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The Story Behind WHAT CHANGES EVERYTHING by Masha Hamilton
On a Kabul football field marked with white chalk in readiness for
sport, a woman in a burqa kneels, her shadow spilled before her. A man
approaches almost casually, his Kalashnikov pointed heavenward. She
half-turns toward him in a fearful gesture, her left arm raised
slightly, then seems to glimpse the weapon out of her peripheral vision
and turns away. He lowers the muzzle to her head. The rifle kicks as he
fires once, then twice more. She surrenders to the ground, a discarded
I can still picture with precision the smuggled video I saw on the
Internet in November 1999. The version that ran on the AP wire had no
sound, only silent violence. To be party to such a stark and intimate
moment, I knew far too little about this woman. Her name: Zarmeena. The
number of children she had: seven. Her alleged crime: beating her
husband to death with a hammer as he slept. And one more fact: her
husband’s family had forgiven her, though it was not said why.
Considered together, it amounted to a scattered detail or two, not a
life story, not a revelation of what may well have been an act of
courage. This absence of narrative, in fact, was true for nearly all
women in Taliban-held Afghanistan: they were gagged as well as hidden.
This private recognition spurred a sympathetic curiosity about the
country, leading to repeated visits, unexpected friendships, the
founding of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project dedicated to Zarmeena,
and eventually the novel What Changes Everything.
I wanted to write about war without the soldiers, without the battles,
war as I came to know it from my years as a journalist, as a long black
ribbon that unfurls in the wind, crosses continents and brushes
someone’s cheek as she sleeps in a peaceful city so far from the
frontline that it should be someone else’s nightmare. Though Afghanistan
provided the spark, What Changes Everything is an American story.
It is the story of Clarissa who, in a gamble to save her husband’s life,
makes decisions in the dark nights of Brooklyn, NY, boldly defying the
advice of US authorities. And of Stela, who owns a used bookstore in
Ohio and writes letter after letter in hopes of comprehending the loss
of two sons, one to death and the other to estrangement. Of Mandy, a
nurse from Texas, who travels to Kabul on her own personal relief
mission—though ultimately, the relief she seeks is her own. It is the
story of Danil, a Brooklyn street artist whose life has been derailed by
this war half a world away. And of Todd, a career aid worker who let
down his guard on an ice cream run and then must confront his worst
fears. The lives of these characters, touched by the same black ribbon,
become braided together.
But it also tells of two Afghans who exemplify the complexity of their
country. One is Najibullah, president of Afghanistan during the
Communist era who was held captive at UN headquarters in Kabul until
invading Taliban forces tortured and brutally executed him. The letters
from him to his three daughters that separate the novel’s sections are
imagined, though I had the privilege of email exchanges with one
daughter, who shared pages of recollections of her father. The other is
Amin, a fictional character who as a boy tried and failed to save Najib,
and now risks his own life in a drive to help Todd.
Afghanistan refuses to be simplified. Its women are not all victims, of
course; its men sometimes support their wives and daughters above all
else. Equally, our national relationship to Afghanistan is dense. Our
history is plaited with theirs in ways that will continue beyond the
last decade of war with its staggering investments of life and aid. My
personal link to that country, too, has been multifaceted—first as
feminist, then as journalist, novelist, and now as Director of
Communications and Public Diplomacy at the US Embassy in Kabul.
Writing What Changes Everything was not a choice; it was a need. It
is dedicated to those who were changed: their everyday lives are only
sometimes located in the combat zone; their numbers are larger than any
statistic can reflect.
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