After performing the lead role in the amateur play “Undocumented”, Sahar Muradi, a 32-year old Afghan-American, darted around a buzzing, auditorium-style classroom at New York University, shaking hands with admirers and hugging friends.
Only a few moments before, this classroom-turned-theater had been packed from wall-to-wall with patrons fixated on her performance. Now, with lingering audience members scraping up the last of the post-production hors d’oeurves, Muradi was focused on trying to sneak out to grab some sushi with a few Afghan-American friends that had come to watch her perform.
Muradi, who moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 3 years old, is part of a burgeoning network of Afghan-American artists who are redefining the stereotype about what it means to be an Afghan woman in the United States.
“It’s really so cool to meet fellow Afghan-American female artists in New York City,” she said after her performance.
Many of those artists and writers are coming together to form the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association (AAAWA), a nascent group that Muradi, who is one of the founding members, describes as a “collective,” filled with authors, poets, musicians and performers, all of Afghan descent.
“The idea is to provide a space where Afghan-American artists can find each other and support each other’s work,” she said. “And from the start, there was this great excitement and solidarity about finding kindred spirits and producing great work.”
Muradi’s involvement in the group comes after a lifelong passion for the arts. She moved to Elmhurst, Queens, with her family in 1982, after her father, who worked in his father’s textile factory in Kabul, spoke out against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. The USSR was supporting the communist Afghan government in its fight against the mujahadeen.
“My mom had a friend who was in the secret service, and she saw that my father was blacklisted,” Muradi said. “So he had to flee.”
He got a business visa to enter the U.S., and moved to New York in 1981, where his father and brother were already living. A year later, Muradi, her mother, sister and brother followed.
Once here, she developed an early interest in language, essentially out of necessity.
“I (have) early memories about grammar mistakes, and about being bullied about how I spoke,” she said, noting that no one in her family spoke English upon their arrival to the U.S. “I remember one time I hit my cheek and got blood on my shirt, and I kept saying, ‘My shirt is bleeding!’ (The grammatical mistake) was this traumatic experience for me.”
She learned English by watching Sesame Street and All My Children on the couch with her mother. As she got older, she remembers being mentored by English teachers and immersing herself in books when her mom and dad were working late.
“I was really encouraged in middle school,” she said. By then, her family had moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where her parents opened a café in an office building.
“I started writing poems in 5th and 6th grade, and it was almost like there was no other calling,” she said. “It was just so apparent that that’s what I needed to do.”
Her parents, who both went to college in Afghanistan, encouraged her to pursue her passions. But not all Afghan women would receive the same treatment, particularly back home.
“In general, in Afghanistan, women who act and sing are considered morally suspect,” said Anand Gopal, an independent journalist who has reported extensively from Afghanistan. “In fact, respectable men and women don’t even do things as basic as going to a movie theater. It’s considered a seedy thing to do.”
Gopal explained that there are large differences in what is considered “acceptable” behavior for women in Afghanistan today, with factors such as age, tribal affiliation, hometown and especially class all playing a role. But he said there was very little chance that Muradi would have been able to pursue her love for the arts growing up.
“She wouldn’t have even survived any of this in the early 90’s,” he said. “The Taliban took tanks and destroyed cinemas to demonstrate that women shouldn’t be involved in cinema.”
In New York, where there are about 6,600 Afghan immigrants, according to a 2005-2009 American Community Survey report from the Census bureau, Gopal said that beliefs among Afghan families might not be as extreme as those of the Taliban, because families who are able move to the U.S. are generally from a higher-class, more educated background.
“The type of women who are able to come here are a very specific slice of Afghan society,” he said.
Naheed Bahram, a case manager at Queens-based community organization Women for Afghan Women, agreed with Gopal, but she said that there are also pockets of families who come from more conservative, uneducated backgrounds. Women in those families often struggle to acclimate to life in New York.
“They’re in a different country, with a different language, and it’s very hard for them (to adjust),” she said.
Muradi, who moved back to New York City after graduating from Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 2002, recognizes her good fortune. She says that had she grown up in Afghanistan, her life “probably would have been very similar” to that of her cousins, who had to flee to Pakistan to receive an education. When they returned to Afghanistan after they had finished school, their school credits weren’t recognized.
But she has taken advantage of the opportunities afforded to her and become an accomplished writer and artist in New York, while also trying to advance the work of fellow female Afghan artists.
She co-edited the book “One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature,” which was released in November 2010. In October of this year, she helped organize “Afghan Americans: Ten Years Later,” a multimedia exhibit and performance in Long Island City, Queens, reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the American invasion of Afghanistan. And she has been integral in the formation of AAAWA, a group that is slowly coalescing into a more concrete organization.
When she was first introduced to Zohra Saed in 2001, another female Afghan-American writer, she said that she was incredulous.
“All I remember hearing is (Saed saying), ‘I’m a writer,’” she said “And I (thought) ‘Wait, there’s a female Afghan writer? What the hell?’ Suddenly my world multiplied.”
Now, 10 years later, Muradi has found her niche as an artist, and she believes that she and the other members of AAAWA, including Saed, can set an example for other Afghans interested in pursuing the arts.
“I think other young, Afghan women might be afraid of pursuing something because they don’t see examples of it,” she said. “Going into the arts is not common in our community here, even more so among females than males.”
“But I think that’s changing,” she said, citing the work of Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, as well as what she calls an increasing number of Afghan-American writers and performers. “And I think it’s important to break stereotypes.”