. She often kept her head up, and her lips bore a half smile as her desert-brown eyes observed the world. She noticed that I was looking at her. “I want to stay here forever,” I said, and she laughed at my childish happiness. “You should come back next year and we will come here for a picnic,” she said.
My uncle came back to say that we had to start walking toward the village again. We had to get there before lunchtime, so we walked quickly. The mud houses spoke of poverty. Most of the village was dry. I was told that the residents were farmers, but their farms were located a few miles away from the village.
We went to the house of my uncle’s sister. My aunt decided to go around the town to inform young women that I had come to collect songs. Because of the heat, she didn’t want me to go with her, so Nilofar and I stayed in a room that had three toshaks (cushioned mattresses), blankets, and a few pillows with fading colors and textures. The electricity was sporadic so we turned off the electric fan and used the small manual plastic ones that were decorated with pictures of Bollywood stars. Nilofar’s aunt told me about the village, the lack of water, and the poverty with which people had to struggle. She explained to me that because of limited transportation to the city, the people lacked many things they needed. One of these items was salt; they used it in food only on special occasions.
Within an hour, about 20 women had gathered in the house. The crowded room began to smell like tea and babies. A few decorated hand drums, with dark spots that carried the memory of several hands, flew from woman to woman as more women joined the group. A girl warmed one of the hand drums in the sunlight that was shining through the window, a big hole in the wall.
I did not know where to start. Most women had already begun singing a well-known tune. A few young girls had gathered in a corner with a hand drum, but as soon as I moved my microphone toward them they stopped singing and giggled. Other women encouraged them to sing. I set my computer to record and the young women started once again.
The young girls soon felt more comfortable, and other women in the room joined them. Different women sang different quatrains as verses for the popular songs were repeated in unison. I moved quickly from one part of the room to the other in order to record all the voices and quatrains, but women from every side of the spacious room sang in no particular order, and I wasn’t able to record all the songs.
Many noises interrupted these songs. Once, the husband of the hostess entered the room to ask for tea for some male guests who had arrived. The music stopped, and most of the women covered their faces. Crying children also played their role in disturbing the voices. Sometimes the women would stop to discuss a certain couplet and ask each other whether it was appropriate to be recorded. They were most worried about semi-political or political quatrains. Occasionally they would ask me to clear a song because it was about a former war leader. Some songs were about how a certain commander or government officer had unfairly treated the people.
One of the sentences I heard most often was khuda ber worosh qilmasa, which means, “May there be no more wars.” Many quatrains told of women’s experiences during the wars. One of the women sang a quatrain about her young son who was killed in a battle in Kunduz. Young girls sang about schools and their desire to attend classes. Married women sang mostly about their husbands, children, and the oppression they faced in their husbands’ houses. Women listened to each other and nodded at the familiarity of the stories they heard through the songs. Sometimes, looking around, I would realize that I wasn’t the only one crying.
After four hours of listening to and recording music, I was told to get ready to leave because we had to be back home before sunset. The city became less secure at night, when the Taliban took over parts of it. I promised to return to the village, and after hugs and kisses from everyone we left the house. I spent most of the journey talking to my aunt about the content of the music, and I asked her the meaning of some of the Uzbeki words I hadn’t understood from the songs. The sorrowful history and astounding culture hidden in the simple quatrains and disyllabic words that I had heard during the day occupied my mind as I formulated a plan for the next day. I rested my head on the car window with the bright hope that more people would listen to this oral history; that the testimony of the harsh lives of women and the painful memories of war in these songs would not be forgotten and stolen by the greedy hands of death and extinction. When we arrived in the city, the sun was slowly hiding behind the fading mountains.