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‘Art is for the voiceless’: Halifax poet helping Afghan women claim their dreams

Halifax poet Tamana Saqi made her dreams come true, as well as her mother’s, when she decided to pick up her pen to write a book dedicated to Afghan women still healing from wounds of injustice and war.

It brought tears to their eyes when Shadow of my Knight was finally published early in December.

“She said I made her dreams come true … because she couldn’t do it, but now I’m achieving my dreams and she’s very proud,” Saqi says. “She’s the reason I’m even writing.”

Her mother, Aisha Abdullah, was a teacher and a lover of language, but couldn’t write or freely express herself when she lived under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

READ MORE: Afghanistan’s Taliban nightmare — and how women are resisting

During that time, she was not allowed to teach in schools, but she still gave private classes at her home for children.

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Looking back, Saqi says it’s important to give Afghan women opportunities to share their stories because for so long they couldn’t.

“When you reached out to me,” she says when contacted by Global News, “I felt so happy because I felt like there is actually someone who wants to hear what I have to say.”

The Taliban returned to power in August following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, marking the end of a 20-year war that left the Islamist group stronger than it was in 2001.

America’s longest war took the lives of nearly 2,500 U.S. troops and an estimated 240,000 Afghans, and cost about $2 trillion.

The Taliban brutally enforced their strict interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001, not least by oppressing women.

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Saqi and her family know what it’s like to live under such a rule. When the news broke of the Taliban’s return to power, Saqi says she was shocked and heartbroken.

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“After years of women working and having their voice heard, suddenly (they’re taken back) to how it was like before,” says Saqi, who added she felt depressed and overwhelmed by the news.

As a way to cope with the shock, she started writing poetry during the night when she couldn’t sleep and thought about Afghan women’s lives and loves.

Read more:

After a bloody 20-year war, what’s next for Afghanistan?

One of her poems reads:

each drop of tears is telling a story

story of uncompleted love

story of a broken heart

story of my world

Art to me is for the voiceless, so I’m here speaking for others who can’t,” Saqi says.

She and her family moved to Tajikistan in the early 2000s after her father died in a car accident. There, her mother worked to support Saqi and her four siblings while suffering from diabetes that caused her feet to swell.

“She would go to work to feed us and made sure we got an education. She was sending me to English classes,” Saqi says.

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In 2014 Saqi, who is now 25 years old, immigrated to Halifax with her family. She was 18 at the time and knew very little English.

She struggled but worked hard to get her bachelor’s degree in international development from Saint Mary’s University. Along the way, she received support and encouragement from Mahnaz Roshan, an Iranian-Canadian artist who illustrated her poetry book.

Saqi first met Roshan when the latter was a settlement counsellor with Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), helping Saqi and her family settle in the community.

“I was some sort of mentor to her,” Roshan says. “She’s much younger than me, but in art, we have lots in common.”

Live painting inspired by Saqi’s poetry at Halifax Central Library.

Roshan says what makes immigrant and refugee women so powerful is their ability to transform their grief and life’s many experiences through art, and other creative means, which then becomes their source of motivation and empowerment.

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“If I have a hard day or a happy one, I have to finish my day with art. I don’t think I can go to bed without making art. Art has had a huge impact on my personal well-being,” she says.

Saqi now works as a settlement counsellor at ISANS with Roshan, helping refugees pursue their education and career aspirations.

“I found my own life here. I struggled, I still found my way to go to university, come up with a book, and have a good job,” Saqi says.

“I want everyone to have the courage and hope to see that at the end of the day, they can actually grow and they can do a lot because there’s a lot of opportunities. But they have to have the hope that they are going to reach that light.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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