One very sunny afternoon, I am on a train from London to Cambridge, carrying a trench coat because as usual I have forgotten to check the Met Office report before leaving the house and I somehow hope it might rain; maybe because, as the song goes, I’m only happy when it rains. That’s the one thing about myself that I have tried not to talk about ever since I migrated to the UK. Britons on the whole are obsessed with the sun, or the idea or the possibility of it, and it feels like an insult to confess that actually, I really like the rain.
Despite the sun beating on my forehead, it is wonderful to arrive in Cambridge to attend its great and inclusive literary festival. I am excited to do an event on my new novel, The Island of Missing Trees, with a live audience in the same room. We also have an online audience watching from different corners of the world: South Africa, Canada, Lebanon, India… This hybrid format, which recognises the importance of physical human connection but also allows people who can’t travel to follow cultural events, is a good one and I hope it will stay. I take the train back to London feeling grateful.
Terrifying wildfires, first in Turkey, then in Greece. So much pain and anguish on both sides of the Aegean. I am on the phone all morning speaking to family and friends, some of whom had to evacuate their homes and are out on the streets with their bags, waiting to see how far the flames will reach.
On social media people share photos of tortoises and butterflies saved by exhausted firefighters. As our collective sense of catastrophe deepens so does our need for modern-day miracles to give us a sliver of hope. The climate emergency is the greatest existential threat to humanity, and there is no way we can find lasting solutions if we continue down the destructive path of populist nativism, isolationism, corporate greed.
On my screen there is an image of an elderly Greek woman, her pale, bony face in agony, her hand resting on her heart and behind her a huge blaze consuming her home, her village, her world. Someone has turned the photo into a painting, and it strangely resembles Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
Everything is screaming inside this frame – the trees, the animals, the stones. More and more I feel like there is a scream trapped inside many of us, East and West. In my novel, the young protagonist Ada suddenly unleashes a scream of pain in the middle of the classroom to the horror of her classmates. A video of her secretly filmed in that moment becomes viral with the hashtag #doyouhearmenow. In an age in which we have been repeatedly assured that we would all have an equal voice thanks to the spread of digital technologies, the truth is the exact opposite has happened, and today so many of us feel voiceless.
[see also: The age of the megafire]
Back to the bookshop
The next day I visit various bookshops to sign stock copies and chat with booksellers. We talk about the pandemic and how it has affected our reading habits. We discuss how good it feels to be able to walk into a bookstore and browse to your heart’s content. The older I get the more I believe that booksellers, librarians and translators are the unsung heroes in the world of publishing. If books continue to travel even when we can’t, if stories continue to matter, we owe it to a large extent to them.
Horrific news from Afghanistan fills media reports following the chaotic withdrawal by US forces and the quick takeover of the entire country by the Taliban. “I am sitting here waiting for them to come. There’s no one to help me. There’s no one to help me or my family; they will come for people like me and kill me,” says Zarifa Ghafari, the country’s youngest female mayor. Pashtana Durrani, who runs a charity for girls’ education in Kandahar, echoes her pain. Everything feels trivial next to the cries of Afghan women.
These are the women who worked hard for years to participate in civic life, transform their society and achieve gender equality, with little support from their own corrupt government or the outside world. These are the women who became human rights activists, writers, journalists, mayors, teachers, doctors, nurses. And now these are the women who feel abandoned, fearful for their lives.
The fundamentalist threat
I notice that feminists from Turkey are especially alert to what is happening in Afghanistan. For us, the rise of fundamentalism and the deepening of misogyny, the loss of basic human rights, is not some abstract, theoretical debate; it is an existential threat that is never far away, the Sword of Damocles hanging above our very existence. We have seen enough to understand that when countries go backwards and tumble into authoritarianism, ultranationalism and religious fundamentalism, it is women and minorities who have the most to lose.
Meanwhile, I cannot believe that some newspapers in Turkey, as well as websites in the West, rave about the latest Taliban fashion. In the photos shared about the rebuilding of Afghanistan there isn’t a single woman. It is utterly shameful the way women, human rights defenders and minorities, including LGBTQ minorities, have been abandoned, and some people are more interested in talking about what Taliban members are wearing. Once again, throughout wars started by men, throughout so-called peace treaties initiated by men, women and minorities are forgotten. They are the casualties.
The photo of an elderly Greek woman in front of a raging fire, the photo of a young Afghan football player falling from a plane mid-air, the destruction of not only our environment and natural resources but also of our common humanity have indelibly marked this week. I feel there is a collective scream building up somewhere.
Elif Shafak is a novelist, activist and political scientist
[see also: Lyse Doucet’s Kabul notebook: A dystopian airfield, and the Afghans leaving everything behind]
This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat