“It has been almost two years since we were waiting for you to take action. We expected you to not be just a viewer,” Shegofa Shahbaz wrote to the UN. But because she wasn’t sure the UN would read a letter written by a nineteen-year-old college student sent on behalf of all the Afghan girls whose lives have been shattered, Shahbaz sent it to ROOM, hoping we might publish it, hoping it might find its way to the UN. Of course we will publish it, we told her. We will publish it in English and Dari so that other Afghan girls might find strength and hope through these words that they might be heard—that they will be recognized.
I am writing this letter on behalf of all Afghan girls. I am Shegofa Shahbaz. I am twenty years old. I grew up among the dust and smoke of explosions, gunshots, fire, war, and sad stories. I grew up with fear. Fear of an explosion inside our classroom, fear of not seeing my family again, fear of losing my friends, and fear of losing my dreams. Beside all those sad stories in my life, I had a hope for a better future, but when the Taliban took the control of Afghanistan, my dreams were destroyed.
“How many times have I said—don’t put spices in the food!”
My father’s voice ignited my nervous system, scorching through the oppressively humid atmosphere. My mother, who had cooked the food, stared silently at her plate.
He pointed at my eldest sister and asked, “Do you like spices?”
“No,” she responded.
He pointed at my second sister and asked, “Do you like spices?”
“No,” she responded.
He then pointed at me and asked, “Do you like spices?”
He stared back at me as if I had slapped him across the face.
“What did you say?”
“I don’t mind spices.”
He took me into a separate room.
I am writing this on Israel’s seventy-fifth anniversary, its democratic future shrouded in fog. Sections of society that failed to gain recognition, excluded for years from the main public discourse and centers of power, are now seeking to dismantle it from within. They are enraged: they seek to use their power, this time not just to exclude others (as they themselves were excluded) but to wreak destruction and erase everything they perceived as other than them.
I had reached a new low. The heights of the literary profession had never seemed more distant, unreachable. In fact, I lived in an attic. It was a hot and unbearable Istanbul summer. I woke every morning and sometimes every afternoon caked in sweat under the wooden roof on the top floor of a residential building in the modernistic environs of Besiktas, a neighborhood synonymous with football, beer, and anarchy.
[…] My hair could have been held in court as evidence of child neglect. My birth was preceded by an endless list of questions concerning paternity, but the dark, coarse corkscrews that sprang from my crown only served to lengthen the list. My mother’s loose auburn curls explained half my head, but the other half remained unaccounted for. My family would later joke, “We didn’t know whose you were, but we knew you weren’t white.”
I spent the better part of a month in 2022 in lower Manhattan on a wooden bench in the back of a courtroom, observing a rape trial. Early on, I’d concluded my testimony on behalf of the victim, but, emotionally invested and unable to shift my attention, I kept showing up. The plaintiff had sought psychotherapy with me in 2017 to address symptoms of anxiety and body loathing. In an initial session, I asked if she had ever experienced unwanted sexual contact. “Yes, that happened,” she told me in a forthright and detached manner.
[…] Alarm and outrage surged again. This scare tactic was having its intended effect, and it took every bit of those panic-reducing approaches I share with my patients in times of high anxiety to calm myself. […]
The mayor called for an investigation into the amount of horseshit that’s been accumulating on Central Park West as of late. ‘It’s a veritable dumping ground,’ one disgusted resident said. ‘It’s a lot of shit,’ the mayor was quoted as saying. ‘I meant caca or crap. You know what I meant,’ he added. Anyway the mayor said they’d be starting a proper investigation. The right agency or investigative body would be called upon to proceed. In this case, the Department of Sanitation, but there were suggestions of a new agency potentially being formed. Code name: the Shit Squad.
I met Carol when I was in my early twenties. She was sweet and funny, with a gravelly Jersey accent and a streetwise tomboy persona. I don’t know how she ended up homeless and turning tricks on the streets of Sin City, but we crossed paths in the circle of transient addicts I was running with at the time and took to each other immediately—the fast bond of street siblings that often occurs between the desperate and the damned.