The Art of Lament

If you’ve already managed to snag a copy of our newest book in the Heritage Language Storybook series, Hawa’s Lament, you may have noticed the illustrator’s name being limited to a set of initials. That is because when we first hired Narges Noori to do the illustrations, she was living in Kabul under the rule of the Taliban. For eight years prior to the Taliban’s takeover in 2021, she taught drawing and illustration at Kabul University. Once women were no longer allowed to teach, Narges began working as a freelance illustrator. She has since moved to Canada with her son and husband as an Artist Protection Fund fellow at the University of Alberta. I had the pleasure of interviewing Narges twice – once over email while in Kabul, and then again this month in a video call.

As a child, Narges recognized that she was good at art. At twelve years old, she began attending nearby art courses and studied calligraphy and sculpture, but truly excelled at drawing and painting. Although she majored in Math and Physics in high school, she decided to attend an art university and major in graphic design. It was there that she fell in love with illustration and knew that was the career she wanted to pursue. However, Narges became a teacher to make her father proud. Although it was a valuable experience, she really wanted to be a freelance artist. That wish became reality when the Taliban decreed that women were no longer allowed to teach in the university. It was during this time that Refugee Language Project connected with Narges via another artist on social media. Her style of illustration matched perfectly with the tone of Hawa’s Lament, and we invited her to partner with us.

When Narges first read the story, she was sad, but not surprised. Though it does not reflect her own personal story, Hawa’s path is a familiar one for Afghan women. Narges remembers growing up and seeing many young girls married off to older men, or young children being forced to do hard jobs, but she was soberly aware that familiar and normal are not the same. Narges told me that dealing with the kinds of problems Hawa faces in the story is something people should never get used to – it is always a sad affair. Although there is a kind of peaceful ending to her story, and Hawa’s children have a good life now, Narges lamented the fact that her youth was wasted on suffering and sorrow.

We discussed this word lament. For Americans, particularly for those with a religious background, the word lament probably brings up the idea of a sorrowful prayer or an expression of emotional pain. Narges taught me that in Afghan culture, lament is a specific part of mourning after someone has died, usually the most emotional response early on. However, it can also be a personal ceremony someone performs to put an end to their anguish and move on with their life.

“Sometimes,” Narges told me, “it was so difficult to work on this story.” While sketching the images, especially the illustration of Hawa’s son in the glass factory, she would begin crying and would have to put down her pencil. “I stopped sketching, cried a lot, and then continued sketching.” As a mother herself, Narges couldn’t help but think of her own son enduring such pain.

As an artist, Narges centers much of her work around stories that empower women and hopes that her illustrations help readers understand the strength of Afghan women like Hawa. It is her desire to continue encouraging Afghan women to persevere through suffering, reminding them that they won’t last forever. She is currently working on two of her own projects during the fellowship program, both writing and illustrating stories about empowering women and unity.

She also wants other women outside of Afghanistan to view their freedom with gratitude. “I hope this book will let them know the freedom they have in their lives and in their choices is really worthy, and that they can do anything with it…Now I am free, and I know how valuable this freedom is.” We can all lament the pain of the past, but then we must put it down and walk ahead into the bright future.

You can find Narges on Instagram @nargesillustrator

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