‘Books they love’: A Kabul graveyard library for two schoolgirls
In Taliban’s Afghanistan, Hazara cousins, both blast victims who loved to read and learn, inspire an outdoor library – and new readers.
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Kabul, Afghanistan – One morning in early October last year, 16-year-old cousins Marzia and Hajar Mohammadi were laid to rest next to one another in a remote graveyard on the outskirts of Kabul. Among the roses on the girls’ graves, their grieving family members placed a few of the teenagers’ favourite books – a tribute to their love of reading.
Marzia and Hajar were among the 53 students killed last September in an attack on a Kaj education centre in Dasht-e-Barchi, a predominantly Shia Muslim and Hazara ethnic minority neighbourhood. A suicide bomber detonated his explosives in a crowded classroom among students who had gathered for a practice university entrance exam. Most of the victims were young women.
While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the affiliate of the ISIL (ISIS) armed group in Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), has targeted places where Hazaras worship, study and work. In April 2022, explosions targeted two educational institutes attended by students in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood, killing at least six people. The centre where Marzia and Hajar were killed had been attacked before – in 2018, in a blast that killed more than 40 students. ISKP claimed responsibility for that attack.
Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, ISKP has claimed responsibility for 13 attacks against Hazaras and is linked to at least three others, in which at least 700 people have been killed or injured, according to Human Rights Watch.
A bucket list of dreams
A day after Marzia and Hajar’s funeral, their heartbroken uncle, 42-year-old Zaher Modaqeq, discovered a number of diaries and journals among the girls’ personal effects. Deeply moved by their writing, he shared some pages from Marzia’s diary on social media, including a bucket list of things she wanted to do in life.
“My Marzia and Hajar were such amazing girls, so different than others their age. I wish more people could have known their determination,” Zaher reflected. “They could have inspired many, I believe they still can.”
Although Hajar’s parents did not wish to share their daughter’s writing in public, Zaher says Marzia’s entries provide a glimpse into both their aspirations.
At the very top of their bucket list was meeting their favourite author, Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak. Other unfilled dreams included visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris and eating a pizza in Italy. On social media, Zaher posted Marzia’s entry about shopping for books after the Taliban takeover. And he shared how the girls’ siblings left books on Marzia and Hajar’s graves. The posts went viral on social media and touched a nerve in a country which continues to lose its young people to continuing violence.
After Marzia and Hajar’s funeral, their 22 siblings returned regularly to the quiet, dusty, hilltop cemetery. About a week later, they found several books – mostly in Persian, some in English, and all well-worn from years of reading – left behind by strangers.
The following week, there were about two dozen books – titles by Shafak, American author Rachel Hollis and Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist Nadia Murad.
“We always knew Marzia and Hajar really loved books,” explained 21-year-old Insiya, Hajar’s older sister and Marzia’s cousin. But after pages of Marzia’s diary were shared on social media others learned “how much they liked being surrounded by books, and people honoured them with these books”.
Pages from Marzia’s diary, daily notes she wrote to herself in neat, legible handwriting in Farsi and occasionally in English, were shared by Zaher with Al Jazeera. More than half a dozen diaries – some battered notebooks, others leather-bound planners – filled with hundreds of entries, reveal a determined young woman who found strength in books amid the attacks on Hazaras, an historically persecuted group, and other Shia Muslim communities, and growing restrictions on women under the ruling Taliban.
Since the Taliban’s return to power, it has shut down girls’ secondary schools, affecting about three million students, restricted women from entering workplaces and imposed other curbs on freedom including requiring a close male relative to accompany any long-distance travel.
On August 23, 2021, about a week after the Taliban’s takeover, Marzia wrote, “Today I stepped out of the house for the first time since the arrival of the Taliban … I had a feeling of insecurity and dread.”
The teenager went to a bookshop and bought The Architect’s Apprentice by Shafak, the author Marzia and Hajar idolised. “Today I realised how much I love books,” she wrote. “I like seeing people’s joy when they see and read books.”
As Marzia and Hajar’s siblings came upon more books left behind by strangers they decided to create a small outdoor library.
One family member brought out an old cupboard that had fallen into disuse. They cleaned and painted it bright orange – the girls’ favourite colour.
Fatema Khairullahi, an Afghan graphic designer, made an illustration of the girls after they had died showing them with a pine tree – a symbol of strength and resilience – and shared it on social media. When the family decided to set up the library they contacted the artist who agreed to recreate the image as a mural in the centre of the cabinet.
In late October, the sturdy cabinet was brought to the graveyard and placed next to the cousins’ graves. The shelves hold about two dozen books, protected by glass doors which are left unlocked so the volumes can be easily accessed.
Marzia and Hajar lived in the same household with several families. Books were always stacked around the room they shared with their siblings.
“We made this library because we know how much they loved being surrounded by books,” explained Insiya, who sat with other relatives including Zaher, on toshaks, or traditional Afghan floor cushions, in the sparsely decorated family room of the extended family home.
“We feel this is making them very happy” as reading and being around books is what they wanted in their lives, she added, tearing up as she spoke. “Hajar had written in her diary, ‘I feel so good when I am reading. I feel like I am part of that story’.”
Marzia and Hajar were not just cousins – they were inseparable friends. They both dreamed of becoming architects and writers like the authors they admired.
