Published on Pax Populi on 1 March 2016
In the first week of January this year, Kirthi Jayakumar and I received a lengthy email from Robert McNulty about Nahid Walizadda, an Afghan refugee living in Peshawar, Pakistan. Nahid had shared a lot of her drawings and paintings with Bill Woolley who had volunteered for a brief time with Pax Populi.
Bill had written:
“Nahid Walizadda is an aspiring artist whose portfolio includes compelling pencil sketches depicting the plight of women in her native Afghanistan. They help fill the pages of a journal that laments the inequality faced by every girl born in that troubled country.”
Robert asked us if we could do a story on Nahid and feature some of her drawings on our website. We loved the idea. He then introduced us to Nahid and her sketches, which Kirthi and I think are phenomenal. We not only wanted to do a story on her but also showcase her talent. She wrote a post for us, which we published on the Pax Populi blog and shared on Facebook. Nahid thanked us. Then she mentioned that she written a book containing her story, poems and artwork. She had been trying to get it published, but found little support for her endeavour. We asked her to share her book with us. What we had unwittingly started was a three-way conversation between Nahid in Peshawar, Kirthi in Chennai and me in Vadodara.
Kirthi edited the book first and I browsed through it to add my comments. When Nahid made some changes and sent it to us, we sent it back to her with more corrections. When we told her she shouldn't source pictures randomly from the internet, she chose to make some more sketches. There were several rounds of editing by Kirthi and me and then even Bill Woolley pitched in.
One afternoon, I received a message on Facebook chat from Nahid. She wanted to change the name of the book. “One Voice Can Change the World,” she said was just a temporary title. We juggled various combinations of phrases and words till we settled for Tears in the Veil.
The next thing she wanted was a cover. I had promised to design the cover of her book. She suggested she wanted something like Sophie Masson's Emilio or Robert Hillman's Through My Eyes: Malini. Since she draws so well, I asked her to make some sketches. “Something positive, if possible,” I told her. She sent me a low resolution photograph of a sketch of two little schoolgirls walking with a woman with birds in the background. I loved it and asked her to send me a high-resolution scan. After a couple of days, Nahid told me that she could not find a scanner that could scan her whole painting. She was upset. I told her I'll work with the picture.
Next, I asked her for a photograph of herself. I didn't hear from her for a week. When she sent me her pictures, which were of poor quality, she told me she had been very sick and 'yellow'. I asked her to get tested for hepatitis. Fortunately, she tested negative. I browsed through some of her other sketches that could go with the title and chanced upon a beautiful drawing of a woman shedding a tear and her mouth clamped by a hand.
Both Nahid and Kirthi loved the cover I had designed and we finally published her ebook through Amazon. These two months have been a journey through words, art and design into the private lives of the women of Afghanistan and Pakistan. For me, it was the first time I had collaborated on an editorial project with someone from Pakistan. Working with Nahid has been a tremendous learning experience for me, for it exposed me to the day-to-day challenges refugees face - no bank accounts, no fixed addresses, families torn across countries, makeshift shanties for schools, security challenges, rampant drug abuse to cope with depression, etc.
A very grateful Nahid told me, “I will never forget what Kirthi jan and you did for me. What can I send for you?” I asked her to send me a selfie of her smiling. She did. I told her, “You're quite a star, Nahid, as your name suggests.”