-Learning to speak to Italians via Google Translate. I got dozens of emails in Italian from readers who were touched by the book. In Italy, the book was published hardcover with a cover of a woman in niqab and titled The Afghan Wife. I had nothing to do with any of it except the words on the inside pages.
-I discovered that when I speak on stage, people actually like to listen. All those years of being verbose with friends and family apparently paid off. So did public speaking class in high school. There’s not much to it. You face the audience, look them in the eye and open your soul.
San Francisco Bay Area:
-An Afghan-American activist threw a warm and welcoming book launch party at her house in the Haight. Good company with good food, and then a walk over to The Booksmith to talk about opium. Junkies were enjoying their heroin right on Haight Street. Heroin use has skyrocketed in America, especially in the suburbs.
-The biggest event was held in Fremont. I spoke in my mother tongue Farsi/Dari to 120 of my Afghan community members, including family and friends. Their presence was the icing on the cake. (We actually served Afghan cookie bread, cheese and crackers and tea.) Books sold out.
-At Stanford University, a male student was most fascinated by my statement that Afghanistan has blonds. That’s what you get from one of California’s premier higher education institutions.
-At Chabot Community College, veterans of Afghanistan attended and bought the book. They read it with interest and then emailed me their warm regards for the Afghan people.
-I failed to show up to my talk for 75 students at San Francisco State University — a memory lapse. I realized two hours after the event that I missed it, but I went the following day the classes were held and students had done their homework. They googled me, asked smart questions and several came up to me to share their experiences with narcotics. One Mexican student said her immediate family had cut off contact with her extended relatives because they were involved in cartels. One student admitted he was a recovering heroin addict.
-In the Santa Cruz Mountains on a speaking retreat, I focused on the personal story of an exile going home to find that home had vanished. Some empathized with tears and hugs.
-Meeting the US Ambassador to Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer to discuss opium brides was a breakthrough for me because for the first time, policymakers would hear about the issue.
-Sitting on a lone chair on the stage at Busboys and Poets bookstore to a full house while the light shined on me. I felt tall for once.
-Doing an interview with FOX News was strange because I knew I would be on the opposing side of the political spectrum with most of their viewers. They have a good make-up team.
-The Woodrow Wilson Center’s 60 turnout and media interest exceeded my expectations. I was star-struck sitting next to the director of the center Haleh Esfandiari, who had been imprisoned in Iran several years ago. I wanted to hear her talk more than me. The book had not sold well until I made the trip to the East Coast where the press hooked on, from the Atlantic to Al Jazeera.
-Four months later at a seminar on Afghan drugs, an Afghan man critiqued my book with much respect as he went over his underlined notes of Opium Nation. It was the first time an Afghan man had read the book in full and offered constructive criticism. I appreciated his efforts more than the praise I got.
New York City:
-Columbia University was awesome. During winter break on a Friday night, the room was packed. Sree Sreenivasan, a professor at the j-school and SAJA organizer, gathered a great team of journalists to welcome me and moderate the event. The publisher didn’t send a bookseller because they thought the attendance would be low. I had a dozen books with me and I donated the sale proceeds to Women for Afghan Women, an organization doing risky and honorable work in Afghanistan. I told the rest of the crowd to get it from their local bookstore.
-Nine months later I returned to do two events on September 11 at NYU, my alma mater, and the Huge Center in Brooklyn. The turnout was low but the few who showed up took great interest in the subject. I went to NY the second time to lobby for awareness about opium brides and it’s a longterm project of mine still in the works.
I took my nursing baby and she began screaming in the middle of my presentation at prestigious Powell’s Bookstore. I turned red but continued to talk as my cousin/babysitter eventually took her to another room. One woman who bought a book said, “I was most impressed with how you kept going during the baby’s screams.” Afterwards, I rushed to find her smiling and happy with my cousin.
I presented at the public library. A caring group of old and young attended with intelligent questions. The librarian gave me a tour of this library, which happens to be one of the largest in the world. I could hibernate there with my entire family. Loved the fall colors and the beauty of the city. The local press took no interest. Tozza Fikhom, as Egyptians would say.
I made four trips to LA this year. One turned into a vacation with the family. Most memorable were the events with other authors like Eduardo Santiago, Lisa Napoli, Dana Johnson and Naomi Benaron. The majority of those who attended were older women, a demographic who still read hard copy and appreciate an author signature. The events benefitted charity and included auctions and a meal. I wish there were more of these in the Bay Area. In both events, women asked how I worked up the courage to travel to danger zones and report. Curiosity and a sense of adventure, but I wouldn’t take the same risks now because my life as a mother matters more. I began my talks in LA with: “I like LA because it’s the only city I don’t have to explain my hair color.” They laughed. Phew … my feeble attempt at comedy.
Phoenix and Tucson
I was afraid of Arizona because it’s notorious in the media as a conservative state anti everything I believe in. And visiting there confirmed the politics but I was surprised at the international presence of the student body. I met an Afghan Marxist who inhales books, a Mormon couple with a backyard reminiscent of my childhood. They had pomegranate and mulberry trees with a pool and Afghan gilims hanging on their walls. An 82-year-old Afghanistan expert, one of the first Americans to specialize in the country, attended one of the events with a cane and his wife by his side. I spoke at three universities in Phoenix and Tucson, the audience ranged from senior citizens in Mesa to business students in Thunderbird and Middle Eastern Studies students at the University of Arizona. Each event was well attended and in Tucson, one student inquired about American involvement in heroin trafficking from Afghanistan. I wish I had the evidence to comment on that. Some soldiers are returning addicted, but I don’t have the proof that Americans are trafficking it to the US. If you have any evidence, contact me. Most of the US’ heroin comes from Mexico and it’s becoming purer, deadlier, and cheaper, resulting in an increase in overdoses in recent years.
Skyping around the world
Skype video talks for University of Indiana, Bloomington, University of Pennsylvania and press interviews proved to be convenient but lacked human contact. A class on human trafficking sent me 19 pages of questions on how young girls were being trafficked and forced into prostitution in Afghanistan. I tried to answer some of them but not being able to look them in the eye and involve them in the presentation seemed ineffective. UPenn students who organized the International Development Conference asked me to participate in a discussion on post conflict governance. Technical difficulties made the discussion funny and frustrating with the other two panelists who were present in Philly. I talked but couldn’t hear. They listened but couldn’t comment.
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