Meet Nadia Ghulam


Farmer, stock-breeder, wells builders, water seller, owner of a bicycle’s repair-shop, Mullah’s assistant and occasional religious police, even cook for one day for a group of Talibans. All this was Nadia Ghulam during the ten years she was a boy. The happy little girl with her long circling skirt she had been had left the day a bomb had hit her house in Kabul burning the 60 percent of her body. She was eight years old then, or at least that’s what she guesses. Nadia doesn’t remember very well those two years she spends her time half inside and half outside the hospital. “But I do remember Mujahideen bursting into the houses taking us in –and even into the hospital- and forcing us to leave, the pain of my wounds, the fact of being homeless and always starving and the voice of the bombs”.

While her mother is always with her two younger sisters, her elder brother and her father live with an aunt of theirs or they sort out their lives. When they have no house and Nadia is out of the hospital, they go to people’s houses, first families, then strangers, or sleep in shelters. “It is curious, and also a little sad”, she says between bites of melanzane (aubergines) alla parmigiana I then find out not to be only an Italian but also an Afghan typical dish (the latter use goose cheese instead of mozzarella and parmesan). “Here in Spain I read Anne Frank’s diary. She explained how it was I don’t know whose birthday, that they had made a cake and then had it…I kept thinking: unbelievable. Because during war there are no cakes”, she says. “She also explained they used to have vegetables and we never did”.

Nadia is around ten years old. Her father tells her and her mother that her teenage brother, Zelmai, was shot in the streets and is not working in Pakistan as they had been thinking for more than a year. “I then understood why my father had little by little stopped living. He was his pride”. Almost simultaneously Soraya, her doctor’s assistant, tells her that with the arrival of the Taliban women won’t be able to work. “I thought, so what am I going to do? If my father is ill, my brother isn’t here and my mother is like that, what are we going to eat? I have always been a person who relieves in her own things and who doesn’t like other people’s help. I say, if this person works and has his things, why can’t I have mine? I cannot be waiting for the others, you know?”

One night at the hospital, little after finding out about Zelmai’s death, Nadia finds a solution to help out her family. “I’ll have to pretend I am a boy, I told my mother. She kept silent for a moment, then answer, determined: No”. After a long discussion in which she tries to convince her mother, Nadia starts asking herself what she needs to become a boy. “I decided the essential thing was a turban and went out and tried it. I didn’t think much about it either, really.  I was very desperate and with my body burnt. It was pure survival”. The first day she goes out as a boy all the children look at her “because of my burnt body and bandages” and a man told her: Hi little boy, what is your name? Nadia hasn’t decided it yet. “The first boy’s name I could think of was my brother’s and I said it, then I ran home and told my mother: Zelmai, starting from now you have to call me like this. There, my little world was done with Nadia”.

The family reunited has just found an abandoned house in the center of a still deserted Kabul and Zelmai, since then with his turban always stuck on his head and extra layers of clothes even during summer (to what she will add a breast bandage later on) goes out to look for a job. “At the beginning they didn’t let me. They saw me, a little kid with his body burnt and said: How can you possible be of any help? To what I replied: well, if you want to I will help but won’t ask for money, just some vegetable. Ok, said one guy, go cutting the plants that are not good and give them to the animals. That is how I started working”. At the beginning he gives Zelmai some vegetable, then some money with which he bought a lamb he afterwards changed for a cow “and so I made businesses”. Zelmai lives among hunger, hard work and a constant fear of being discovered.

“I was so obsessed to look like a boy that I believed that a bad reputation would have favoured me and that it was better to be taken as a tough, dangerous one”, she tells in the book she has just Publisher together with the Agnès Rotger (El secreto de mi turbante, The secret of my turban, Planeta, 2010). Inflexible with her sisters, the most daring before danger with his friends, very religious in the mosque and a hard worker in the field. Sometimes he just can’t stand it anymore. He then goes to hide to a corn field. “The plants were so high I could lie completely hidden from anything and I could scream and cry without fear of being discovered”. Music and Indian movies, forbidden by the Taliban, are another way of escaping that helps him stand the present. By that time religion passes from being an obligation to become the essential spiritual element of her life that is still today.

