Grandparents and parents telling bedtime stories are among the memories most of us carry through adulthood. Stories, unlike toys, cost no money and can germinate on the tongue of the storyteller, or in the deep recesses of common memory and legend. The stories we heard stirred our childish imaginations, gave wings to a thousand fantasies, instilled precepts of right and wrong, and even embedded prejudices into our subconscious. But not all children can take this seemingly universal childhood memory for granted. In Afghanistan, where decades of conflict have torn families apart, uprooting them from their homes, many have grown up with their childhoods distorted by the sheer weight of survival. With fragmented families and life expectancy hovering around 40 years, children are lucky if they ever get to live with their grandparents, lucky if they can go to school, lucky if they are able to experience any of the idle joys of childhood.
Against this backdrop, the BBC’s ‘Stories for Living’ is among the most valiant efforts to keep the imagination of Afghan childhood alive. A broadcast of children’s stories, it is prepared in Dari and Pashtu by the BBC’s Afghan Education Programme (AEP). AEP has also published some of the stories in colourfully illustrated books (see pics), which are bought by donors such as the Aga Khan Development Network and distributed free to Afghan children. However, given the country’s low literacy rates, radio remains AEP’s primary focus.
Rather than retelling old folktales or bringing out educational programmes, the AEP has combined traditional stories with the current realities of Afghanistan, using animal characters to fire the imagination of children. So, for instance, the ‘Peddler’s Bag’ yields magical games to teach children how to count or spell, while a story about a returning refugee tackles the sensitive issue of building acceptance for someone who might look, dress or speak differently. The idea has been to introduce children to ideas that other children usually learn in school, but without making it appear tedious or like ‘work’, says Shafiq Hakimi, the interim project manager of the AEP. The magical tonga, for example, has a woman driver who can take children anywhere they like, be it a country or a post office or a museum, where they learn what takes place at the destination.
Yet finding role models – the staple stuff of children’s stories – has been a challenge, admits Hakimi. Over the last thirty years, it was commanders and fighters who became the natural ‘leaders’ in Afghanistan, not thinkers, philosophers or even politicians. Consequently, in ‘Stories for Living’, the role models defy expectations: there is a blind girl who has learned several languages, a scholar who had written several books, or a poet such as Rumi who is accepted throughout the country. The appeal of these programmes has cut across boundaries, even winning support from the Taliban. This has led to some comic encounters: Hakimi recounts one instance in which a vehicle chased the AEP team on the road leaving Jalalabad, only to catch up and demand a share of the load of children’s books they were carrying.
Below are translations of excerpts from two stories that have been prepared and broadcast by AEP.
The ruined castle
By Najia Waheed & Saeed Mustafa Akbari
Parrot: Aunty! What are you thinking, what are you looking at?
Narrator: I am looking at that ruined castle. I was thinking about it. I don’t know if anyone lives there or not, but I am scared if there is monster.
Parrot: (excited) Monster? What monster?
Narrator: Listen to the story about the Ruined Castle. There was a boy named Asad. After living a long time in another country, he returned to his village and lived with his grandfather and grandmother. While abroad, he heard that his village is beautiful and there are lots of beautiful and green places. So he requested his grandfather to take him to gardens and other places for sightseeing.
Asad: (happily) Wow! There are lots of gardens grandfather. Are they ours?
Grandfather: No my son, all of the gardens have owners.
Asad: See grandfather, the stream water looks lovely.
Grandfather: Its water comes from that village over there. Due to drought its water has lessened. In the past, before the wars, the village was green and beautiful, and now it is getting better since people returned from immigration and worked on their lands.
Asad: (surprised) Grandfather! There is a ruined castle in the village too. Let’s go there and see its inside.
Grandfather: (angry) No! Do not go there!
Asad: (carelessly) I just said that we should go there. Why do you get angry at me?
Grandfather: (angry and sad) Many people want to go there to collect firewood, but … (Murmuring to himself: It is wrong if I lie to him that there is a monster. But how can I make him understand not to go there? Yes, I have to tell him to be scared and not go there.) My son! There is a monster in that castle. Don’t go there. Now go with your friends and play.
Asad: (carelessly) What is it? A monster? I am going to see what kind of monster it is.
Parrot: (fearful, chirping) Oh, god. What if the monster catches Asad?
