Mary Lean and Shabibi Shah at Greencoat Forum
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18 November, 2008

Mary Lean and Shabibi Shah at Greencoat Forum (Photo: Louise Jefferson)
Mary Lean and Shabibi Shah at Greencoat Forum (Photo: Louise Jefferson)
Afghan author, poet and interpreter Shabibi Shah gave a personal insight into her courageous life story at the launch of the latest edition of her book Where do I Belong? She answered questions put to her by journalist Mary Lean at a Greencoat Forum held in the London Centre for Initiatives of Change on 11 November.

Forced to flee Afghanistan in 1983, Shah told of her hazardous escape into Pakistan with three young children in tow and their struggles as refugees both there and in Britain.

Shabibi Shah was born in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in 1947—a city she remembers as radically different from the war ravaged place that exists today. She studied journalism at Kabul University, where she met fellow journalist and her husband-to-be, Zafar. ‘Women going to university weren’t unusual at that time. The ‘60s and ‘70s were a good time for women in Afghanistan. The government encouraged people to gain an education.’

A dutiful Afghan Muslim girl, Shah stopped speaking to Zafar when she realised his feelings for her, worried her father would find out. ‘I had to consider my reputation and so I didn’t talk to him. But he then stopped talking to everyone which was very embarrassing for me! He didn’t talk for two months, even to our teachers.’

Shabibi Shah holding book at Greencoat Forum (Photo: Louise Jefferson)
Shabibi Shah holding book at Greencoat Forum (Photo: Louise Jefferson)
Her father refused to give consent for Shah to marry but a local newspaper got wind of Zafar’s determined silence and reported it ‘so then everybody knew and my father gave up and finally allowed us to marry’.

Zafar worked as a political journalist while Shah became a teacher. They had three children but, when the Communist regime came to power in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, life changed for the worse. ‘Only one government publication was allowed and all newspapers were closed down, so my husband found new work as a translator for the Libyan embassy.’ A fervent anti-communist, Zafar continued to write against the government, secretly distributing his work amongst friends and close associates. It carried huge risks and eventually cost him his job when a cleaner at the embassy found drafts of his work in his dustbin and handed them in to the government.

Trouble followed him and he was later taped talking against the government. ‘They used the tape to bribe my husband but when he refused to pay any money they tied him up and beat him and he lost four of his teeth.’ Physically and mentally ill, Zafar recuperated in a psychiatric hospital in Kabul.

When more of his writing got into the wrong hands, Zafar was imprisoned for six months. After a fruitless search for a lawyer, Shah herself bravely defended her husband at his trial. An Afghan woman defending a man in court was unheard of—Shah was the only woman in the courtroom—yet she managed to secure his release.

Soon after, he fled to Pakistan. ‘He had no money but at 4am, with just a few clothes in a bag, he left.’

Fifteen days later, Shah and her three children said goodbye to life in Afghanistan and began a harsh, dangerous journey to join him. ‘For 15 days we just walked, sleeping in the day and travelling at night over the mountains.’

Together again, the family eked out an existence as refugees in Pakistan, before eventually being granted visas to Britain.

Shabibi Shah signs a copy of her book (Photo: Louise Jefferson)
Shabibi Shah signs a copy of her book (Photo: Louise Jefferson)
The family arrived in South London in 1984. ‘I had been a teacher in Kabul and I thought I knew a lot about England. But when I arrived, I realised I knew nothing.’ Life was frugal at best, with the family initially squeezed into one-room hostels. It wasn’t until her children were grown up that Shah was able to focus her energies on learning English. ‘I was lonely and wanted to improve my English. I took classes and a bilingual counselling course.

‘I starting writing to improve my English but writing became my therapy and friends encouraged me to write a book of my life.’ A published poet in her mother tongue of Dari, Shah shared some of the poems featured in her book, reading them in both Dari and English.

Four years ago, Shah made her first trip back to Afghanistan, more than 20 years after her escape. She described a country in abject poverty. ‘It seems a dark place at the moment. Kabul used to be beautiful but, when I returned I walked out of the airport to find the streets full of beggars. It was like walking into the first century and heartbreaking. I remember a little girl walking with no shoes and in ragged clothes with two pieces of toilet paper on her outstretched hands. She was trying to sell them.’

Here in the UK, Shah is active within the Afghan community, helping newly-arrived refugees, offering her services as an interpreter for organisations such as the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and fundraising for a small orphanage in Kabul.

Her book is, in her own words, ‘a simple cry for myself and my people who died, suffered, lost their children, became disabled, were widowed and became refugees’. But it is also a moving story of Shah’s own unending courage and inner strength in standing up to political repression and coping with the struggles and impoverishment of a life in exile. Her book tells a single story, but its words reach further, encouraging understanding and compassion in us all for the countless other refugees around the world who are on the margins of survival.

Esme McAvoy











Where do I belong? From Kabul to London—a refugee's life’ by Shabibi Shah, published by Longstone Books, ISBN 978-0-9554373-5-9, price £6.99. www.longstonebooks.co.uk

Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group www.gdwg.org.uk

 

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