Khala Mahgul is the eldest lady in the community of Murad Khane. Khala is the Dari equivalent of “Auntie”, Dari is the dialect of Persion spoken in Afghanistan. For those of you new to my blog, Murad Khane is an area of the Old City in Kabul which is now home to the Institute for Afghan Arts & Architecture, housed within a complex of buildings once home to Afghanistan’s first school. Murad Khane has a thriving bazaar and is placed in the heart of the commercial centre of Kabul. The bazaar itself attracts approximately 100,000 visitors per week. Historic buildings have been restored and infrastructure has been installed as part of a comprehensive regeneration programme by Turquoise Mountain in collaboration with the local community and the Ministry of Education.
Turquoise Mountain has invested equally in the regeneration of the built environment and in the improvement of living conditions for the local community. Their Community Development team has worked closely with the conservation, architecture, and engineering teams to pursue a holistic approach to urban regeneration assisting those who would otherwise be denied access to basic services and providing economic opportunities to those with irregular incomes.
Literacy classes have been provided to women through the Community Development programme since 2008; within three years all adult women within the community were literate. Khala Mahgul was the first person to sign up for the course.
Shortly after I arrived here at Turquoise Mountain, this March, I was asked if I could undertake writing a piece for an American publication focusing on Afghan women’s experiences in relation to Turquoise Mountain’s projects. Looking through all the documentation I had accumulated to write this piece I came across Mahgul’s case study. I was utterly intrigued. I thought how great is this lady, she’s in her nineties and she is the first to sign up for literary classes, how fantastic! (Mahgul told me she was ninety-five when we spoke but no one seems entirely clear on her age).
Mahgul’s energetic spirit and vivacious personality belie her advanced age. Although she is originally from another area of Kabul she has been living within the community for twenty-five years. “Murad Khane used to have a lot of different traditions and we were a very close-knit community,” she says, recalling weddings parties that lasted for seven days and a time when the men of the community had their own businesses – many repairing shoes and designing hats. She has watched these local traditions disperse along with most of the original residents who fled the community during the past three decades of war.
I had read that Mahgul was now able to read and write and that she had been able to record her poems in written form. I thought, is there anyway that I can find out more about this lady or get some examples of her poetry? I was given contact information for Nilab, a member of the team at the Turquoise Mountain Family Health Centre and I met her to find out if this was possible. She did one better and suggested arranging a meeting with Mahgul! As the wooden door off of one of the inner streets in Murad Khane opened and I met Mahgul for the first time I was instantly taken aback as she looked more like my own grandmother than anyone I have ever met before. We walked through a dark passageway that opened into a courtyard where pigeons were kept and as I turned around I saw the wooden façade of her house, which was just beautiful.
We spoke briefly and she said she would come and meet us shortly in the health centre to talk. She expressed concern about the imminent arrival of her son, who was not well, and said she wanted to avoid us running into him. (Her son is known to have some challenges with mental health). It seems that we headed off just in time as her son was walking down the lane behind us as we left the house. He definitely seemed to have a rather lose if not non-existant grip on reality.
Not long after whilst seated around a communal table in the health centre Khala Maghul began to tell me a little about herself and her poetry. She explained that the poems she is now able to write down are a combination of poems passed onto her from her grandfather and those of her own composition. I had heard from William, the head of Community Development, that Mahgul was always waxing poetical. She did not disappoint. As we sat around the table she recited for us two beautiful poems; one from Hafez Sharazi, a famous 14th century Persian poet from Iran and another from Jaami, a 15th century classical Sufi poet from Herat, Afghanistan. Mahgul then composed a short poem on the spot about the people present, which roughly translates as follows:
In this room I am sitting with five beautiful people
Dear Dr. Ferogh is the most senior and most trustworthy
I hope that Dear Dr. Khudjesta is not offended
For I will say that Dear Nilab is the fruit of the earth.
She was really a gem. There is one line from the poem she recited from Jami that stays with me. “The sun is just one but its light is everywhere”. Oh, Khala Mahgul you lit up at least one lady’s life that day. From the look on the faces of everyone seated around that table I don’t think I was the only one touched by your spirit.
Laura Lean is responsible for the breathtaking image of Khala Mahgul. Laura is a brilliant and fearless documentary photographer and I am so grateful to her that she was able to capture such a wonderful moment. It is so often that pictures fall far short of those experiences we hope to capture with them; Laura manages to exceed expectations. For more details about her work please visit her website: www.lauralean.co.uk or follow her on lauralean.wordpress.com