Life begins again in a red notebook with small squares, like those used by children in their first years of school. The woman whose image is among the best known in the world writes her name on it: slowly, with a slightly hesitant stroke. Like when this whole thing started and she was just a 12-year-old girl [a few months later, his photo made the front page of the “National Geographic”].
“IO SONO SHARBAT SUGAR” [“I am Sharbat Gula”], we read on three lines, in capital letters. Next to them are everyday words: “door”, “house”, “ball”. Then the name of the one who helped him to retie a thread that had been broken during his childhood, and to move forward: his Italian teacher.
Afghanistan couldn’t be further
We are in a small corner of the Italian province, far from noise and bustle, in the middle of two-storey houses, surrounded by trees and a playground. Afghanistan could not be further away, and yet it is from here that Sharbat Gula, 47, has decided to leave.
A few days ago, it had been a year since she set foot in Italy for the first time, leaving behind a country that had recently fallen into the hands of the Taliban.
As thirty-eight years ago – when her image was immortalized by the lens of American photographer Steve McCurry – she then became the symbol of a people driven into exile.
Since the day of her arrival, however, nothing has been known of the “Afghan girl”, as she is called around the world. Till today.
“I only know a few words”
“Hello how are you?” she replies when we ask her, when we arrive at her house, if she speaks Italian. Inside, an almost empty apartment, as clean as possible, with the only decoration being an Afghan flag on the wall. Like thousands of her compatriots, Sharbat Gula was unable to take anything with her when she left her country: like them, she had to start all over again, without any familiar object to remind her of the past.
“I haven’t studied much. I only know a few words. But I like the ones I know a lot”, she slips in, then returns to her mother tongue, Pashto, as she will always do during our discussions.
“I didn’t want to go to America”
Since that distant year 1984, the woman we have before us has paid an exorbitant price for the fame that fell on her. A price that she doesn’t want to talk about, but that one can easily imagine when one knows that, in Afghan culture, a woman must be concealed. The result is the silence and reluctance that we will witness during these months spent collecting his story.
Italy, therefore. With such notoriety, she could have gone wherever she wanted: why precisely Italy? Why not, for example, the United States of National Geographic? Sharbat Gula shakes her head: “I didn’t want to go to America,” she replies. No need to ask for details: to this question, like all the others about the magazine that made her famous, she prefers not to answer directly.
“I had the freedom to choose, she admits. When the Taliban arrived, I understood that it would be difficult for me to stay: I am too well known. Several governments offered me help: I chose Italy. I knew you had done a lot for Afghanistan. I wanted to try.