Forbidden love in Afghanistan

Atia Abawi's debut novel of a couple from different tribes who fall in love is inspired by people she met as a journalist in Afghanistan

As the daughter of Afghan refugees who fled their war-ravaged homeland, writer and journalist Atia Abawi would sit with her parents for hours by the television at home in the United States, anxiously scanning the news channels for reports of home.

"That was probably the reason I became a journalist. I grew up watching the news," the 34-year- old says.

She was speaking to The Sunday Times on a visit here for Words Go Round, the Singapore Writers Festival's annual outreach programme.

Despite being born in Germany and raised in the US, she longed to go to Afghanistan, where her parents had grown up.

She eventually became a journalist and spent more than a decade covering news in the Middle East.

She has recently written a young adult novel called The Secret Sky (2014).

Atia Abawi (top), daughter of Afghan refugees, draws on the things she lived through for her novel, The Secret Sky (above).
The Secret Sky

The book centres on a young couple, Fatima and Samiullah, who come from different tribes - she is Hazara and he Pashtun. They plan to get married, but are sabotaged by Samiullah's cousin, the Taleban-influenced Rashid.

The novel is sometimes violent, with descriptions of beatings and torture, as well as allusions to rape.

Atia says the book is inspired by "bits of real stories that I covered as a journalist, of people I met in Afghanistan, and descriptions of all the things that I saw".

One that made a deep impression was of a woman who had her ears and nose cut off for running away from her husband's family, who wanted to sell her into slavery.

She says of the regular Afghans she has met in her work: "These are good people who are trying to get by. They want to laugh, make jokes and have a peaceful life. But their country is so broken apart."

Her first job was as a reporter at a television station in Maryland in 2003. She was later recruited to Cable News Network (CNN), where she eventually rose to become the Afghanistan correspondent and the bureau manager in Kabul, the country's capital, in 2008.

She is fluent in English, Persian and Pashto, a language spoken in Afghanistan.

In 2012, she married Fox News correspondent Conor Powell, 38, with whom she has a son, Arian, aged one. The couple met in 2009 while reporting in Afghanistan.

The same year, she moved from Afghanistan to Jerusalem, Israel, where she is now based, to start work on her book.

"It was always a dream of mine to write fiction. When you work in war zones as a journalist, your imagination fades, you lose it completely. The colour in my life just faded," she says.

She worked on the book for about 18 months, writing during vacations and whatever break she found between her work.

She eventually resigned from work full-time in 2014, when she became pregnant.

"It was around the time of the Gaza war then. I was thinking to myself: I'm pregnant. Do I run into the war zone?"

Atia is now working on a second novel set against the backdrop of the Syrian refugee crisis. It is slated for release next year.

She adds, with a laugh: "Being a writer and trying to recapture the things I'd lived through was one of the hardest but also most fulfilling things I've done. If being a journalist is in my blood, being a writer is like getting a blood transfusion."

•The Secret Sky (2015, Speak, $18.14) is available from Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 22, 2016, with the headline 'Forbidden love in Afghanistan'. Print Edition | Subscribe