Narrator: Don’t get upset. Grandfather didn’t let Asad go there. He bought a kite for Asad and told him to go and fly kites with his friends. But the place where Asad was flying kites with friends was close to the ruined castle.
Asad: (happily) Waheed! Please help me fly the kite. I am going to fight my kite against Sulaiman’s kite.
Sulaiman: (loudly) Asad! It seems you know how to fly kite very well. But you didn’t say when you returned …
Asad: (loudly) It has been one or one and a half months.
Sulaiman: Yeah, people say that there was war in the whole area.
Asad: (sadly) Oh no, I was thinking about wars and the kite was cut!
Waheed: Asad! Your kite went to the ruined castle.
Sulaiman: (worried) Don’t go towards the ruined castle. There is a monster. A monster!
Parrot: (worried) Oh, god. Asad went towards the monster, the ruined castle.
Narrator: Don’t worry. Asad’s friends didn’t let him go there.
Parrot: (takes a breath) Thank god. I was scared. What happened with the kite?
Narrator: His kite remained there. Asad was worried. He asked the boys who says there is monster. His friends quote his grandfather. Worried Asad returned home.
Asad: (thoughtful) I don’t know why they won’t let me go to that ruined castle. No one else goes there. (Night sound) All its walls are destroyed and it seems dangerous too. But which side will the monster be on? (Jackal is heard) Is that the sound of the monster?
Mother: Asad, my son! What are thinking? Eat your meal.
(Sound of a jackal)
Asad: Oh, is this the monster?
Mother: My son! Today since you have come home, it seems that you have been thinking about something.
Asad: I have been thinking about the ruined castle. Mother! Grandfather said that there is a monster in that castle. How does he know?
Mother: No one can see it. People say it is a hidden monster.
(Sound of a door)
Grandfather: Asad, my son! Aren’t you eating? Or you have already eaten?
Mother: He ate some, but since he came home he has been thinking about the ruined castle.
Grandfather: Come my son. Eat your meal and don’t think so much. There is a monster, so do not go to that ruined castle. There is even something worse than a monster that killed and injured many people. Don’t talk about it.
(Explosion is heard from afar)
Asad: (worried) Hey, grandfather! What was that? Was it the monster?
Grandfather: (fearful and sad) Oh no! Who was hit by that monster again?
Grandfather: Let’s go and listen to the mullah. I think he is talking about last night’s incident.
Mullah: (with uproar) Brothers! Thank god last night someone was not blown up by the mine. A jackal was blown up. If we go there, it would injure us too.
Grandfather: I have told all the children in the village not to go there. There is a monster. A monster!
Asad: (happily to himself) Now I understand what they call monster. It is a mine. A mine. It is really dangerous. (Loudly) Mullah! Why is the mine there?
Mullah: There are mines due to wars. Areas such as military posts and battlefields have mines and unexploded ordnance, UXOs, these are especially found in destroyed and ruined places like this ruined castle. You must not go there due to dangers of mines and unexploded ordnance.
Grandfather: God bless you mullah, but you didn’t say whether it can be free of mines and UXOs.
Mullah: I have already reported the incident, and today a mine-clearance team is coming and they will mark the area. No one must go there.
Asad: Dear Mullah! Don’t worry, grandfather has already warned us not to go to the ruined castle. There is a monster … I mean mine.
Grandfather: Bravo. Now you understood.
Asad: Grandfather! I understood and I am going to inform my friends not to go to the ruined castle and other ruined places. There might be mines and unexploded ordinance.
Castle of a thousand windows
By Ahmad Ali
Palwasha: Wow, look Asad! See how tulips have grown around the castle.
Asad: Yes, Palwasha! Look how the red flowers have made this area beautiful.
Palwasha: Tulips have bloomed because spring has arrived, hasn’t it Asad?
Asad: Spring and New Year have both arrived. We will collect these flowers and gift them to Laloo on New Year’s Day, and wish him a happy New Year.
Palwasha: Asad, Laloo doesn’t seem to be here.
Asad: You are right, I am worried about this.
Palwasha: (bewildered) Wow, Asad! Laloo came on a rug in the air.
Laloo: Oh, welcome guests. I was late and I hope you are not upset with me … Come on, let’s go for it is getting late. Come on.
Asad: Uncle Laloo, what a beautiful magic rug you have.