“Most of us just read the books that we are supposed to read for our school, but Hajar and Marzia were different. They would read lots of different books, constantly seeking more knowledge,” Insiya recalled with a sad smile. “They wanted to learn more than what we learned at school.”
Both loved fiction, said their 28-year-old aunt Nooria, Zaher’s sister, who sat with Insiya and wore a light pink dress and a loosely wrapped maroon headscarf. “But they were also fond of motivational books. I think one of the reasons they still had hope [after the Taliban shut down girls’ high schools shortly after returning to power] is probably because of the kind of books they read — books that encouraged them to be stronger women, to aim higher and work for their goals,” she explained.
“I am confident these books made them stronger even in times of adversity and restrictions. It taught them to not give up and continue fighting for their goals,” added Nooria, a medical student, and the first woman in the family to graduate from university.
“When the girls in our family learned that some of them would no longer get to go to school, they were all very upset,” recalled Zaher, a tall man dressed in a simple shalwar kameez.
He and Nooria gathered them one evening soon after the Taliban takeover. “I brought them a cake and had a long conversation with them about how they must not give up. I told them they need to be stronger, they have to be different,” he said.
“When I read their diary entries from those days, I saw how motivated they were to rise up despite the new restrictions and challenges. They wanted to continue their education and had hoped to take control of their future,” Nooria added.
While they were alive, the cousins hoped to attend university. With their high school graduation delayed due to the closures, Marzia and Hajar were determined to press on and start preparing for the university entrance exam, which at the time they could sit for.
In February last year, Marzia wrote, “I have to try harder than yesterday and last week. … I have to make a decision to change my future and my life. The only way to succeed in an emergency situation like this is to study.”
She wrote about passing the university entrance exam as being the “first step” to securing a scholarship abroad so she could leave Afghanistan.
“I have to believe in myself and God will help me.
Time 12:30 midnight
God!! Me and Hajar, next year this time on Feb 4, we shouldn’t be in Afghanistan.”
In an undated entry, she writes about needing to continue her studies “with or without electricity”.
In their first mock university entrance exam, Marzia and Hajar scored 50 and 51 percent respectively. Marzia was disappointed. She would aim for 60 in the next test. “Bravo Marzia!” she wrote after she got 61.
Zaher shared how her scores improved until she got 82 percent, a result she wanted to maintain. “But then…” he said, his voice trailing off.
“Marzia and Hajar turned to their education and books for solutions when the situation got worse. Even when it felt like there was no hope of university, and some people were saying girls might not even be allowed to sit for the entrance exams, they still continued to study, read and learn on their own,” said Marzia’s older sister, 23-year-old Parwana. “They inspired us.”
But not everything they read helped. With the uncertainty in Afghanistan, 50 pages into the account of Yazidi activist Nadia Murad about surviving capture and enslavement by ISIL, Marzia remarked in her diary that she did not have the “patience for it” and put the book away before later completing it.
In late 2022, just a few months after they were killed, the Taliban banned women from university. In January, the Taliban ordered private universities to not allow female students to sit for upcoming entrance exams.
‘A lot of pain’
Even before the Taliban restrictions, it was not easy for the women in Marzia and Hajar’s family to access education. “We had to struggle for it,” Nooria said.
“Our parents are illiterate and they didn’t understand the importance of equality; the boys were valued more than the girls,” explained Insiya, sharing how she and Hajar’s eldest sister stopped going to school after her marriage as a teenager. “But since then we have been fighting these traditions and gradually changing perspectives of the elders in the family towards educating girls,” she continued, referring to the many conversations that Zaher and others had to convince older relatives to allow women in the family to study.
“We live in a society where such change is hard, but Marzia and Hajar’s parents really came around to the idea and had been fully supporting their daughters’ education,” said Nooria.
Today, their parents and the rest of the family are still grappling with their loss.
“There is a lot of pain,” Parwana said, pausing briefly to hold back her tears. She took a deep breath and continued. “But building this space, this small room for them, has given us the opportunity to channel our hurt in a way that would make Marzia and Hajar proud.”
Zaher chokes back tears while speaking about his nieces, repeating how “unique” they were.
When the Taliban retook power in 2021 there was a mass exodus of Afghans, particularly those at risk of persecution.
Zaher said the family chose to stay to play their part in shaping a brighter future and peaceful society in Afghanistan.
“This is why we stayed, so we and our children like Marzia and Hajar, could be catalysts for change,” he said.
Now he only hopes that the memory of his nieces can inspire some positive change when it comes to girls’ education.
Inspiring new readers
The graveyard library on the city outskirts is not easy to access – it can only be reached by car – and as such, has not received many visitors. The library’s collection is slowly growing.
“But the reaction to it has been overwhelming, because many people are now talking about the importance of reading and education, the values that Marzia and Hajar strongly believed in,” Insiya reflected. She recalled how an older neighbour visited the graveyard and returned with one of the motivational books from the library.
“She came to our house later saying that she was inspired and wanted to read and learn more.”
In February, the family set up another small cupboard library with about 30 donated books – mostly novels including Marzia and Hajar’s favourite titles – in a primary school in their village in Ghazni province.
The family hopes to eventually set up larger libraries in memory of the cousins in Kabul and other Afghan cities. “It was Marzia and Hajar’s vision for all Afghan girls to be able to continue their learning, even if they can’t go to school,” said Nooria. “For now, this library is a symbol of that message.”