Broadcast journalist and foreign correspondent Atia Abawi has spent years on the front lines of war and historical events, covering stories for outlets such as CNN and NBC. During her five-year residency in Afghanistan, Abawi became attuned to the stories of the people, their cultural traditions and the deeply rooted tensions and resulting violence that has plagued the country for so long. Her experiences inspired her first novel, The Secret Sky, which follows the budding romance of two teens from two very different tribes, who must struggle against opposition from both their families and the Taliban in order to forge a life together.
Abawi took some time to answer a few questions about this deeply moving debut, her writing process and the traditions and complexities of modern Afghanistan.
Your first trip to Afghanistan was in 2005 to work on a documentary film. How did the country you arrived in compare to the country you imagined?
It was completely different. I always figured the country would be unlike the country my parents knew because of the three decades of war that had passed. But the reality was jarring.
Landing at Kabul International Airport in 2005, you still saw Soviet-era tanks lining the side of the runway—the country looked like a junkyard of old relics. And although I had seen women in burqas (the all-covering blue fabric) on television, seeing it in person rattled me a little because I was hit with the realization that this isn’t the same city, culture and people my parents told me about. It’s not that burqas were uncommon in the past, they just weren’t as prevalent. And in the 1970s it was normal to see a woman in a burqa and a woman in a miniskirt walking down the same street.
Thirty years of fighting and bloody rivalries changed the whole dynamic of existence in Kabul and the rest of the country. My parents would be considered foreigners in this new Afghanistan, even though it was the country they were born and raised in. It honestly seemed that time had stopped in 1978 and that the country just reversed course with every passing year. I had to acquaint myself with this new country, just as I did with other countries I would travel to—ones I didn’t have a cultural connection to.
"I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about the reactions—particularly from Afghans."
As a longtime journalist for CNN and NBC, what inspired you to write fiction, specifically a novel aimed at teens?
It was always a dream of mine to write a novel. But the longer I worked in news and reported on the grim everyday realities of war, I felt that dream fading away. I noticed I was losing the imagination and color I once had.
In news, you can’t use your imagination; you have to report on the facts—share the truth, not fantasy. And you are not often given the opportunity to share the hopeful stories—and there are hopeful stories, even in wartime—but tragedy always triumphs.
Because of a 2009 New York Times article my editor Jill Santopolo and publisher Michael Green had read on teenagers who fell in love in Afghanistan, they were looking for an author to write a YA novel about Afghan teens in a similar situation and had reached out to a friend of mine, who’d reached out to a group of us living in the country. During my time in Afghanistan, I’d met young Afghans who’d fallen in love and had tried to fight to stay together, so was able to bring my own experiences to the initial idea. But truly, this dream came true because of Michael and Jill—and I’ll forever be grateful to them for letting me bring some color back into my writing.
What were some of your favorite books during your own teenage years?
When I was in school I loved going to the school library and finding old books and checking them out. At one point I was reading a lot of books written a century before or based in other parts of the world. I loved how it would take me to another place I had never been before.
I also loved the Fear Street collection by R.L. Stine when I was younger, and of course the Harry Potter series.
Fatima and Samiullah are met with shocking amounts of violence, often from their own family members, for professing their love for one another. Why did you feel it was important not to censor or shy away from this common reality?
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about the reactions—particularly from Afghans.
I never wanted to censor out the darkness, but Afghans are very proud people and to share the flaws of the country and society is sometimes seen as shaming them.
But I figured the truth and realities on the ground needed to be shared. As a journalist, I have covered heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story in Afghanistan. I never wanted to sweep these realities under the rug. It would have been a disservice to those suffering and also to those working hard to make a change.
What do you hope American readers take away from this story?
I hope the reader will understand the humanity that lives amongst the horror in Afghanistan. The majority of the Afghan people want to live peaceful and happy lives; they don’t want war, they don’t want rivalries, they want change for the betterment of their families and society. But it is hard for them because of the everyday challenges they face in their lives—obstacles that we can’t even imagine having to deal with.
What was the most important lesson you learned during your time in Afghanistan?
Even in the worst of times, there is still hope. And sometimes that all you need.
You lived in Afghanistan for nearly five years. What were some of the things you loved the most about the land and the culture that are often overshadowed by war and unrest?
The beauty. The undeniable monstrosities of war have overshadowed the unimaginable beauty that remains there—the beauty of the land and the beauty of the people.
It is true that many people have been hardened by decades of brutality and war, but so many more still have these warm and inviting hearts, and they are proud of the little that they may have—and no matter how little they have, they will always share it with you. I’ve met some of the most generous and kind people there.
And the land . . . wow . . . I’ve seen landscapes that leave you in awe of the beauty the world offers.
What are you working on next?
I kind of want to step outside of the box for a short while and work on an Afghan cookbook with my mother. She’s honestly the best cook I know, and I have noticed I keep eating but never learning. I want to spend some time with her just logging her recipes, whether it is just for our family or to share with the world. I truly believe it is something that needs to be remembered. It especially hit me after years of living in modern-day Afghanistan that the cuisine has also been affected by the wars and poverty, and I’m afraid the generation of food that I grew up with will slowly fade.
Author photo by Conor Powell.