Laloo: Thanks, I go on this magic rug whenever I am late. I did so this time as well. (Laughing)
Asad: I wish our red rug was magic like this so that I can fly on it.
Palwasha: What are you talking about, the one which is made of wool?
Asad: Yes, that one.
Palwasha: (laughing) Oh, that is a felt rug.
Asad: I don’t know, regardless of what it is.
Palwasha: Uncle Laloo, open a window – it is late.
Laloo: Ok, I will open this window.
Messenger: Salaam, dear friends! Do you know what a felt rug is? A felt rug is made of animal wool, mostly goat’s wool. People who own livestock make felt rugs.
Laloo: Do you now know what a felt rug is?
Palwasha: Yes, Laloo, we understood. A felt rug is made of animal wool, mostly goat’s wool.
Asad: Another thing is it has been used in Afghanistan since a long time ago.
Palwasha: (interrupts) That is enough, how many times must you mention it? It is not good to discuss felt rugs so often – it is a shame to have a felt rug.
Laloo: Hey girl, what shame?
Palwasha: Oh, it is a shame to discuss someone’s felt rug so often.
Laloo: If it is so, then I will open a window about this.
Asad: Ok, Uncle Laloo.
Farida: Mother, mother, where are you?
Mother: What’s happening? I am here.
Farida: The girls have held a picnic, and I need some rice.
Mother: (happily) Ok my daughter! I will give you a bowlful of rice.
Farida: Oh, mother so little! We are holding a picnic for New Year, and you give me this little bit of rice?
Mother: Yes, why? It is enough for one meal, it’s not so little.
Farida: (crying) I will feel ashamed to take this. How can I go back to the picnic? The girls will laugh at me.
Mother: My daughter, everyone brings something according to their economic status. Why should they laugh?
Farida: (crying) No, no, I will never go to this picnic.
Breshna: Salaam, aunt! Oh, why is Farida crying?
Mother: I think she is holding a picnic with the girls and needs some rice. So, I gave her a bowlful of rice, but she says it is too little now, and feel ashamed.
Farida: Breshna, how I can take this little bit of rice? Everyone will laugh at me.
Breshna: Why should they laugh? Everyone brings something according to their economic status. It is not something to be ashamed of – one shouldn’t feel shame for having a small amount of something. If this is so, I should be ashamed as well and not join the picnic because I am only taking a pot of tea. Just take the rice and let’s go happily.
Laloo: Do you now know why I opened this window for you?
Asad: Yes, Laloo. I also understood that one shouldn’t feel shame for having a small amount of something. You know Uncle Laloo, one day a malang [Sufi] had come. My mother gave five afghanis to Palwasha to give to the Malang. Palwasha said it is shameful to give just five afghanis to a Malang, as it is so little. I thought five afghanis was a lot of money for the Malang, who was blind. He might not have seen so much money even in his dreams.
Palwasha: It is enough; I regret that. You always look at other people’s mistakes. Uncle Laloo, Asad says the Malang hasn’t seen five afghanis in his dreams. Tell me whether blind men dream.
Asad: Yes, I said this, but I don’t know how blind men can dream.
Palwasha: Uncle Laloo, please open a window about this.
Ahmad: How are you Salim? Where are you carrying this medicine?
Salim: I’m fine, thanks. My younger brother Nader is sick and has a fever. I think he got scared in a dream. He stutters while talking.
Ahmad: Salim, Nader is blind, how can he dream?
Salim: Yes, the blind can dream.
Ahmad: Would you mind whether I ask Nader about this?
Ahmad: Salim, Nader is sitting in the sunshine. How are you, Nader? I heard that you got scared last night. Did you have a fever?
Nader: Yes, I dreamed last night and got scared.
Salim: Nader, Ahmad wants to ask you whether the blind can dream.
Nader: Yes, why not?
Ahmad: How do they dream? We can see colours and things in dreams.
Salim: Blind men can’t see colours and faces in dreams, can they?
Ahmad: Then, how do they know people?
Nader: We know people from their voices; sometimes we know things by touching them.
Salim: One of our teachers said that a person who could see at first and become blind only later can dream very complicated dreams. They can see colours and faces sometimes but sometimes they just hear voices.
~ Aunohita Mojumdar is a contributing editor to this magazine.