December 2020

Dancing in the Mosque

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“Divorce, divorce, divorce.” Homeira Qaderi’s phone screen lit up with these words from her husband, ending their arranged marriage—and her parental rights to their baby son. This heartbreaking act comes not at the beginning of her searing memoir, Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son, but near its inevitable conclusion, as a woman who could not conform to the strictures of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan must face the bitter consequences. Her journey from rebellious child to courageous teacher, acclaimed storyteller and, finally, despairing mother feels like a secret that needed to be told. Someday, Qaderi writes to her son, Siawash, from her chosen exile in California, she hopes their story will mean other Afghan mothers will not meet the same fate.

Qaderi’s childhood in Herat, occupied by Russians and later ruled by the Taliban, was fraught with violence. Bullets flew everywhere. Soldiers strode through streets and into homes. Books were forbidden for girls, and her mother “was like a spider trying to safeguard me within her web.” Her grandmother chastised her curiosity and fearlessness, but her father encouraged her. She was still a teenager when she began teaching boys and girls together, a forbidden act. Their classroom was a stifling tent that served as a mosque, and they kept their notebooks hidden in their Qurans lest Taliban soldiers found them learning instead of praying. Risking discovery and death for a few moments of youthful joy, Qaderi once even allowed dancing.

Interspersed among grim descriptions of Taliban rule and Qaderi’s heartbroken letters to her lost son are stunning passages describing the austere beauty of her homeland, which she still mourns. Yet her grief begs an even harder question: What does it take for a parent to choose hope for a greater good over their own child?

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