A Detroit writer brings poetry to a war-torn zone
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Published: May 30, 2012
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Since 2000, I have built a significant rep within the State Department's Cultural Affairs Division for conducting cultural and education programs abroad with students in middle school, high school, teachers colleges and universities. I've gone to places like Israel, the West Bank, Russia, Germany, England, Macao and, now, Afghanistan. I usually spend a fair amount of time helping instructors, teachers and professors with ideas for creatively teaching English, writing and literature classes as a second language. In addition to offering classes, workshops and consultations, I am always requested to read and perform my poetry.
I am usually hosted by the U.S. Embassy in the countries I visit. I am often one of only a few American poets or writers invited to many of these programs. For example, as far as I know, only one other poet — from Iowa — visited Afghanistan in recent months, or maybe years. Some of the places I go don't exactly top "must visit" lists for other writers I know. Many are leery of even visiting Israel or the West Bank, let alone Afghanistan.
Look, I am not brave; I am just a dedicated teacher-poet who keeps focused on the task I am assigned in any overseas assignment.
More, the U.S. State Department does not, in any way, censor my work, my performances, lectures or talks overseas when I work for them. Actually, their Cultural Affairs Division is quite liberal and art-and-artist friendly. I am also always aware of how far I can push the envelope in certain locations and with certain audiences. I think the State Department is very comfortable, after 12 years, with the fact I am always very respectful of a country's traditions, religions and customs. My assignments are not for every artist, but they fit my work and who I am as a person. —M.L. Liebler
I want to write, I want to write about
My dreams which never come true,
My power that has always been ignored,
My voice which is never heard by this deaf universe,
My rights which have never been counted,
My life decisions which are always made by others.
Oh my destiny, give me the answer, what am I for in this universe?
—From "Read My Poems on the Reddish Stream of My Blood" by Emaan
This is a poem by one of the brave young women I met upon my arrival in Kabul in early May. I was asked to go to Afghanistan for 10 days by the U.S. State Department's Cultural Programs Division. They called me two days before last Thanksgiving and told me that I had been requested in Afghanistan by a cultural affairs officer with whom I had worked successfully in the West Bank a couple of years ago.
The gentleman on the phone asked if I'd "take this mission?" I'd worked in dangerous places before for the State Department — such as the West Bank and Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War — so I said I'd do it. After a long trip, I started working early my second morning in Afghanistan.
For my first in-country assignment, I was driven to an undisclosed place in a quiet Kabul neighborhood. For the next three hours I visited with several strong, courageous young women involved in the Afghan Women's Writers' Project. The project was started by American writer and novelist Masha Hamilton in 2009 after she viewed a disturbing underground video of Zarmeena, a mother of seven who, 10 years earlier, was executed by the Taliban in Kabul's Ghazi Stadium for allegedly killing her husband. A videotape of the execution was smuggled out by RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan). Masha was determined to find out about this executed woman, so she could honor her memory. She started the AWWP for that purpose, and also to offer women of Afghanistan hope through their creative words, images and art.
I arrived early by way of an armored SUV with tracking devices and "jammers" turned on to keep anyone from activating roadside bombs through cell phones. (Jammers stop all cell phone usage within the range of the passing SUV.) I found the gathered women to be alive with creativity, with energy, and they were anxious to meet an American poet and talk poetry as a way to express their inner and cultural struggles. We sat on the pillows on the floor in traditional Afghan style. The host served cookies and plenty of traditional tea. The women were hungry to create new work, to read their new and older poems to me, and to share stories of their recent protests at local colleges on behalf of women's rights.
Some said their actions earned them coverage on BBC News and the cover of U.K. newspaper The Guardian. They told me they'd have to give their blood to make things better for the next generation of Afghan women. This sounded very brave and admirable, but these ladies were only in their 20s, and at times they spoke as though their lives were over for their cause to liberate women.
I was shocked to see students the age of my own students at Wayne State University talking this way, but Afghanistan is a different place with different problems, and I could tell that they felt they had to face their struggles using desperate methods. One of the poets told me that Afghanistan's women's rights movement was at the point where the American suffragist movement was in here in the early 1900s. They were determined to win, or die trying.
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