In Afghanistan, more than half of the population cannot read, and for most of her life, neither could Marzia. Decades of war and a Taliban regime that forced girls out of the classroom wrecked the school system. But there were a wealth of folk tales passed down for generations that described Afghan village life — an oral storytelling tradition populated by talking animals, farmers’ wives, a woman who mistook an eagle for a pigeon and a mischievous chicken who convinced the townspeople that the earth just might swallow them alive.
“Only silly people would listen to a chicken in the first place,” Marzia read. “You think a chicken knows something just because he can talk?”
The story of how these legends became books and are helping more than a million Afghan children to read is an unlikely tale of its own. It is set on three continents and spans nearly five decades, even before Afghanistan became synonymous with war.
In 1963, Sally Mallam, a British woman then about Marzia’s age, met Idries Shah, an author and educator of Afghan heritage who lived in England and published Sufi classics in translation. Shah had collected hundreds of folk tales from Afghanistan and the surrounding region that he would recount to family and friends.
“He was an amazing storyteller,” Mallam recalled. “These stories seemed an integral part of his exuberant recollections about Afghanistan, the land he loved, where he often recalled the fruit trees grew the best fruit, where the mountains, flowers and valleys were the most beautiful and where the men, women and children were brave, honorable and wise — or were learning to be so.”
Mallam began her own career in publishing, which eventually led her to the United States, where she worked for a nonprofit organization that published educational books. In October 1996, a month before Shah died, Mallam returned to London to visit him. Although he had published dozens of books by that time, she had not seen the children’s stories in print.
“He said he hadn’t done anything with them, and I got all fired up,” Mallam said. “I came home with a manuscript.”
Nothing but work
For Marzia, and her younger sister Bilkees, books played no part in their childhoods in Kabul. Because their mother had died of tuberculosis, and their father was too ill to work, by the age of 6 they began to apprentice as carpet weavers to support their family. In one month, working day and night at home, each sister could produce four yards of carpet and earn $100. Even in the public schools, where textbooks were free, the students had to pay for pens and paper, an expense the sisters could not afford, they said.