In honor of Malala, Gul Makai, the Afghan Buddhas, my grand and great grandmothers


As people in conflict areas the world over are being terrorized, we call on the stories of fighting girls and those among us fighting to survive. I performed this poem tonight in honor of Malala. I was joined by Nargis Khestoo and Zainab Syed who also performed original poetry for BU Mishaal’s Hoshyar Fundraising event to build a new secondary school. Special thanks to Afshan Bokhari for inviting me to perform.

When my Didu first heard that the great Buddhas carved on the side of Afghan cliffs
were being broken with bombs
She declared the world has gone mad again
Even as I saw video footage of these beauteous forms crashing and catapulting
as rocks
in a cascade of iconoclasmic death,
I heard the hearts of a whole people and their ancestors

My own heart did not wish to beat
My heart
one and same
as those beating thousands of miles away in Swat Valley
Where one girl had the temerity to tame it
so she might hear her own voice amidst the din of terror

Though Malala* is fiercely named, she also names herself Gul Makai**
thus rooting herself in dreams

She may ask as I do
How does one keep this heart open daily witnessing the defacement of humanity?
her namesake, Malala of Maiwand, the Afghani warrior girl of long ago rallies her people
“With a drop of my sweetheart’s blood,
Shed in defense of the Motherland,
Will I put a beauty spot on my forehead,
Such as would put to shame the rose in [a] garden!”

Pashtun poet Ajmal Khattak cries
“My Malalai is living, and they praise others’ beauty.
Though they have eyes, they are blind.”

My great grandmother named me for rosary beads when my young eyes delighted only in gems
“but Buri Ma, gems are so much prettier”
“Silly child,
I named you well.
Beauty is elusive –
Work knowledge into your life
as a monk might thread rosary”

These ornaments that now light my face and body in beauty
I wonder how much worth they attribute to me
Without security I know the gems are what thugs fight over
Without liberty my own person then has no sovereignty

How then does that darling girl Malala find security and claim liberation amidst fire and mortar shells?
In the fragile fighting dream her father has for her?
in the arms of faithful friends who walk her to school each day?

No, I do not always wish to be lit up as a glittery gem
Sometimes seeking solace in shadow brings grace
Knowing the candle I tend within
is mine to share
And the darkness without
fiercely guards my sovereignty

Yes, I will reach for my rosary and pray
Make Malala not a martyr
Make her instead,
as she wishes,
Gul Makai
blossoming in the broken bones of her home

* Malala was named after Makalai of Maiwand, a national folk heroine of Afghanistan who fell at the front lines while rallying the Pashtun army against the British troops at the 1880 Battle of Maiwand

** Malala’s pen name Gul Makai “corn flower” is the heroine of a Pakistani folk tale, a Romeo and Juliet story, where the lovers meet at school. The romance between Gul Makai and her lover, Musa Khan, creates a war between their tribes. But the tale doesn’t lead to tragedy. Gul makai teaches her elders, interpreting the Quran to demonstrate how this war is frivolous – they listen, cease the war, and unite the lovers in marriage. Translator Masud-Ul-Hasan of Gul Makai’s story reflects, “She did not rest content to love, and die. She was a woman of action; she loved, won, and lived.”