The spring of 2004 arrives. The radio starts sending out government’s announcements encouraging families to enrol their male and female children to school.” I realised that the eventual certificates I would get could not be Zelmai’s, they had to be Nadia’s in order to be valid”. After insisting a lot to demonstrate she is a girl and only wants to study and after passing a level exam, Nadia makes it to enrol in the last primary school course in a rich neighbourhood school two hours bike away from where she lives, where no one knows her. Inside the school she would be Nadia while outside of it she would still be Zelmai. “The first year was like a prison to me. Every day I felt I would have rather gone to the cemetery than to school. Almost all the girls were scared at me, many of them didn’t believe I was a girl and teachers used to humiliate me”.

Outside the school, with the boys, everything seems easier. “They never asked me about the origin of my burns nor why I wore turban while they didn’t. At the most they asked me if I had a girlfriend and how she was”. During her period as Zelmai he has a girlfriend, the daughter of a farmer he works for. “The night she confessed her love and told me she wanted to marry me, I told her I loved her too but I would not do anything with her until the wedding and she replied she loved me even more because of that”, she tells among laughter. “We lived a very nice platonic relationship and if one day I had the chance I believe she would be a good friend for me. Just as all my male friends, she still doesn’t know the truth”. Little by little her classmates understand that Nadia only wants to study, that she is poor and why she pretends she is a boy. Her teachers and her classmates started then telling her story to the foreigners that had appeared in the country after 2001. “Everyday I had to interview with journalists. I didn’t know English by then and I don’t know well what they promised me but my teachers said they would help me to get another operation, that they wouldn’t tell anyone and that only their family would see the pictures and at the beginning I believed it”. Always through her teachers Nadia gets in touch with an NGO which offers to include her in a training programme of theirs to learn the trade of cutting stones to make jewels. The salary is very low, she feels exploited and looks for more ways to sort out of the fieldwork which since she started studying (she attends high school by now) has become unbearably tiring.  And through an uncle of a classmate of hers she finds of a German executive who becomes her benefactor. By then she falls in love with a boy who knows her as Zelmai and who dies soon after in an accident. Another classmate of hers helps her getting in touch with another NGO, where she is offered to get 150 dollars a month to be able to attend university on condition that she won’t work for anyone else nor she is interviewed. From the NGO she is asked to travel to Barcelona to visit with and to have an operation by the organization Cirujanos Plasticos Mundi, a long process she will need to move for a while to the city for.

“I had no doubts whether I knew to adapt or not – I had adapted to terrible situations; for sure I would also adapt to a rich but, how would I turn into a ‘real’ woman?, she tells in the book. “The decision was firm but I could not avoid feeling a huge mourning for that little Zelmai who had had such a hard time”. For more than four years Nadia has been living close to Barcelona with her adoptive family, that she adores, and now studies Social Integration. “Now I am a mix between Nadia and Zelmai. Formally here I am always Nadia but with my Herat sometimes I am Zelmai. I often work down the streets thinking I am him. There are many things of Zelmai that are inside me, for instance his bravery”.  I ask her whether a woman can be brave. “Here it is possible, in my country it isn’t”. And why not? “Because they are not given the chance”. Nadia is a very shy girl, she explains, who worries a lot. Zelmai, instead, doesn’t fear anything or anyone. “I want to take the good things of them both and apply them in my life but sometimes what comes out is Zelmai, also because I don’t know Nadia very well. I think that Nadia needs to spend a lot of time with Zelmai so to get his attitude”. What Nadia values the most of what she has learned from him is the fact of being really independent. I ask her if she was not always so as I had understood. “Not as much as Zelmai, because when I was little, Zelmai did exist, he was my brother, the one who helped me and cheered me up to be so”.

I ask her how she plans on putting all this learning into practice. “At present through the informal education I give my family every time I explain them what things I do. For instance I will soon go to Herat to work as a translator for an NGO working with self-immolated women and I have already told them I will only be able to spend one night home and they couldn’t believe it because in my country if there is a man women have to ask him to accompany them”. Nadia wants to go back to Afghanistan, “but before I want to learn all I can. Here there are many opportunities to study and I still need to learn so to transform my ideas into paper. Meanwhile I don’t stop helping my country”. At present Nadia supports economically ten people. And what would you like to do when back? “I have been a user of NGO’s and I have seen what they do well and what they don’t. Many people who come to help don’t know well the country situation, they need more training”, she says. “Nowadays why does a person want to work for an NGO in my country? Because they are well paid. I am really glad it is so but they have the responsibility of helping people for real, not of giving them charity. It is true they do things but in order to improve they need people like me who know what people they are trying to help really need. I want to work to help them”.

Spanish version

One thought on “Meet Nadia Ghulam

  1. Pingback: Guest Speaker: Nadia Ghulam – Study and Travel

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