Marzia Mohseni rose from her desk and walked to the front of the classroom. At 18, she was taller, and older, than the other girls, and she spoke in a shy whisper. One had to strain to hear as she opened the book, turned to the first page and started to read.

“Once upon a time, in a country far away, there was a town, and in the town there was a chicken,” she began. “And he was a very silly chicken indeed.”

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.

“We were working so hard — from morning until evening. Every night, I tried to work later and later to finish more carpets,” Bilkees said. “I never thought I’d do anything else besides make carpets.”

Bilkees recalled an embarrassing attempt to locate a hospital room for her grandmother that ended in failure as neither could read any of the signs. When wedding invitations came to the house, the sisters stared at the meaningless symbols. They ignored the instructional diagrams for the carpets, which they could not decipher.

“I thought I would be illiterate forever,” Marzia said.

Giving them ‘a treasure’

By 1998, Hoopoe Books, a division of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge, where Mallam was director of publishing, published the first four of Shah’s children’s stories in the United States. Mallam, who lives in Los Altos, Calif., chose Bay Area artists to illustrate the stories. The characters wore Afghan clothes — men in turbans, women in head scarves — and the artists researched the look of Afghan buildings and landscapes.

After several years, Mallam set out to “repatriate” the books to Afghanistan. She found a printer and had the books translated into the two main Afghan languages, Dari and Pashto, and partnered with an Afghan nonprofit, Khatiz Organization for Rehabilitation (KOR), as well as the Ministry of Education, to have them distributed to schools and orphanages.

“If children have nothing, and you want children to learn and value books, you have to give them a gift. You have to give them a treasure. And these stories are a treasure,” she said.

The U.S. Embassy took an interest in the project last year and gave a $4.5 million grant that vastly expanded it. About 1 million books featuring six different stories have been handed out. Two more titles and 1.5 million more books are to come.

Many of NATO’s units in the country that focus on development work have helped distribute the books to local schools, including in Taliban strongholds of southern Afghanistan.

There were unusual challenges that came with promoting books in a largely illiterate country. To get parents interested in reading the stories to their children, the U.S. Embassy funded radio programs that broadcast the stories, with verbal cues to tell the parents when to turn the page. Classes help teachers learn how to present and discuss the material, down to simple tips such as holding the books open toward the students, so they can see the pictures as they read.

“The students enjoy the stories, and they are especially interested in the animals,” said Habiba Niazi, a kindergarten teacher who took one such training class. “They want to know what kind of animals they are, what they eat, where they live.”

Top of their class

From a relative, Marzia and Bilkees learned of the Aschiana Foundation, an organization in Kabul that runs schools for street kids and poor children who have fallen behind their grade. The education was free, and the school handed out food rations to students. Last year, their step-mother, who had started selling baked goods out of their home, allowed them to attend.

To get there each day, they wake at dawn, walk for half an hour to a main road, then spend an hour on the bus. In the evenings, they weave pillowcases and tablecloths for extra money.

“Some students come here knowing a little bit. These two sisters, they knew nothing,” said one of their teachers. “But Marzia’s very intelligent. She now has the first position in the class. And her sister is second.”

As they learned to read, they pored over Idries Shah’s stories, at school and at home. They read billboards, signs at the pharmacy, magazines, wedding invitations. Both want to stay in school as long as possible. Marzia said she wants to become a doctor; Bilkees, a teacher.

“Now that I can read and write, it makes me feel amazed,” Marzia said. “It was difficult, but I was very, very interested to learn.”